Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder, is defined as the need to consume alcohol to the point that it negatively affects your personal and professional life. Blackouts, major lapses in judgment, fighting with loved ones, struggling with school or work and withdrawing from others are all common markers of alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol Use Disorder
If you are dependent on alcohol, you may have a hard time controlling your impulse to drink. You may even go to extreme measures to hide your alcohol use disorder, such as stealing, lying or hiding alcohol. Alcohol affects your physical and mental health, which can put a massive strain on your relationships and work performance.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
If you or someone you know demonstrates two or more of the following behaviors over 12 months, we recommend you get screened for alcohol abuse:
- Tolerance (the need to increase alcohol intake over time to obtain the same desired effect)
- Withdrawal (physical withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol)
- Alcohol cravings
- Binge drinking
- Heavy drinking
- Unable to cut down on drinking
- Inability to fulfill obligations at home, work or school
- Interpersonal or social conflicts
- A loss of interest in hobbies and social commitments because of alcohol use
- Continued alcohol use despite physical (liver disease) or psychological consequences (anxiety) that are directly related to alcohol abuse
- Alcohol consumption in dangerous situations, such as driving
Types of Alcohol Use Disorders
How much is too much? Excessive drinking can include binge drinking, drinking while pregnant, drinking under 21 years of age or heavy drinking. Binge drinking is four or more drinks during a single occasion for women, and five or more drinks during a single time for men. Heavy drinking is eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.
What Is a “Drink”?
The definition of a standard drink is 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. Typical equivalents include:
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (such as rum, vodka, whiskey)
Alcohol Use Disorder Statistics
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States, with tobacco and unhealthy diet at the forefront. According to a study in JAMA Psychiatry, one in eight American adults, or 12.7% of the U.S. population, meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder. More stats from the NIAAA:
- More than 88,000 individuals die from alcohol-related deaths each year in the U.S.
- Less than 1% of individuals who have an alcohol use disorder receive treatment.
- Approximately 5.3 million women 18 years of age and older have an alcohol use disorder.
- Men are twice as likely to binge drink compared to women.
- Excessive alcohol consumption is a common factor in sexual assault and other violent behaviors.
- Alcohol consumption is highly linked to suicide.
- Drunk driving accounts for more than 30% of all driving fatalities each year.
Total Fatalities Each Year
- Fatalities (Drunk Driving) 30%
- Fatalities (Other) 70%
Drunk driving accounts for more than 30% of all driving fatalities each year.
Percent of Those Who Receive Treatment
- Those Who Receive Treatment (1%)
- Those who Do not Receive Treatment (99%)
Less than 1% of individuals who have an alcohol use disorder receive treatment.
Gender Ratio of Binge Drinking Behaviors
Men are twice as likely to binge drink compared to women.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder
There can be many underlying causes for alcohol abuse such as genetic, social, psychological and environmental factors.
- Genetics and family history (if you have a family history of alcohol abuse, you have a higher likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder)
- Binge drinking at an early age
- Mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
- History of emotional or physical trauma
- Surrounding yourself with others who drink regularly
- Peer pressure
- Lack of family involvement
How Does Alcohol Use Disorder Affect the Body?
Alcohol use disorder can affect almost every organ in the body and can result in:
- Stomach ulcers
- Liver disease, including hepatitis and cirrhosis
- Bone disease (osteoporosis)
- Poor balance and coordination
- Vitamin B deficiency
- Uncoordinated eye movement (nystagmus)
- Heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy)
- Tears in the stomach lining (gastritis)
- Tears in the esophagus (Boerhaave syndrome)
- Tingling, pain or loss of sensation in fingers and toes (peripheral neuropathy)
Alcohol use disorder is also associated with many cancers, including liver, breast, esophageal, oral and pancreatic. Women who consume alcohol while pregnant have a higher chance of having a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome, a severe developmental disorder that results in lifelong physical, mental and behavioral challenges.
Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder on Social Behavior
Alcohol use disorder can lead to mental health disorders, the misuse of drugs, and can also wreak havoc on your social and developmental behavior, such as:
- Codependent relationships
- Academic decline/ poor work performance
- Sleep disturbances
- Memory problems
- Violent behavior
- An increase in sexual promiscuity
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Abusive relationships
- Illegal behavior, such as stealing or drunk driving
Alcohol withdrawal is one of the warning signs of alcohol abuse. If you are withdrawing from alcohol, you will experience a spectrum of uncomfortable physical symptoms that usually begin six hours after the last drink and can last up to seven days. The most dangerous period is 24 -72 hours after the last drink, as this is the timeframe when delirium tremens most likely occur.
Delirium tremens–sometimes call “the DTs”–are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal and are characterized by delusions, hallucinations, nightmares, anxiety, confusion, fever, muscle spasms, seizures, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure. Medication must be given in a hospitalized setting during this time.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, and as a result, treatment for alcohol abuse in a professional and supervised setting is necessary to prevent life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Treatment centers will monitor for signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and will administer medication that can help prevent withdrawal as well as help curb alcohol cravings.
- Mood swings
- Shaky hands
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
- Delirium tremens
Seeking Help for Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder usually requires professional intervention. Unfortunately, if you are abusing alcohol, you are most likely in denial. Family members and significant others are generally the first to notice when their loved one needs professional help. These are signs you should seek treatment for your alcohol abuse:
- Violent behavior
- Poor work/school performance
- Legal trouble
- Blacking out
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Strained/broken relationships
- Inability to stop drinking
- Drinking in the morning to curb the “shakiness”
- Alcohol use as a stress reliever
- Hide drinking habits from friends, coworkers or family
- Drive under the influence
- Crave alcohol
- Others express concern about your drinking habits
Depending on the severity and the duration of the alcohol use disorder, treatment options range from inpatient treatment to outpatient treatment. Psychotherapy, combined with medication, is the mainstay treatment for alcohol use disorder. Naltrexone, disulfiram and acamprosate are all approved medications to help treat alcohol use disorder.
In addition to addressing the physical consequences of alcohol abuse, it’s important to get therapeutic support. Psychotherapy helps to uncover the underlying triggers, thoughts and negative emotions associated with alcohol abuse and help you develop healthy coping skills to deal with these triggers in the future. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBP) are three types of behavioral therapy that can be used to help treat alcohol use disorder.
It is common to undergo medically assisted detoxification before you can begin therapy. During this initial phase, medications are given to help relieve physical withdrawal symptoms. Detoxification on average can take about three to five days. Once detoxification is complete, you will then enter a therapy regimen, which usually consists of a combination of group and individual therapy. After you complete an alcohol abuse treatment program, it is strongly encouraged that you continue outpatient therapy. You should also join a support group to ensure you have the best chance at long-term sobriety.