Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Alcohol Addiction: Learn About Treating Alcoholism Safely
Alcohol addiction is one of the most common substance use disorders on the planet. Although alcohol is socially acceptable in many cultures, too many people struggle to monitor their drinking habits and suffer physical and mental consequences as a result.
Signs of abusing alcohol include drinking too much, intense cravings, and withdrawal symptoms. The body suffers from too much alcohol, which can cause damage to the liver, brain, and heart. Fortunately, medical science offers a path to recovery through evidence-based treatment plans.
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction is also called alcohol use disorder (AUD), and it was once called alcoholism. This is a chronic disease characterized by problems quitting drinking or controlling alcohol intake, even when substance abuse causes problems with health, relationships, and employment.
AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Mild cases are at risk of escalating to severe conditions, which can lead to damage to the liver, brain, stomach, kidneys, and other parts of the body. Although adults all over the world drink alcohol at social events, to relax at home, or as part of major celebrations, many people struggle with moderating their consumption and health issues associated with drinking too much.
While it is one of the most socially acceptable substances, alcohol is also one of the most dangerous.
How Many People Are Affected by Alcohol Use Disorder?
A national survey found that 14.1 million adults, 18 and older, in the United States had an addiction to alcohol in 2019. The study also estimated that 414,000 children between 12 and 17 years old had AUD that same year.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 55.3 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol in 2019. Currently, about 95,000 people in the US die from excessive alcohol consumption every year.
Alcohol addiction is the most prevalent substance use disorder (SUD) in the world. About 100.4 million people globally struggle with AUD as of 2016. Abuse of alcohol is one of the leading causes of premature death, lost working years, and accidents and injuries — not just in the US but also internationally.
What Are the Health Impacts of Alcohol Abuse?
Abusing alcohol can cause several problems with physical and mental health. Alcohol affects nearly every system in the body. Short-term problems may include:
- Alcohol poisoning, which can lead to hospitalization or death.
- Increased symptoms of mental illness, including depression and anxiety.
- Stomach and digestive discomfort.
- Weight gain and increased risk of diabetes.
- Increased susceptibility to trauma, including from accidents or assaults.
- Possible allergic reactions to drinking alcohol
Problems with excessive drinking over a long time can cause long-term health effects like these:
- Liver damage: Alcohol is filtered through the liver, which can cause various forms of damage to this organ, including fatty liver disease, fibrosis, liver cancer, cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis.
- Heart problems: Excessive alcohol consumption damages the heart and circulatory system. This can cause cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and increased risk of blood clots, leading to stroke or pulmonary embolism.
- Cancer: Alcohol abuse increases the risk of cancer in the liver, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, colon, and rectum. AUD increases the risk of breast cancer in women.
- Brain: Alcohol has a toxic effect on the central nervous system. Drinking too much can increase the risk of mental health problems, and it can also cause acquired brain injury, or alcohol-related brain impairment (ARBI).In the short term, too much alcohol can impair memory, cognition, and emotions. In the long term, high-volume alcohol abuse can cause brain damage, including:
- Cerebellar atrophy, which affects the part of the brain responsible for muscle coordination.
- Frontal lobe dysfunction, which impacts planning, problem-solving, emotional regulation, and abstract thinking.
- Hepatic encephalopathy, which occurs when liver damage releases toxins that cause psychiatric problems.
- Peripheral neuropathy, when nerves in the extremities are damaged, leading to numbness, a feeling of pins and needles, or pain.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a severe deficiency of vitamin B1 that can cause confusion, ataxia, and vision problems. Over time, this shifts to loss of short-term memory, inability to make new memories, and confabulation, or filling gaps in memory with made-up events or information.
How Can You Recognize Alcohol Addiction?
- When you drink, do you drink more or for longer than you intended?
- Do you feel like you need to drink more to get the same effects compared to when you started drinking?
- Have you tried to stop drinking or moderate your drinking, but were unable to?
- Do you spend a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking too much?
- Do you crave alcohol so much that you cannot think of anything else?
- Have you found that being intoxicated or recovering from drinking too much interferes with your ability to take care of work, school, family, or personal responsibilities?
- Do you continue to drink even though it hurts your relationship with your friends and family?
- Do you give up activities you care about so you can drink instead?
- Have you continued to drink even though you know it makes you feel anxious, depressed, or sick?
- Have you blacked out from drinking too much or struggled to remember much from the night before?
- Do you experience withdrawal symptoms like fatigue, intense cravings, anxiety, and physical illness when you attempt to stop drinking?
The World Health Organization (WHO) developed a 10-item screening questionnaire called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). Reviewing this can be a quick way for you to recognize signs in yourself or a loved one, so you can begin seeking help.
Risk Factors Associated With Alcohol Use Disorder
Here are potential risk factors associated with developing alcohol use disorder later in life:
- Genetics and family history: It is believed that heritability is about 60 percent of the underlying cause of alcohol addiction for most people. However, alcoholism doesn’t exclusively develop due to genetics. Its cause is believed to be an interplay between genes and the environment.
- Drinking from a young age: People who begin drinking when they are young, either from curiosity or peer pressure, are at higher risk of developing alcohol addiction later in life. A study found that people who began drinking alcohol before 15 years old were five times more likely to struggle with alcohol addiction compared to people who waited until they were 21 years old.
- Sex: Men are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder compared to women.
- Mental health and trauma: People who struggle with chronic mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, psychosis, and other conditions are at greater risk of abusing substances, including alcohol. Those with a history of childhood trauma are also at greater risk.
- Other types of problem drinking: The CDC found that 9 out of 10 people who drink too much alcohol are not alcohol dependent, but abusing alcohol regularly can increase the risk of becoming dependent on the substance and developing an addiction. The study found that 10.2 percent of people who drank excessively were dependent on alcohol.
Treating Alcohol Addiction With Evidence-Based Care
You cannot overcome alcohol addiction alone. Fortunately, medical science has developed an effective approach to treating substance use disorders like AUD.
Here is what you can expect from an evidence-based recovery program:
The first step to overcoming AUD is to end your body’s reliance on alcohol to feel good or normal. If you struggle with mild or moderate alcohol addiction, the program you enter may support your mental health and offer complementary treatments as you go through withdrawal, which can take a little over a week.
If you have severe AUD, you might be at risk of developing a severe type of withdrawal syndrome called delirium tremens, so a doctor may prescribe regulated doses of a benzodiazepine like Valium to help with detox. Benzodiazepines work in a similar part of the brain as alcohol. When a doctor monitors your symptoms to taper the dose, many people avoid seizures, hallucinations, high fever, and other DT symptoms.
Once you have safely overcome withdrawal with therapeutic support, you may receive a prescription for either acamprosate or naltrexone. These medications can reduce your cravings for alcohol. If you relapse and drink, the medications will also reduce the effectiveness of alcohol, so you will not receive the same pleasure from drinking. These maintenance medications can help you move into the next step in treatment.
Every good rehabilitation program is built on talk therapy. Modern programs typically offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions, in group and individual forms. You may also attend Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is related to CBT; art therapy; nutritional therapy; physical and occupational therapy; family therapy; or Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET).Talking through potential triggers for substance abuse, like work stress or family trauma, can help you understand when these issues arise. You can then find new approaches to safely managing these feelings. You can also find new hobbies that can replace alcohol use.
Once you complete your rehabilitation program, you will likely be encouraged to develop an aftercare plan, which can support your ongoing recovery and health. This may include a list of people to call if you are worried about relapsing, a daily list of activities, support groups in your area, and other information.
Once you leave the protective setting of a rehabilitation program, you are more likely to encounter triggers to begin drinking again. Developing a support system for yourself can help you stay focused.
Although people who struggle with substance use disorders, including alcohol addiction, are at risk of relapsing, many people overcome AUD. A combination of medication, mutual support groups, therapy, and supportive friends and family can help you return to a balanced, healthy life.
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Alcohol Related Brain Impairment. (April 2015). Better Health Channel, Victoria State Government.
AUDIT. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Most People Who Drink Excessively Are Not Alcohol Dependent. (November 2014). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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