The Hematological Complications of Alcoholism

By Ballard, Harold S | Alcohol Health & Research World, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Hematological Complications of Alcoholism


Ballard, Harold S, Alcohol Health & Research World


Alcohol has numerous adverse effects on the various types of blood cells and their functions. For example, heavy alcohol consumption can cause generalized suppression of blood cell production and the production of structurally abnormal blood cell precursors that cannot mature into functional cells. Alcoholics frequently have defective red blood cells that are destroyed prematurely, possibly resulting in anemia. Alcohol also interferes with the production and function of white blood cells, especially those that defend the body against invading bacteria. Consequently, alcoholics frequently suffer from bacterial infections. Finally, alcohol adversely affects the platelets and other components of the blood-clotting system. Heavy alcohol consumption thus may increase the drinker's risk of suffering a stroke. KEY WORDS: adverse drug effect; AODE (alcohol and other drug effects); blood function; cell growth and differentiation; erythrocytes; leukocytes; platelets; plasma proteins; bone marrow; anemia; blood coagulation; thrombocytopenia; fibrinolysis; macrophage; monocyte; stroke; bacterial disease; literature review

People who abuse alcohol' are at risk for numerous alcohol-related medical complications, including those affecting the blood (i.e., the blood cells as well as proteins present in the blood plasma) and the bone marrow, where the blood cells are produced. (For more information on the blood's composition and on the various types of blood cells and their production, see sidebar, pp. 51.) Alcohol's adverse effects on the bloodbuilding, or hematopoietic, system are both direct and indirect. The direct consequences of excessive alcohol consumption include toxic effects on the bone marrow; the blood cell precursors; and the mature red blood cells (RBC's), white blood cells (WBC's), and platelets. Alcohol's indirect effects include nutritional deficiencies that impair the production and function of various blood cells.

These direct and indirect effects of alcohol can result in serious medical problems for the drinker. For example, anemia2 resulting from diminished RBC production and impaired RBC metabolism and function can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and even reduced mental capacity and abnormal heartbeats. A decrease in the number and function of WBC's increases the drinker's risk of serious infection, and impaired platelet production and function interfere with blood clotting, leading to symptoms ranging from a simple nosebleed to bleeding in the brain (i.e., hemorrhagic stroke). Finally, alcohol-induced abnormalities in the plasma proteins that are required for blood clotting can lead to the formation of blood clots (i.e., thrombosis).

This article summarizes current information on the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption on the bone marrow and on the production and function of RBC's, WBC's, platelets, and plasma proteins.

ALCOHOL'S EFFECTS ON THE BONE MARROW AND ON RBC PRODUCTION

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug whose consequences include the suppression of blood cell production, or hematopoiesis. Because its toxic effects are dose dependent, however, significantly impaired hematopoiesis usually occurs only in people with severe alcoholism, who also may suffer from nutritional deficiencies of folic acid and other vitamins that play a role in blood cell development. Chronic excessive alcohol ingestion reduces the number of blood cell precursors in the bone marrow and causes characteristic structural abnormalities in these cells, resulting in fewer-than-normal or nonfunctional mature blood cells. As a result, alcoholics may suffer from moderate anemia, characterized by enlarged, structurally abnormal RBC's; mildly reduced numbers of WBC's, especially of neutrophils; and moderately to severely reduced numbers of platelets. Although this generalized reduction in blood cell numbers (i.e., pancytopenia) usually is not progressive or fatal and is reversible with abstinence, complex aberrations of hematopoiesis can develop over time that may cause death. …

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