Alcohol Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options
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Alcohol Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau, MSCP, LPCI, NCC

February 1, 2019

Although alcohol is a legal, controlled substance, it can be very addictive. About 15.1 million American adults meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Those who experience negative side effects on a regular basis may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of treatment options available for varying degrees of alcohol dependency.

Alcohol Abuse Vs. Addiction

The terms “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol addiction” are often used interchangeably but are not the same. Alcohol abuse refers to frequent overconsumption of alcohol. In most cases of alcohol abuse, the person is able to stop when they choose.

Alcohol addiction, on the other hand, refers to the inability to stop consuming alcohol, despite the potential for self-harm or harming others. An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a term used to describe alcohol addiction or alcohol abuse. Alcohol addiction is characterized by compulsive misuse of alcohol, loss of control over the amount of alcohol consumed, and a negative emotional state when not using.

Recognizing if someone is abusing alcohol or struggling with an alcohol addiction can help determine what level of treatment they will need.

Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

Usually, consuming alcohol is considered socially acceptable behavior, and this can make identifying alcohol abuse and/or addiction difficult. Alcohol comes in many forms, including beer, liquor, and wine, and can have a wide range of side effects.

The effects of alcohol will vary from person to person based on a few different factors. These factors include: how much and how often alcohol has consumed the age and health of the individual, and their family’s history of alcohol abuse and/or addiction.

Possible symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

Physical symptoms:

  • bloodshot or glassy eyes
  • lack of coordination
  • trouble walking or standing

Mental symptoms:

  • slurred speech
  • rambling or repetitive statements
  • feeling disorientated
  • agitation or anxiety

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The signs of a potential alcohol misuse problem can range from subtle to very obvious. An individual may have an alcohol use disorder if they can answer “yes” to two or more of the following questions:

In the past year, have they:

  • Ended up drinking more and for a longer amount of time than planned?
  • Wanted to cut back or stop drinking but were unable to?
  • Spent a majority of their time drinking or recovering from drinking?
  • Felt a strong urge to drink?
  • Noticed that drinking, or recovering from drinking, interfered with family life, work, or school?
  • Continued to drink, even though it was causing trouble with family and friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities they used to enjoy to drink instead?
  • Put themselves in dangerous situations during or after drinking?
  • Kept drinking even though it made them feel depressed or anxious?
  • Had to continue to drink to feel the effects of alcohol?
  • Complained about withdrawal symptoms when alcohol was wearing off, including trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, fever, and other flu-like symptoms?

Risk Factors For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

The long-term abuse of alcohol can take a serious toll on someone’s health. As alcohol is absorbed into the blood, it has the potential to affect every major body system. The two organs alcohol is most likely to affect are the brain and liver.

The consequences of excessive alcohol consumption can last long past the initial intoxication. Possible short-term side effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • blackouts or memory loss
  • difficulty breathing
  • distorted vision
  • headaches
  • impaired judgment
  • nausea and vomiting

Long-term effects of alcohol abuse are usually more serious and can include irreversible damage that can potentially lead to decreased life expectancy. Some potential long-term effects of alcohol addiction include:

  • anxiety disorders
  • brain damage
  • cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver
  • chronic pancreatitis (swollen pancreas)
  • compromised immune system
  • depressive mood disorder
  • hand tremors
  • neurological impairment

Alcohol can cause damage to the brain in many ways, the most notable of which may be Korsakoff’s syndrome. Individuals who develop this syndrome report not being able to remember recent events or being unable to learn and retain any new information.

Consuming even one to two standard drinks a day increases the risks of stomach and bowel cancers, as well as stomach ulcers. Regular, heavy drinking has also been linked to fertility issues in both men and women. Heavy drinking can reduce levels of testosterone in men and can affect a woman’s menstruation pattern.

Research has also noted that teens who abuse alcohol are five times more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol compared to those who started drinking at age 21. Teens who abuse alcohol also have an increased likelihood of developing significant brain development issues.

When Is It Time For Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

Problems with alcohol typically start to develop when a person is in their mid-to-late twenties in age and is characterized by frequent heavy drinking. Eventually, this behavior causes an increased tolerance to alcohol and other potential health issues.

When alcohol takes priority over loved ones, work responsibilities, or personal health, there is likely a problem. If alcohol is negatively affecting someone’s overall quality of life, it is time for them to consider getting help.

Treatment For Alcohol Addiction

Most individuals with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from some form of treatment. Research shows that about one-third of people who enroll in some form of an addiction treatment program have no further symptoms one year later, while the remaining two-thirds report having fewer alcohol-related problems and are able to reduce their drinking.

Detoxing from alcohol often results in uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, that can cause individuals to start drinking again. An effective way to avoid relapse is an inpatient treatment program. Inpatient rehab centers can provide support and any medically-assisted detox resources during the initial detox period.

Treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction may be different for each individual based on their unique needs and circumstances. Alcohol addiction can be a difficult condition, but it can be overcome with proper treatment.

National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism - Underage Drinking

National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism - Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help

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