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Alcohol Addiction and Misuse: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

Alcohol misuse and addiction can have life-long consequences.1 Despite this, among people 12 and older in 2021, an estimated 60 million engaged in past-month binge drinking while nearly 30 million had an alcohol use disorder.2

Compulsive or otherwise problematic alcohol use can have negative effects on one’s health and well-being, but treatment is available to help people who are ready to quit drinking.8 This page will explore alcohol addiction, how to recognize it, associated dangers, and what is involved in the treatment process.

What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction, also known by the diagnostic term alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by the inability to stop using alcohol despite negative consequences in multiple areas of life.4 The degree of AUD may range from mild to severe, with addiction representing the moderate to the severe side of the spectrum.4, 5

Other terms that describe AUD in common language include alcohol abuse, alcoholism, or alcohol dependence.4 Though these and other terms, such as alcoholic, are often used in relation to AUD, such terminology can be stigmatizing. As a result, the terms “alcohol addiction” or “alcohol misuse” are preferred when referring to issues with alcohol use.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

Due to the range of severity, and variability from person to person, alcohol use disorder is sometimes difficult to identify. The difficulty may be increased when a person attempts to hide alcohol misuse. However, a medical professional can help identify physical, mental, and behavioral signs and symptoms of AUD.1

While only a licensed physician can diagnose AUD, knowing the criteria for diagnosis may help identify when to get support. The criteria for AUD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), are:6

  • Alcohol is consumed in greater amounts or over longer time periods than intended.
  • Having a persistent desire or multiple attempts to stop drinking but being unable to.
  • Spending large amounts of time in activities surrounding alcohol use, recovery, or trying to get more alcohol.
  • Experiencing cravings or strong desires to use alcohol.
  • Failing to fulfill your duties at work, school, or home due to recurrent alcohol use.
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite its role in reoccurring relational problems.
  • Giving up or reducing previously important activities due to alcohol use.
  • Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations like driving.
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite knowing that it causes or exacerbates ongoing physical or psychological problems.
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol (needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect or having less effect with the same amount).
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after reducing alcohol intake or drinking alcohol to relieve or avoid withdrawal.

Causes of Alcohol Addiction

There are several factors that may lead a person to develop an alcohol addiction including:

  • Genetic vulnerability–Factors such as metabolism or a vulnerability to addiction are influenced by a person’s family history and genetic makeup.7
  • Environmental influence–The experiences a person has during childhood and throughout life (such as role models with AUD, trauma, or other factors) can increase the risk of addiction development in some individuals. Early initiation of drinking (before age 15) and preexisting mental health conditions are also associated with increased AUD risk.4
  • Relief from stress and/or emotional discomfort–The act of drinking to avoid negative feelings or situations, such as depression, anxiety, or stressful life situations, though it may provide some fleeting relief, it could worsen such negative emotional states when drinking isn’t taking place, which could ultimately motivate a person to continue drinking behavior.5, 7

Though alcohol’s intoxicating effects can make a person “feel better” with initial use, it can ultimately make things worse.5, 7 For instance, some of the negatives that may further motivate drinking include a person developing tolerance or experiencing withdrawal symptoms—potentially necessitating continued, increasing amounts of alcohol just to feel and function “normally.”7 Without intervention, alcohol misuse can quickly become a negatively reinforced cycle.

Dangers of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol misuse can have serious effects on the person drinking as well as those around them.1 Adverse effects from alcohol can include serious injury and other potentially severe health issues, including: 1, 8

  • Cardiovascular issues such as irregular heartbeat and chronic high blood pressure.
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which includes a weakening and stretching of the heart muscles over time.
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Weakened immune system and resulting increased risk of pneumonia.
  • Liver damage (such as fatty liver, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and hepatitis).
  • Pancreatitis and other chronic gastrointestinal inflammation.
  • Increase cancer risk (head and neck cancers, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer).
  • The cumulative risk of alcohol poisoning and overdose toxicity.

Societal risks may include risk of injury to oneself or others like driving while under the influence. Alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States.3

Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, is the consumption of alcohol to the point of interfering with the brain’s ability to control basic life-sustaining processes, such as breathing and heart rate.9 Signs of an alcohol overdose may include:9

  • Severe mental confusion.
  • Markedly decreased levels of consciousness.
  • Unrousable loss of consciousness.
  • Diminished reflexes (including gag reflexes).
  • Vomiting.
  • Dangerously low body temperature.
  • Cold or clammy skin.
  • Slow and/or irregular breathing.
  • Dangerously slowed heart rate.
  • Seizures.

Combining alcohol with certain other drugs or medications can increase the likelihood and severity of some of these effects. The risk of a fatal alcohol overdose and respiratory arrest is increased when opioids or sedative drugs such as benzodiazepines and prescription sleep medications are taken while drinking alcohol.9

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, know that addiction is treatable. Effective alcohol addiction treatment that’s tailored to a person’s specific needs can help promote recovery.4 Treatment may combine several different therapeutic approaches—including medications, behavioral therapy, and management of any co-occurring mental health issues—and will benefit from ongoing professional assessment and modifications to the treatment plan, when necessary.10

Untreated mental health conditions can complicate AUD recovery.4 An integrated model of care can help promote treatment outcomes with the simultaneous management of both AUD and any co-occurring disorders.10

Detox from Alcohol

Medical detoxification can help to keep people as safe and comfortable as possible during acute alcohol withdrawal.10 It is typically the first step of many types of addiction treatment but is rarely enough to help people achieve long-term abstinence and should not be considered a substitute for more comprehensive alcohol use disorder rehabilitation.10

Physical alcohol dependence is a common element of many alcohol use disorders. When significant alcohol dependence has developed, people may be at risk of potentially severe and sometimes life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.11 Some of the more severe complications of acute alcohol withdrawal include seizures, agitation, hallucination, and delirium tremens.11

Choosing supervised alcohol detoxification can help a person through the challenges of withdrawal and potentially decrease the risk of relapse.

Inpatient Alcohol Rehab

Inpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder involves 24/7 care in a hospital or residential facility.10 The length of treatment may vary depending on a person’s needs and the severity of their condition.10 Such programs may be a good fit for people with relatively severe addictions and additional medical, social, or mental treatment needs. Treatment may involve behavioral therapies or medication depending on a person’s needs.10

Outpatient Alcohol Rehab

Outpatient treatment programs allow a patient to live at home so they may better continue working, going to school, and attending to other responsibilities outside of treatment hours.10 The flexibility and intensity of the program are determined by the severity of a person’s AUD and circumstances.10 Like inpatient treatment, outpatient addiction treatment can involve a combination of both behavioral therapies and medication.10

Aftercare for Alcohol Rehab

Aftercare, or continued care, is the stage of recovery designed to help a person maintain abstinence after the completion of an initial treatment program.10 Aftercare plans can involve various recovery efforts such as regularly scheduled counseling and therapy, as well as participation in mutual support settings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other means of community support.10 Diligent aftercare efforts may go a long way to solidify progress made during rehab, help people maintain abstinence, and prevent relapse.12

Many treatment programs offer aftercare planning so check with the facility or program when choosing treatment.

Get Help for Alcohol Addiction

Finding help for alcohol addiction does not need to be difficult. American Addiction Centers has compassionate folks ready to take your call 24/7 at to help you learn about treatment options, check your insurance coverage, and answer your questions. Call today and find out how to begin your road to recovery.

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