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What Is An Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

March 21, 2019

Knowing what an alcohol use disorder is and how to identify the signs of it can help keep individuals safe and even avoid the dangerous effects of alcohol addiction. Find out more about alcohol use disorders below.

Many of us have had a few drinks too many at some point, maybe even for days or weeks at a time. Excessive drinking is still a major problem in the United States, and it’s one that touches a lot of people. But how do you know when that problem is advanced enough that you need help to overcome it? How do you know when you have an alcohol use disorder?

An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is defined as “problem drinking that becomes severe” by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The severity of problem drinking may differ among people.

Here are a few signs to look for if you think you or someone you know has developed an AUD:

  • You’ve drank for longer or drank more than you intended at some point
  • You’ve tried to stop drinking, or to not drink as much, but failed
  • You spend a lot of time drinking
  • You drink so much you often get physically sick during or after drinking
  • When not drinking, you get cravings or urges
  • Drinking, or getting sick from it, has affected your personal life, obligations, work, or school commitments
  • You’ve kept on drinking even if it created trouble for your relationships with family and friends
  • You aren’t as present in activities that used to interest you due to drinking
  • Tolerance: you don’t get the same effects when drinking any more, and tend to drink more as a result
  • Withdrawal: when not drinking, you experience physical dependence symptoms, such as headache or tremors

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What’s The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse And Addiction?

Alcohol abuse is characterized by a pattern of problem drinking that gets in the way of your personal life and ability to function in daily life, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Once abuse turns to alcoholism (or addiction, now called alcohol use disorder), you no longer have control of your drinking patterns. That’s because addiction changes brain chemistry, which changes thought patterns and behaviors.

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means it works in the body by producing feelings of calm and relaxation. Essentially, alcohol suppresses certain functions in the brain, impairing certain body functions as a result.

Over time, and with excessive drinking, this process can have dire effects on the brain and body. As the APA explains, “although severe alcohol problems get the most public attention, even mild to moderate problems cause substantial damage to individuals, their family and the community.”

Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

The degree and severity of effects alcohol can have on your brain depends on a number of factors. These include how much you drink and how often, the age you started drinking and how long you’ve been drinking, your sex (male or female),certain genetic factors like family history, whether you were exposed to alcohol in the womb, and your general state of health.

As mentioned above, alcohol impairs certain functioning, and the more you drink, the more you’ll be affected. Our bodies can only process so much alcohol at a time. Some of the short-term effects on the brain include:

  • Trouble walking
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed reactions
  • Blurry vision
  • Memory gaps or blackouts

Long-term effects are more severe. For example, having an alcohol use disorder often causes you to neglect other parts of your health, such as sleep and nutrition.

Lack of proper nutrition could result in vitamin deficiencies, such as lack of thiamine. Inadequate thiamine levels in people who abuse alcohol long-term can lead to damage of a lot of organs. This includes the brain, which requires iron for proper functioning.

Effects Of Alcohol On The Body

The effects of alcohol abuse on the body may be the most far-reaching ones you experience. The following areas of the body can see great damage from an alcohol use disorder:


  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Risk of stroke
  • Effects on the heart muscle


  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fatty liver disease (steatosis)
  • Fibrosis


  • Alcohol causes the pancreas to give off toxic byproducts
  • This can lead to pancreatitis, a swelling and inflammation of blood vessels

Increased risk of developing several types of cancer, including:

  • Breast
  • Esophagus
  • Liver
  • Mouth
  • Throat

Immune System:

  • Excessive drinking weakens your immune system
  • This can lead to increased risk of infectious diseases, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis

Consequences Of An Alcohol Use Disorder

As with so many types of addiction, alcohol use disorder doesn’t just affect the person who drinks—it can affect anyone associated with that person. If you have developed addiction to alcohol, even if you don’t know it, drinking may have an impact on your partner, children, other family members, friends, work family, and community.

Drinking can worsen the symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, even if it seems like drinking might help the symptoms. In the long run, alcohol abuse can do a lot of damage.

If you’ve progressed from abuse to addiction, you’re at enhanced risk for adverse behavior, too. This means you might start doing things while drinking you may not otherwise do, like engaging in risky sexual activities, drinking and driving, or even committing a crime.

Unfortunately you may not even remember these acts because alcohol impairs your memory. At the end of the day, it’s best to seek help for an alcohol use disorder before any harm comes to you, your loved ones, or your community due to drinking.

Who Is Affected?

We may never know exactly what causes people to develop an Alcohol Use Disorder, but many things may contribute to it. For instance, some people turn to drinking as a way to cope with stressful situations in life, mental health symptoms, or overwhelming emotions and feelings, like grief. Others may be more at risk because they have low self-esteem or may be impulsive.

Still other people may have suffered trauma, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and seek alcohol as a way to escape the troubling thoughts and feelings they experience. Not everyone who experiences these situations or has these traits are necessarily at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, though.

The danger with these risks is that if you begin abusing alcohol, you become at heightened risk. If you’re already struggling and want to end the cycle of abuse, you have the opportunity to make a choice that will change your life.

Residential, inpatient treatment has proven to be effective in helping people with alcohol use disorders overcome an addiction to alcohol and create new, fulfilling lives. We have all the resources you need to get into treatment, and we’re ready to assist you in taking your life back.

How To Get Help for an Alcohol Use Disorder

If you have suffered with an alcohol use disorder, you’ve already been through enough. We want to help you put all of it behind you and begin anew. Contact today to learn more about alcohol use disorders, how they can be treated, and the best rehab centers for alcohol treatment.

Mayo Clinic - Alcohol Use Disorder

National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism - Alcohol’s Effects On The Body

National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism - Alcohol’s Damaging Effects On The Brain

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