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Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Elderly man crying while drinking alcohol

Published: July 14, 2023

It is not uncommon for people to develop problems with drinking alcohol, with 17 million adults over the age of 18 currently living with an alcohol use disorder in America.

Despite being common, alcohol addiction can be quite serious, affecting all areas of a person’s life in sometimes severe and negative ways.

Alcohol addiction can be notoriously difficult to break away from, but many people are able to overcome their dangerous drinking habits through professional treatment and go on to lead lives that are healthy and happy.

About Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction can be a deep and complex issue, and alcohol problems are never the same across any group of people.

Medical Definition Of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is considered a mental health condition and also an official medical condition.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), an alcohol use disorder can be defined as alcohol use over a 12-month period that has become problematic, and which causes significant impairment or distress.

The DSM-V further classifies alcohol use disorders as either mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the presence of certain diagnostic criteria.

Alcohol Abuse Vs. Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol abuse is not the same thing as alcohol addiction, although someone who struggles with one condition may also be more inclined to develop the other.

Forms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Binge drinking is defined as drinking 4 or more drinks for women, or 5 or more drinks for men, in a single occasion.
  • Heavy drinking is defined as 8 or more drinks for women, or 15 or more drinks for men, within a week.
  • Emotional drinking occurs when people drink heavily or binge drink as a means of coping with distress or other negative emotions.
  • High-functioning alcoholism occurs when someone abuses alcohol but does not necessarily show outward signs of their alcohol abuse.

Someone who is addicted to alcohol does not necessarily abuse alcohol, but is unable to control their alcohol use or stop drinking even after their drinking has caused problems in their lives and relationships.

Other Terms For Alcohol Addiction

You will often find the term alcohol addiction used synonymously with terms like alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol use disorder (AUD).

While these terms might have slightly different meanings, they all refer to the misuse of alcoholic substances.

Difference Between Alcohol Addiction & Alcohol Dependence

The main difference between alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence is in where and how people experience them.

Dependence is a physical reliance that a person experiences for alcohol, leaving them to feel uncomfortable and sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.

A person who is dependent on alcohol will need to continue drinking in order to function at their normal level.

On the other hand, addiction is a mental and emotional reliance on alcohol — someone who is addicted to alcohol will have a difficult time stopping because of the way it affects their moods and mental health state.

Despite these differences, alcohol dependence and addiction are very closely related and often go hand-in-hand with other substance use disorders.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is not always obvious, but there are definitely signs that a person who is addicted to alcohol will exhibit in both the short-term and long-term.

In the early-stages of alcoholism, the signs and symptoms may be more behavioral as the person begins to drink more frequently and in larger amounts.

Early-stage symptoms and warning signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Binge drinking
  • Excessive drinking
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Shakiness
  • Disruptions in sleep patterns

A person who has been addicted to alcohol for an extended period of time will show their alcoholism less in their behaviors and more in their physical appearance and overall state of health.

Late-stage symptoms of alcohol addiction include:

  • Malnutrition and weakness
  • Extreme weight loss or gain
  • Jaundice
  • Puffy face
  • Shaky hands
  • Red eyes
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Poor hygiene

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

People who are dependent on or addicted to alcohol can experience mild to severe withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • High blood pressure
  • Irritability

In severe cases, people can experience what is called delirium tremens, a dangerous physical and mental state that is characterized by hallucinations, confusion, and seizures. This is considered a medical emergency and can be fatal if left untreated.

Effects Of Alcohol Use Disorder

The effects of an alcohol use disorder can be both physical and mental, and result in short-term effects as well as long-term and serious health complications.

Short-Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol can affect someone in numerous ways physically, even if they have been abusing alcohol for a short amount of time or even in a single instance.

Short-term effects of alcohol abuse can include:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor coordination
  • Loss of control
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Risky behavior
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Health Complications Linked To Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is also linked to numerous serious side effects and health problems when alcohol is used in the long-term.

Some of the consequences of long-term alcohol misuse can be quite severe and even result in death.

Health complications linked to alcohol addiction can include:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of lung, bone, and liver cancers
  • Diabetes
  • Liver disease
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Vision loss
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Birth defects

Risk Factors For Alcohol Addiction

While alcohol addiction can happen to anyone, certain people are more prone to alcohol addiction than others.

The causes for alcohol addiction are still unknown, however. Addiction is a disease that usually develops gradually over time, and a specific cause is often difficult to determine.

Risk factors for alcohol addiction can include:

  • Biological and genetic factors
  • Having parents with substance abuse problems while growing up
  • Peer pressure
  • Alcohol use at a young age
  • Co-occurring mental health problems
  • Binge drinking
  • Having easy access to alcohol

Diagnosing Alcohol Addiction

Diagnosing alcohol addiction can be a difficult undertaking, especially as it involves cooperation from the person who is experiencing the alcohol-related problems.

Medical Assessments

Diagnosing an alcohol use disorder is not an exact science, as medical professionals cannot perform any physical tests, such as blood tests, to determine whether a person is an alcoholic.

Certain health care professionals or treatment providers, such as psychiatrists or addiction specialists, can evaluate people based on whether certain signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction are present.

Alcohol Use Screening Tests

Assessments and screening tests for alcohol use disorders involve various questionnaires performed by medical professionals.

These questionnaires assess people in a variety of areas, often relying on simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions and a small number of questions.

They can be helpful in detecting the presence of an AUD, as well as in determining the severity of an AUD.

These assessments are not always 100% accurate, however, as they rely on complete and total honesty from the person taking them in order to be effective.

When Should You Get Help For Alcohol Addiction?

It is not always obvious when someone needs help for alcohol addiction, and it can be especially hard for someone to consider their own alcohol use.

Ask yourself the following questions if you think you may be in need of alcohol addiction treatment:

  • Do you lie or hide your alcohol use, or lie about the amount of alcohol you drink?
  • Have you neglected important responsibilities, such as at work or in the home, because of your alcohol consumption?
  • Are your personal relationships suffering as a result of your alcohol use?
  • Have your loved ones told you that they are bothered by the amount of alcohol you drink?
  • Have you, or anyone you love, ever been placed in danger due to your alcohol use?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, it may be time to consider getting help for alcohol addiction.

Your first step can be speaking with a loved one or a healthcare provider that you trust.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

Alcohol addiction is highly treatable, and can be addressed through the following means of evidence-based alcohol treatment and support.

Alcohol Detox Programs

Alcohol can be very difficult to detox from, especially if a person attempts to stop drinking suddenly and completely without tapering their use.

Medical detoxification can help with the alcohol withdrawal process, and there is also observational detox for those who would still like supervision but would prefer not to be medicated during detox.

Alcohol Rehab

The most intensive, and thus effective, type of alcohol addiction treatment is that which takes place in a residential or inpatient setting.

Depending on a person’s need and availability, residential programs can either be short-term (less than 30 days) or long-term (up to several months).

Further, inpatient treatment programs are often gender-separate, meaning that men and women attend separate programs and live in separate housing during their stay.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

There are currently three types of medication that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the treatment of alcohol use disorders:

  • Naltrexone can help with reducing heavy drinking and withdrawal symptoms.
  • Acamprosate can help with remaining sober from alcohol over time.
  • Disulfiram causes unpleasant side effects when people drink, which may deter them from drinking alcohol in the future.

Outpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment is not always possible or practical for everyone, but people can still find comprehensive addiction treatment in an outpatient setting.

For people who have families at home, intensive professions, or a lot of responsibilities, outpatient treatment may be the most convenient and affordable option.

Support Groups

There are typically two types of support groups available to people with alcohol addiction: those that are led by health care professionals and those that are anonymous and led by peers.

Both types of support groups can be effective, although less is known about the results of anonymous support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), because of participants’ intent to remain anonymous.

Aftercare & Sober Living

Sober living homes can provide safe and comfortable housing to people as they transition out of residential treatment and back into their regular lives.

Everyone in a sober living home has the same goal of staying sober, so people can generally expect to feel secure in their surroundings and even a sense of camaraderie and accountability with others in the home.

Find Help For You Or A Loved One With Alcohol Addiction

It is never too late to get started on the road to recovery, even if it may seem daunting or like you have tried everything to get free of your addiction.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us on our helpline by calling (phone-number) at any time, for questions or to get help in locating a treatment center.

Your new life is truly just a phone call away.

Alcohol Addiction FAQs

How do you know if you’re addicted to alcohol?

It can be difficult to recognize the signs of alcohol addiction, especially in yourself. It may even be necessary to ask a loved one or multiple loved ones for their thoughts or opinions.

If you have built up a tolerance to alcohol, experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink, or feel that your alcohol use is interfering with various aspects of your life, it may be time to consider if you are addicted to alcohol.

How do you replace alcohol as a coping mechanism?

In order to replace alcohol as a coping mechanism for upsetting or stressful emotions or events, it is essential to find and use coping mechanisms that are positive and more constructive.

Healthy coping mechanisms can include breathing exercises, journaling, talking to a loved one, engaging in physical activity or exercise, listening to music, and many more.

How do people cope with alcoholism?

People can have different means of coping with their alcoholism, but the healthiest way is to seek professional addiction treatment at an accredited drug and alcohol rehab center.

The family members or loved ones of an alcoholic may also need therapy or support for coping with alcoholism in their home, especially if they have been exposed to trauma or domestic violence.

What is considered an alcohol use disorder?

An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a problematic pattern of drinking that occurs over a period of at least 12 months, according to the DSM-V.

Someone must also possess certain criteria, such as strong cravings for alcohol and recurrent alcohol use in physically hazardous situations, such as while driving.

What does alcoholism do to a person?

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to alcoholism, as this is a disease that can affect everyone differently depending on their own circumstances.

In the physical and mental sense, however, alcohol is a depressant. What this means is that it slows down a person’s central nervous system and alters their emotions, mood, perceptions, and behavior.

Can you cure alcohol addiction?

While alcohol addiction and addiction in general are considered diseases, there is no clear “cure” for them — they always have the potential to return.

Alcohol addiction can be treated and managed, though, and many people go on to lead long, healthy, and happy lives free from their addiction.

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