Alcohol Abuse Information

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Learn About Alcohol Addiction & Abuse

Alcohol, which is the intoxicating ingredient in wine, liquor, and beer, is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Though usually referred to simply as alcohol, this intoxicating substance is actually ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which results from the fermentation of sugars, starches, and yeast.

The use of alcohol is incorporated into many customs and practices in the United States, including celebrations, social gatherings, and some religious services. Many people are able to safely consume alcohol without experiencing negative effects, but for millions of others the consumption of alcohol leads to considerable damage, including the development of alcohol use disorder, or AUD.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists the following criteria as indicative of alcohol use disorder. If a person experiences significant impairment or distress as a result of his or her alcohol abuse, including experiencing two or more of these criteria within a 12-month period, he or she may have alcohol use disorder:

  • Consuming larger amounts of alcohol, or drinking for a longer period of time, than intended
  • Persistently desiring and unsuccessfully attempting to limit or control one’s alcohol use
  • Spending large amounts of time to obtain, use, and recovery from alcohol
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol
  • Being incapable of meeting obligations at work, school, or home because of one’s alcohol abuse
  • Continuing to drink even after experiencing social or interpersonal problems that resulted from one’s abuse of alcohol
  • Limiting or ceasing participation in significant activities because of one’s alcohol use
  • Using alcohol in situations where the individual knows that doing so is physically dangerous
  • Continuing to abuse alcohol even though the individual knows that his or her alcohol use has caused or exacerbated a physical or psychological problem
  • Needing to consumer larger amounts of alcohol in order to achieve the desired effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when one is incapable of consuming alcohol

Alcohol use can lead to myriad problems in virtually all aspects of a person’s life, and overcoming AUD can be a profoundly daunting task. With effective treatment, however, individuals can safely end their alcohol abuse, regain control over their behaviors, and make the lifestyle changes that will support long-term sobriety.


Alcohol Abuse Statistics

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that more than eight of every 10 American adults has consumed alcohol at least once in his or her life, and that more than half of all adults in the United States have had at least one alcoholic drink in the previous 30 days. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), about 12 percent of adult men and about 5 percent of adult women will exhibit symptoms that are consistent with a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder every year. Alcohol abuse is the third most common preventable cause of death in the United States, with experts estimating that almost 90,000 fatalities each year are attributable to the misuse of alcohol.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse

Several factors can exert an influence over the likelihood that person will abuse alcohol and develop an alcohol use disorder, including the following:

Genetic: People who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with alcohol use disorder have a significantly increased risk of developing AUD themselves.  Experts estimate that genetics influence between 40 percent and 60 percent of the risk variance for alcohol use disorder. Studies involving adopted individuals reveal that a person whose birth parents had AUD is 400 percent more likely to develop AUD than is a member of the general population, even if the adoptive parents do not have AUD. Researchers have also identified specific genes that appear to increase or decrease a person’s risk for developing AUD.

Environmental: The acceptability and prevalence of alcohol use within a person’s culture can have a strong impact on whether or not that person will abuse or become dependent upon alcohol. Other environmental influences on alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder include associating with peers who abuse alcohol and having a suboptimal ability to deal with stress.

Risk Factors:

  • Cultural acceptability of alcohol abuse
  • Peer abuse of alcohol
  • Family history of alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder
  • Family history of mental illness
  • High levels of impulsivity
  • Poor coping skills

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

The following are among the more common symptoms that may indicate the presence of alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Unexplained absences from school or work
  • Declining performance in school or at work
  • Abandoning or reducing participation in significant activities
  • Needing alcohol to celebrate successes or cope with setbacks
  • Neglecting personal or household responsibilities
  • Secretiveness regarding one’s whereabouts and/or activities
  • Reckless, risky, and otherwise dangerous behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Slurring speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling or “pins and needles” feeling in fingers and toes

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Strong cravings for alcohol
  • Alcohol-related amnesia (also commonly referred to as blackouts)
  • Impaired cognition
  • Inability to make decisions

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Anger and aggressiveness
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation


Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Continuing to abuse alcohol can lead to a wide variety of negative outcomes, including the following:

  • Damage to the liver, pancreas, and heart
  • Gastritis
  • Ulcers
  • Heightened risk for certain cancers
  • Physical injury related to impaired coordination and/or recklessness
  • Family discord
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Lowered performance in school or at work
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Social isolation or ostracization
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Financial problems
  • Homelessness
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol Abuse & Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals who have AUD also experience additional mental health disorders, including the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of alcohol withdrawal: Long-term dependence upon alcohol can lead to several painful and potentially dangerous symptoms if a person attempts to significantly limit or cease his or her alcohol use. The following are among the more common signs of alcohol withdrawal:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Increased pulse rate
  • Tremors
  • Psychomotor agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizure

Effects of alcohol overdose: Alcohol overdose, also commonly referred to as alcohol poisoning, can be extremely dangerous and potentially lethal. Anyone who exhibits the following symptoms after consuming alcohol may be in need of immediate medical attention:

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Impaired coordination and balance
  • Drop in body temperature
  • Clammy and/or bluish skin
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Slowed breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol Addiction

What are the physical symptoms of alcohol abuse?

The following are among the more common physical symptoms of alcohol abuse:

  • Slurred speech
  • Flushed skin
  • Impaired coordination
  • Poor spatial relations
  • Problems with memory, concentration, and judgment
  • Elevated mood, followed by depressed mood
  • Diminished inhibitions

What are the signs of an alcohol addiction?

Alcohol addiction can affect different people in different ways. However, the following are five common signs that may indicate that a person has become addicted to alcohol:

  • Preoccupation with acquiring and consuming alcohol
  • Inability to have fun without alcohol
  • Difficulty controlling the amount and/or frequency of alcohol use
  • Experiencing physical and/or psychological distress when not able to drink
  • Continuing to drink even after experiencing negative repercussions (such as problems at work, relationship difficulties, or automobile accidents) due to prior alcohol abuse

What is some key information on alcohol addiction?

It is important to understand that alcohol addiction is not simply a character flaw or evidence of poor self-control. Alcohol addiction, which is commonly referred to as alcoholism, is a progressive disease that, if left untreated, can lead to a host of negative outcomes, including death. The good news is that alcohol addiction is also a treatable condition. With proper professional care, you can end your dependence upon alcohol and achieve long-term recovery.

What are signs of long-term alcohol abuse?

Long-term alcohol abuse can have a profound negative impact on a person’s health and well-being. The following are potential symptoms and effects of long-term alcohol abuse:

  • Diminished cognition
  • Impaired memory
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Malnutrition
  • Damage to liver, kidneys, and pancreas
  • Cardiovascular disease

How does alcohol addiction treatment work?

Alcohol addiction treatment may involve a variety of elements, including education about the disease of addiction, several types of therapy, instruction and practice with the 12-Step Recovery Model, and help developing skills to resist relapse. Depending upon the nature and severity of a person’s alcohol addiction, as well as the presence of certain co-occurring mental health disorders, certain prescription medications may also be included in treatment for alcohol addiction.

How can I help an alcoholic?

Here are five steps that you can take to help someone who has become addicted to alcohol:

  • Express your concern while reiterating your love and support
  • Talk to the individual about the benefits of getting treatment for alcohol addiction
  • Research programs in your area that offer the care that your friend or family member needs
  • Accompany your friend or family member to appointments
  • Participate in family therapy to learn how to best support your loved one’s long-term recovery

Why do people get addicted to alcohol?

Experts believe that a person’s risk for becoming addicted to alcohol may be influenced by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. For example, people who have a family history of alcoholism or other forms of addiction may be at increased risk, as are men and women who struggle with certain mental health disorders. Also, individuals who are exposed to significant amounts of stress, live in cultures that encourage alcohol abuse, or have experienced trauma may also have an elevated risk for alcohol abuse and addiction.

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