Alcohol Addiction: What Is It?
Addiction treatment for alcohol abuse is necessary because it significantly lowers the risk of fatal outcomes.
Navigation: Alcohol Consumption in the US, What is Alcohol Addiction?, Who is at Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder?, What are the Symptoms of, Alcoholism?, What are High-Functioning Alcoholics?, What are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?, What is Alcohol Withdrawal?, Treatment for Alcoholism, Rehab Is Your Best Chance
It’s an understatement to say that alcohol is common in social settings. This is a widely popular psychoactive drug that can be seen in almost any social environment. This legal controlled substance can lower people’s anxiety and reduce their inhibitions, making it the perfect “social lubricant”.
Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is the ingredient in alcoholic beverages that produces an intoxicating sensation, which is what makes people feel drunk. Beer, wine, and liquor are the main types of alcoholic beverages.
Because of how popular alcohol is, it can be hard to differentiate someone who is an alcoholic with someone who is just having fun. We all know alcohol can cause slurred speech and loss of coordination. But not everyone who drinks is necessarily an alcoholic.
Over 14 million people in the US struggle with alcohol addiction. It is a huge public health problem, and we need to recognize the warning signs in order to help those who are struggling with it. Some people don’t realize they have a drinking problem, while others are in denial about their situation. Knowing exactly what alcoholism is will allow you to help someone receive the medical treatment that they need.
Addiction treatment for alcohol abuse is necessary because it significantly lowers the risk of fatal outcomes. Let’s take a closer look.
Alcohol Consumption in the US
Almost 70% of adults in the US reported having drunk alcohol in the past year in 2019. Alcohol consumption is so widespread that it can be hard to tell casual use and alcohol abuse apart.
It is important to note that no amount of alcohol is considered completely “risk-free”. That said, there are certain drinking patterns that can lower a person’s chances of developing an alcohol use disorder or AUD.
Drinking alcohol is a choice and a person of legal age may choose to drink. But it is recommended that they drink moderately. Moderate drinking is defined as 2 standard drinks a day for men and 1 standard drink a day for women.
Going beyond this limit by drinking alcohol in larger volumes, having an extended drinking session, or drinking alcohol regularly comes with greater risks.
Heavy drinking is defined as four or more drinks a day for men and three or more drinks a day for women. Having 15 drinks a week for men and eight drinks a week for women is also considered heavy drinking.
Another unhealthy drinking pattern is called binge drinking. Binging on alcohol means you are drinking too much alcohol within a short period of time. This is usually defined as drinking in a way that brings your blood alcohol content or BAC to or above .08 g/dl.
Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in two hours for men, and having four or more drinks in two hours for women. Binge drinking is especially common among college students.
From the main alcohol types, beer has the lowest alcohol content by volume or ABV at an average of 5%. Wine has a 12% ABV on average, while liquor has an average ABV of 40%.
Liquors such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, and tequila are often mixed with other non-alcoholic drinks to create mixed drinks.
Upon ingestion, alcohol is absorbed into the body where it starts to disrupt its normal functioning. While the liver can metabolize the majority of alcohol you consumed, long-term abuse and binge drinking will strain this organ. That’s how major health issues develop.
It goes without saying that drinking too much alcohol is not good for you. If you regularly drink, you have to make sure you keep a close eye on your drinking habits so you don’t end up getting addicted. Excessive drinking can cause a lot of problems within your body, which we will discuss in detail later on.
What is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction is a medical condition that can affect anyone. Although there is a stigma surrounding it, alcohol addiction is not a moral failure nor does it indicate a lack of self-control. Anyone from all walks of life can develop this condition.
Also known as alcoholism, addiction experts have long tried to figure out the exact causes of it. The general consensus is that it is a combination of several factors like genetics, sex, race, and socioeconomics. There are certain risk factors that increase the chances of a person developing an addiction to alcohol, and the more risk factors they are exposed to, the more likely it is that they will become addicted at some point in their life.
But everyone experiences addiction differently. The circumstances surrounding alcohol abuse, addiction, and recovery are different for everyone. So even these risk factors do not guarantee that a person will or will not become addicted. In the end, we can say that addiction has no single cause. It’s a collection of genetic, psychological, and behavioral factors that contribute to the development of the disease.
Alcoholism and alcohol addiction are also referred to as alcohol use disorder or AUD. It is important to keep in mind that this is an actual disease that causes changes within the brain, altering its neurochemistry, and keeping the person addicted beyond their control.
An addicted individual cannot limit their intake even if they wanted to. In fact, addiction is characterized by the continued use of a certain substance even when the person’s health is already being affected. Even if they are already struggling with the adverse effects, they will keep on drinking. Addiction has plenty of consequences too, impacting a person’s physical health, mental health, and social relationships.
Alcohol use disorder encompasses all the conditions associated with alcohol abuse including alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and alcohol withdrawal. It is considered a brain disorder that may range from mild to severe.
Because of lasting changes within the brain caused by the misuse of alcohol, it can make them more vulnerable to a relapse. However, even those with severe alcoholism can still recover with the help of behavioral therapies, support groups, and other evidence-based treatment.
Recognizing alcohol addiction will help you help your loved one. Take note that alcohol addiction will look different from one person to another. It can show itself in a variety of ways. This means the severity of the disease, the frequency of alcohol intake, and the amount of alcohol they consume will vary from person to person.
There are alcoholics who drink heavily on a regular basis while others prefer to binge drink.
Who is at Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder?
The risk for developing AUD depends on how much and how often someone consumes alcohol. Both binge drinking and heavy drinking can also increase the risk of an AUD.
Someone who drinks at an early age—before the age of 15—is more than 5 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than someone who started at 21 or later. This is according to a national survey of people ages 26 and older.
Genetics also plays an important role, meaning family history of alcohol problems may lead to a higher risk of alcohol misuse and alcoholism. However, the genetic factor interplays with environmental factors.
If a child grows up watching their parents’ unhealthy drinking habits, they may have a higher chance of developing an AUD one day.
A person’s mental health also plays into it. A co-occurring mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may make a person more vulnerable to the risks of substance use. Similarly, people with a history of trauma are also exposed to these risks.
What are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?
Alcohol is widely available and is even celebrated in many different cultures. So unlike illicit drugs, addiction may be more difficult to recognize.
Knowing what to watch out for can help you identify alcohol abuse and alcoholism in a loved one. Just keep in mind that people may have different symptoms. The severity of those symptoms can vary from one person to another as well.
You may notice an increase in their alcohol intake as well as the frequency of alcohol consumption. Even if they drink a lot, they won’t display significant symptoms of a hangover due to their increased alcohol tolerance. They need to drink more just to get the same effect.
They may even drink during inappropriate times. For example, they may drink outside of social situations, or drink in the middle of the day. Some alcoholics would even drink in places like work or in church.
They will spend a lot of time thinking about drinking, preferring to avoid situations where there is no alcohol present.
The person may even change the people they hang out with, choosing to spend more time with people who drink with them. Oftentimes, these friends drink heavily themselves. As a result, they may begin to isolate themselves from their loved ones, usually out of guilt or shame.
They may lie about their whereabouts and who they are with. You may even notice them hiding alcohol or hiding while they are drinking.
Loved ones are often the first to notice these behavioral changes. They may begin to depend on alcohol heavily to function throughout the day. This will lead to bigger problems down the line such as professional problems or even trouble with the law.
Addiction tends to worsen over time, so they will start to manifest serious health problems eventually. But it’s better to look for the early warning signs. If someone is treated early, addiction may be avoided entirely. Even if the person is already addicted, you should still urge them to seek professional help. This will avoid major health consequences.
You may have to arrange an intervention to get them to face the truth of their situation. A professional interventionist could help you organize the event and conduct it properly to get the best results. But it is important to do it in a non-confrontational and supportive way. Do not shame them or make them feel guilty. It will only make them more resistant to treatment.
What are High-Functioning Alcoholics?
Recognizing an alcohol addiction may be difficult enough, but it gets even tougher if you are dealing with a high-functioning alcoholic. A high functioning alcoholic is someone who does not have the usual characteristics of someone struggling with an alcohol use disorder, therefore they fly under the radar despite their substance abuse.
Despite their addiction, they are able to keep alcohol from interfering in their personal and professional responsibilities. Even though they seem like they have their lives together, high functioning alcoholics still struggle to quit drinking due to their intense cravings. They may have gone through several attempts to quit alcohol to no avail.
High-functioning alcoholics are unlikely to realize their problem until they encounter serious consequences related to their alcohol abuse. This means they are at risk of severe long-term health risks if they do not admit their drinking problem and seek proper treatment.
What are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?
Aside from behavioral changes, you can also look for the physical effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism if you are trying to figure out whether your loved one has a drinking problem or not. Having some of these physical health problems is an indicator of a more serious problem.
When you drink alcohol, it immediately has an effect on your brain. It is a depressant, which means it slows down your brain and the rest of your nervous system. Short term effects of alcohol abuse include slurred speech, drowsiness, lack of coordination, distortion of perception, distortion of senses, memory problems, and loss of consciousness.
Long term use of alcohol may lead to even more serious problems such as liver disease, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, pancreatitis, stomach ulcers, brain damage, nerve damage, and digestive problems. Some of these effects may be fatal.
Alcohol abuse may even cause some mental health problems like dementia, anxiety, and depression.
People who are under the effects of alcohol are also at an increased risk of unintentional injuries and accidents. They may put themselves and the people around them at risk due to the effects of alcohol.
Other potential effects of addiction include: ulcers, diabetes complications, sexual problems, bone loss, vision problems, and birth defects.
These potential effects of alcoholism only prove how important it is for addicted individuals to seek out and receive treatment as early as possible. A lot of these effects are treatable and even avoidable if you go through a long-term recovery process.
What is Alcohol Withdrawal?
When a person drinks for a significant period of time, their body adjusts to the constant presence of alcohol. This happens with illicit drugs and prescription drugs, and it also happens with alcohol. This phenomenon is called physical dependence.
When you are physically dependent on a certain substance, you feel like you can’t function without it. In fact, your body reacts negatively if you try to reduce your intake or quit drinking entirely.
Alcohol abuse leads to dependence, which leads to alcohol withdrawal. The symptoms of withdrawal range from mild to severe, and they occur whenever someone attempts to quit their drinking.
If you drink moderately, then you are not likely to develop withdrawal symptoms when you stop. But withdrawal happens for those who drink a lot more actively.
Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically start as early as 6 hours after your last drink. You may experience things like anxiety, headaches, shaky hands, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and excessive sweating.
Within 12 to 48 hours, some people experience more serious withdrawal symptoms like hallucinations or seizures. From 48 to 72 hours after the person stops drinking, they may experience delirium tremens or DTs, which is dangerous.
Other common withdrawal symptoms include high blood pressure, confusion, fever, and heavy sweating. You may have to go through a period of medical detox to properly taper off of alcohol. As your alcohol intake is gradually lowered, you may be given medications to help manage these withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and anti-seizure medications are often used during medically-assisted detox.
Treatment for Alcoholism
There are several ways to treat alcoholism. A lot of rehab programs offer evidence-based treatment, however, you should keep in mind that no treatment fits everyone. There is no single solution to alcoholism, and there is no one size fits all answer to everyone’s problems. As we have established, everyone experiences addiction differently, and so a personalized treatment plan will always be ideal.
There are inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for alcohol addiction. These programs offer medication-assisted detox and behavioral treatments. So while detox helps your body get sober, therapy teaches you how to stay sober for the long term. Maintaining your sobriety is the real challenge. But during your stay in rehab, you can learn many different coping mechanisms that are healthy and can keep you on the path to recovery.
Behavioral therapy will also help you get to the bottom of your addictive behavior, recognizing unhealthy thought patterns and understanding your need to drink. You can then learn how to channel your energy in productive ways to keep you away from alcohol.
Mutual support groups also help patients get a sense of camaraderie and support from people who understand exactly what is going on with them.
This journey to sobriety starts with recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, and offering help to your loved one who needs it. At the end of the day, the addicted individual has the responsibility to pursue sobriety. You can only do so much to guide them. Ultimately, their health will depend on how much progress they make on their own.
There are plenty of resources out there for treating alcoholism, which may come in handy if you need more information, including the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The good news is that recovery is possible and help is there for those who need it. Get started on your journey to sobriety today.
Rehab is Your Best Chance
Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.