Alcohol is a widely consumed and socially acceptable substance in the U.S. It’s less stigmatized than other substances that can lead to addiction, unfortunately making it one of the most abused substances.
Throughout 2018, a quarter of adults 18 years old or older consumed enough alcohol to be considered heavy drinking.1 That same year, 3.4 million 18- to 25-year-olds and 11 million people aged 26 or older were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD).2
Alcohol addiction is a chronic medical disease, where compulsive alcohol consumption causes not only health problems, but may also have negative social and occupational consequences. The substance interferes with how the brain works, causing problems with learning, memory and coordination, as well as changes in mood and behavior.3 Long-term alcohol use can lead to a number of health concerns, affecting many different systems in the body.
Alcohol use occurs across a wide, complicated spectrum, and it can be difficult to recognize when it becomes an addiction. The good news is that most people with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from treatment. With the right help from professionals, recovery from alcohol use disorder and reducing harmful alcohol use is possible and within reach.
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
Medical and clinical professionals diagnose someone with alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, when that person can no longer control or stop their alcohol use, despite knowing it can cause negative consequences.4
There are 11 criteria by which someone can be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. The person must exhibit at least two of the following signs within a 12-month period:5
- Consuming alcohol in increasing amounts or for a longer than originally intended.
- Wanting to cut down on alcohol use but not being able to.
- Spending increasing amounts of time trying to get, use or recover from alcohol use.
- Craving alcohol.
- Being unable to fulfill major obligations at home, work, or school because of alcohol use.
- Using alcohol even when they know that it will cause social or interpersonal problems.
- No longer participating in events or activities they enjoyed due to alcohol use.
- Consuming alcohol even when they know it could create a physically dangerous situation, such as driving a car.
- Continuing to use alcohol even with the onset of a psychological or physical problem, which may potentially be credited to the alcohol use.
- Building up a tolerance to alcohol.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking.
It’s important to understand that alcohol use disorder, like all substance use disorders, is not a moral failing—it’s a serious, but treatable, disease.6
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
It can be difficult to pinpoint when alcohol use becomes problematic. For instance, a person may binge drink once or twice, or drink more heavily on occasion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this person has developed an alcohol use disorder.
Binge drinking is not always a sign of alcoholism, but it can be. Binge drinking is when a person consumes an excessive amount of alcohol in a single event that leads to significant intoxication. Binge drinking can become a problem when it is done frequently and can lead to heavy drinking.7
Heavy alcohol use, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), is more than 3 drinks on any day for women, and more than 4 drinks on any day for men.7
Beyond counting how many drinks a person consumes, a person may show other signs of alcohol abuse, including:8, 9, 10
- No longer paying as much attention to personal hygiene or appearance.
- Sleeping and/or eating more or less than usual.
- Ending friendships over drinking or concerns about alcohol use.
- Regularly using alcohol to feel differently, such as to relieve stress or anxiety.
- Feeling guilty about drinking.
- Hiding alcohol or keeping alcohol purchases secret.
- Needing alcohol in the morning to help relieve a hangover.
- Having alcohol-induced blackouts or memory problems.
Short- and Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Use
Alcohol is fast acting, which means it can enter your bloodstream and make you feel the effects within 10 minutes of consumption. As you continue to consume alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration level (BAC)—the amount of alcohol present in your bloodstream—will increase.11
Short-term effects of alcohol use can include:11, 12
- A lessening of inhibitions.
- Feeling relaxed or sleepy.
- Slurred speech.
- Problems with limb movement and coordination.
- Memory problems.
- Difficulty concentrating or maintaining focus.
- Breathing problems.
- Emotional instability.
- Alcohol poisoning (confusion, vomiting, hypothermia, loss of consciousness).
- Pregnancy or fetal complications among pregnant women.
As alcohol use continues a person may begin to regularly experience episodes of binge or heavy drinking, abuse alcohol regularly, or develop an alcohol use disorder, worsening their health and increasing the risk of developing chronic medical conditions. The long-term health risks of alcohol use are wide-ranging, and can include:12
- High blood pressure.
- Heart disease.
- Liver disease.
- Digestive problems.
- Cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
- Learning and memory impairment, including dementia.
- Mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Those who regularly consume heavy amounts of alcohol may also experience unintentional injuries (e.g., falls, burns, motor vehicle crashes), unemployment or problems at work, an increase in hostile or aggressive behavior, financial strain, and increased conflicts with family or friends.13
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Alcohol use disorder treatment is available for those who are ready to stop their problematic drinking and maintain sobriety. Treatment for addiction or alcoholism is effective, and lifelong recovery is possible.
Many people who enter treatment benefit from an individualized treatment approach, meaning that their course for treatment is dependent on factors that specifically affect them.14
After a thorough interview and formal assessment, a clinical professional crafts a personalized treatment plan jointly with the patient, taking into account co-occurring mental health disorders, polysubstance abuse, chronic medical conditions and physical health concerns.14
This treatment plan should contain evidence-based treatment approaches and may contain a variety of pharmacologic and behavioral health therapies.14
For many, alcohol treatment begins with detox. The withdrawal symptoms some experience when detoxing from alcohol can be unpleasant, painful, and even dangerous, so a medically supervised detox approach may be beneficial. In moderate to severe cases, doctors may recommend medication such as FDA-approved benzodiazepines along with antipsychotics, anticonvulsants or other drugs during alcohol detox.15
Other substances, such as Disulfiram (Antabuse), Naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia), and Acamprosate (Campral) can be used after detox during treatment to help manage urges and desires to drink.16, 17, 18, 19
Alcohol recovery facilities like Recovery First offer a full continuum of care, meaning that a patient can work with the same facility from detox all the way through a treatment program to aftercare.
Choosing the right facility for you and working with your treatment team on the right approach to recovery are important, but so is your length of stay in treatment. For many patients, the best outcomes occur with longer stays in treatment, which researchers understanding that those who suffer from the most severe addictions needed at least 3 months in treatment.20
Alcohol Abuse Treatment at Recovery First
Located in Hollywood, Florida, Recovery First Treatment Center offers a comprehensive collection of alcoholism treatment options for those interested in sobriety. You can learn more about the facility online, and can call our Admissions Navigators at 954-526-5776 day or night with questions.
Am I addicted to alcohol?
The best person to diagnose whether you have an alcohol use disorder or not is a doctor or mental health professional. There are signs of alcohol abuse that you may be identify on your own, but a diagnosis should come from a medical professional.
Why is alcohol addictive?
We know that consuming alcohol leads to the release of endorphins in the brain, which can produce feelings of pleasure and reward.
When someone abuses alcohol regularly, it can create changes in the neural circuits in charge of motivational processes that drive subsequent alcohol-seeking behavior.
What is the link between heredity and alcohol addiction?
Although more research needs to be done to understand how genetics affects someone’s predisposition to alcohol abuse, researchers have identified some genes that can impact a person’s chance to becoming addicted to alcohol.21
ADH1B and ALDH2 are two genes that so far are the strongest known to affect the risk of alcoholism. A handful of others (GABRA2, CHRM2, KCNJ6, and AUTS2) are currently being studied for their impact.21 Note that genes can either increase the risk of alcohol abuse or protect against that risk.
Genes aren’t the only thing that influence how a person might deal with alcohol consumption—their environment is an indicator as well.22
Learn more about how genetics impact the chance for alcohol abuse.
How can I help someone who is addicted to alcohol?
Supporting a loved one or friend can be an incredible help to their recovery journey.20 Avoid providing medical advice or your own diagnosis and focus on encouraging and helping your loved one to see a medical or mental health professional or find the right treatment program for them.
- Recovery First’s Guide for Families
- Guide for Parents
- Guide for Spouses
- Guide for Children
- Guide for Friends
- Guide for Coworkers/Managers
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Alcohol use.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s effects on the body.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018).Alcohol use disorder.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: APA.
- Matano, R.A. & Wanat, S.F. (2000). Addiction is a treatable disease, not a moral failing. Western Journal of Medicine 172(1), 63.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking levels defined.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide: What are signs of drug use in adolescents, and what role can parents play in getting treatment?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Facts and Resources.
- American Academy of Family Physicians. (2004). Alcohol Abuse: How to Recognize Problem Drinking.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Overview of alcohol consumption.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol use and your health.
- Gmel, G., Rehm, J., & National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism(2003). Harmful alcohol use.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2006). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
- Tarascon Publishing. (2019). Tarascon Pocket Pharmacopoeia, 2019 Deluxe Lab-Coat Edition.
- MedlinePlus. (2017). Disulfiram.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Incorporating Alcohol Pharmacotherapies into Medical Practice. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 49(4), 27-35.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1995). Answers to Frequently Asked Medication Questions. Guidelines for the Use of Naltrexone in the Treatment of Alcoholism; 5(1).
- MedlinePlus. (2017). Naltrexone.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (third edition).
- Gilpin, N. & Kool, G.F. (2008). Neurobiology of alcohol dependence. Alcohol Research & Health 31(3), 185-195.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Genetics of alcohol use disorder.