I’m sure “Oh go on then, it is Christmas after all” is a common phrase heard in households up and down in the country throughout the festive season. Whether it’s in response to accepting another mince pie, or a top up of mulled wine, Christmas can be an excuse for sheer overindulgence, particularly where alcohol is concerned.
It can be hard to escape it: work Christmas parties, gatherings with friends and Christmas dinner for many, involve a celebratory ‘cheers’ of some kind. I should imagine that for the majority, a headache and an embarrassing ‘flash back’ of the inebriated conversations with their boss are the worst side effects experienced the ‘morning after the night before’. However, for some, the festive season may be the start or the continuation of a much more serious problem.
Dr Phillips, Consultant Gastroenterologist at Spire Norwich Hospital explains “Christmas is a time for celebration. In this country, celebrations are often synonymous with heavy alcohol consumption. Many adults go through a period of binge drinking over the festive season, and most will later return to a safe use of alcohol by drinking in moderation. Unfortunately, a minority continue to drink excessively. These individuals are the patients turning up in hospitals with serious alcohol-related health problems in ever increasing numbers. Around 40% of patients admitted to A&E are diagnosed with alcohol-related injuries or illnesses, many of which result from binge drinking. Over the Christmas and New Year period, these figures are usually magnified”.
“Binge drinking brings with it special problems associated with acute alcohol poisoning. Most of us will recognise the various stages of drunkenness from happy and talkative, to slurring of speech, muscle incoordination and vomiting. The body can process about one unit of alcohol an hour so if you drink a lot in a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream may become dangerously high. At high blood alcohol levels the usual self-protective reflexes (such as the gag reflex) are lost and the person drifts into unconsciousness. At this point the individual is at risk of death, particularly from inhaling their own vomit, or hypothermia if they are outside. Alcohol poisoning can result in serious disruption to your heart rhythm and even cardiac arrest. There are many other hazards including head injuries and broken bones due to falling, fighting or accidents.”
The liver performs many functions in the body which are essential to life. One of these is to break down alcohol, poisons and other toxins into harmless compounds. Blood from the stomach and intestines first goes through the liver before circulating around the rest of the body.
Dr Phillips continues “The liver can withstand years of damage by repairing itself and protecting the rest of your body. Many patients I see tell me that they feel fine and don’t see the need to change their drinking behaviour. However, the liver is unable to signal real distress until it is in the end stages of liver failure, so that by the time you feel any symptoms of liver problems, the damage may already be done and too late to reverse”.
“In many cases, alcohol related liver diseases, such as cirrhosis (where the liver is unable to repair damaged cells preventing it from carrying out its function properly) is a ‘silent’ condition which may only be discovered after a hospital admission for another complaint or as a result of an accident whilst under the influence of alcohol. I have patients in my clinic who are in their 20’s suffering from cirrhosis of the liver through a dependency they have developed over a period of time with alcohol. Just fifteen years ago seeing a patient at this age was extremely rare but unfortunately it is becoming more common. The youngest patient I have treated for alcohol related liver damage was just 19 years old”.
Unfortunately the latest national statistics on alcohol for England make sobering reading. In 2010/2011 there were almost 200,000 hospital admissions primarily due to alcohol. This is a 40% increase over just 8 years. Furthermore, statistics on all alcohol-related hospital admissions (including cases where alcohol was not the primary cause for admission but played an important part in the illness), show that there were over 1 million hospital admissions in England in 2010/2011, which is more than 100% increase compared to 8 years earlier. In 2010/2011 there were over 6,500 deaths directly related to alcohol in England (two thirds of these died from alcoholic liver disease). This is a 22% increase in deaths compared to 2001.
Dr Phillips concludes “As worrying as this trend is, I think it is fair to say that this applies to a minority of people. Most look forward to celebrating the festive season with friends and family and do so responsibly and safely. However if you are concerned about your relationship with alcohol, there is plenty of support available. Seek advice from your family doctor who can put you in touch with the right people to get help”.
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