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Alcohol Addiction And The Best Rehab Centers For Treatment

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 1, 2019

Those who binge drink are more likely to become dependent on alcohol later in life, and with 15 million people struggling with addiction, it is more important than ever that people understand the negative effects of alcohol.

Over 50 percent of Americans 18 and older admit to being regular drinkers (more than 12 drinks a year), and nearly 15 percent admit to being infrequent drinkers (one to 11 drinks a year). Most of us are familiar with alcohol and its effects on the human body.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol is a natural relaxer. People typically enjoy the happy feeling and confident buzz alcohol provides, making them feel more self-assured and lively at social gatherings. While a couple drinks on occasion is safe when people use alcohol responsibly, alcohol use can often turn into abuse.

People find themselves intoxicated at different levels depending on their metabolism and type of drink consumed. A standard drink is 12oz beer, 5oz wine, and 1.5oz hard liquor. Consuming more than four or five drinks over the course of two hours is considered binge drinking. However, binge drinking is not the only form of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse constitutes drinking that has become problem drinking. The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, “with alcohol abuse, you are not physically dependent, but you still have a serious problem. The drinking may cause problems at home, work, or school. It may cause you to put yourself in dangerous situations, or lead to legal or social problems.”

Left unresolved, alcohol abuse can quickly develop into an alcohol use disorder (also called alcoholism or alcohol dependence). Alcohol use disorder is an addiction to and dependence on alcohol characterized by cravings for alcohol, harrowing withdrawal symptoms, inability to control drinking, and tolerance to the effects of alcohol.

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Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol Abuse

Identifying alcohol abuse may be difficult, especially if alcohol has become a regular part of your life; you may not realize that your drinking has become problem drinking. The following are signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse:

  • Drinking more often, or for longer than intended
  • Inability to stop drinking, either in one situation or on a regular basis
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, or recovering from the effects of it (hangovers)
  • Feeling cravings for alcohol, or urges to drink
  • Drinking begins interfering with work, family, school, or personal affairs
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Engaging in dangerous behavior or activities while drinking, or due to drinking
  • Needing to drink more to feel the effects of alcohol (tolerance)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Continuing to drink, even after realizing the consequences that come with it

Effects Of Alcohol Abuse

Many people have experienced the negative effects of alcohol during and after drinking. Some of the most common short-term effects of alcohol are:

  • Impaired coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Relaxed inhibitions
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Blacking out
  • Irregular or slowed breathing
  • Depressed immune system

These effects can be extremely dangerous. Impaired reasoning can lead to multiple risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex and drunk driving. Alcohol addiction threatens more than just the addicted individual; it can put many other people in danger if the drinker is behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Following a period of binge drinking, people may experience hangover side effects, such as nausea and vomiting, headache, impaired memory, or aches and pains.

After years of prolonged alcohol abuse, many people find their bodies in poor shape. Extended drinking patterns can be life-threatening, and can cause:

  • Liver disease
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Shakes
  • Seizures
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • Heart or respiratory failure

Many women who are addicted to alcohol do not stop drinking when pregnant, leading to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, resulting in their children being born with poor respiratory development, learning disabilities, and distinct facial features.

Dangers Of Alcohol Addiction and Excessive Drinking

Alcohol abuse and addiction come with a number of risks, both to health and other aspects of life. Alcohol impairs your memory, coordination, decision-making skills, judgment, and so much more. Therefore, the more you drink the more at risk you become for adverse consequences as a result of drinking.
Some of the greatest dangers of alcohol addiction include:

  • Birth defects: brain damage, low birth weight, and fetal alcohol syndrome can occur from drinking during pregnancy.
  • Health: increased risk of depression, liver and heart disease, sleep disorders, stomach bleeding, sexually transmitted diseases, stroke, and several types of cancer.
  • Injury: the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains that alcohol is a factor, “in about 60% of fatal burn injuries, drownings, and homicides; 50% of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults; and 40% of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and fatal falls.”

Alcohol addiction can also affect every aspect of your life until your life is no longer your own. Addiction is a disease of the mind; it creates cravings and urges that keep addicted individuals going back to drinking even when they want to stop. Once a person has become physically dependent on alcohol, quitting without help is dangerous and rarely successful, as alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening when not treated properly.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms are affected by the duration of abuse, the amount of alcohol consumed, and how often it is consumed. Symptoms may occur as early as a few hours after the last drink, or up to days later. For many people, withdrawal symptoms may peak around 72 hours after the last drink but can last up to several weeks.

Alcohol withdrawal can be more than a little uncomfortable—some people may experience symptoms that can be severe, and put them at risk for further health complications, such as seizures, convulsions, fever, and hallucinations. People who reach this point may develop delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that greatly affects the mental and central nervous system.

Delirium tremens is more common for people who have experienced withdrawal before, who experience withdrawal regularly, or who have abused alcohol for years. People who do not experience delirium tremens may undergo a number of common symptoms when withdrawing from alcohol abuse, which may include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Dilated pupils
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Insomnia or other sleep troubles
  • Irritability
  • Mental cloudiness
  • Mood-swings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nightmares
  • Paleness of skin
  • Sweating/clammy skin
  • Tremors

Medically-supervised Detoxification

Because alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous, it’s important that people withdrawing from alcohol abuse are monitored in a medical setting, known as medically-supervised detoxification. This type of program allows the individual to receive medical care to ensure health safety, and medication when needed. Medication can be effective at providing relief from cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.

There are two detoxifying drugs that rehabilitation centers typically use. Naltrexone is the most common and it is used to block the euphoric feeling associated with alcohol consumption. Disulfiram is a more extreme route, causing vomiting and headaches when alcohol is consumed, making it completely unappealing to those who may be close to relapse. Many facilities may also administer thiamine for alcoholics in recovery, which helps improve brain functioning and memory.

Detox is often a necessary part of a comprehensive treatment program for someone who is addicted to and dependent on alcohol, but it is not the end of treatment. Medically-supervised detox allows you to get rid of the toxins in your body gained during prolonged alcohol abuse, but for a successful recovery, a formal treatment program must follow.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment, Research, and the Path to a More Moderate Lifestyle

Addicted individuals have the choice of either inpatient or outpatient treatment. If the addiction is severe, many facilities will recommend an inpatient program, so they can monitor their patients 24 hours a day to avoid any medical complication that may arise from detoxification, such as delirium tremens.

After detoxification, patients undergo counseling to learn life skills and behaviors to cope with possible triggers and potential relapse. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective behavioral therapy used to help recovering individuals change the way they think in order to form more constructive behaviors and let go of old, harmful ones.

Medication-assisted therapy provides individuals with medication to help ease ongoing withdrawal symptoms. For people who respond better to alternative forms of therapy, many rehab centers now offer evidence-based, skill-building methods, such as Adventure or Wilderness therapies.

Once rehab is completed, doctors recommend that the recovering individual continue with counseling in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous, or seek help at a sober living home, halfway house, or other outpatient care. Managing addiction long-term is key to recovery success.

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