Alcohol Addiction and Abuse
Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed, legal and socially acceptable psychoactive substances in the world. In 2019, 50.8% (or 139.7 million people) of Americans aged 12 or older drank alcohol in the past month.1
This can make it difficult to define and realize when alcohol use becomes problematic or escalates to an alcohol addiction. Addiction to alcohol is not a personal or moral failing—it is a treatable chronic medical disease characterized by compulsive and uncontrollable alcohol use.2
Approximately 14.5 million people aged 12 or older in the United States had an alcohol use disorder in 2019.1 Even those who don’t meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder can experience, health, social, and occupational challenges and consequences from their drinking.
This is because alcohol can impact how the brain and body functions, affecting learning, memory, coordination, mood, and behavior.3
For those with an alcohol use disorder, there is hope. Addiction treatment for alcohol can be beneficial in helping a person attain sobriety and long-term recovery.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcohol use disorder (what most people call “alcoholism” or “alcohol addiction”) is diagnosed by medical and clinical professionals using the criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.4
Alcohol Use Disorder Criteria
A person is diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder if they meet two or more of the 11 criteria listed in the DSM. A few of these criteria include:4
- Trying to cut down on alcohol use but not being able to.
- Drinking alcohol even when they know it could create a dangerous situation, such as operating a car.
- Needing to drink markedly increased amounts of alcohol to feel the desired effect (i.e., building up a tolerance).
- Difficulty fulfilling obligations for work or for family due to alcohol use.
In short, when someone cannot control or stop consuming alcohol, even though they are aware that it’s negatively impacting their life, a medical professional may diagnose them with an alcohol use disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
There are many warning signs that could indicate an alcohol use disorder. However, they can be difficult to identify unless a clear pattern of behavior emerges.
For example, binge drinking—consuming enough alcohol to bring a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to or over .08 g/dl—can be a sign of alcohol addiction if a person partakes regularly. For a typical adult, this corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks for a male, or 4 or more drinks for a female, in about 2 hours.5
Binge drinking is the deadliest pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S., however, if someone binge drinks once or twice, it doesn’t necessarily indicate alcoholism. In fact, most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder.5
Binge drinking is a factor that increases a person risk of developing alcohol use disorder and when it is done frequently, it may become a part of a larger pattern of heavy drinking.6 Heavy drinking is considered more than 3 drinks in a day for women, and more than 4 for men.6
Some other behaviors that may indicate a problem with alcohol use, includes:7, 8, 9
- Consuming more alcohol in the morning to help get over a hangover.
- Hiding alcohol use from friends or family.
- Change in sleep and/or eating habits.
- Not caring as much about how they look or their personal hygiene.
- Feeling guilty about drinking.
Short- and Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Use
The more alcohol a person consumes in one sitting, the higher their blood alcohol concentration (BAC). BAC represents the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream.10 As your BAC increases, you may begin to feel a combination of some of the following short-term effects of alcohol, including:10, 11
- Having fewer inhibitions.
- Slurring your words.
- An inability to control your limbs and/or a loss of coordination.
- Struggling to remember details and events, concentrate, or focus.
As a person’s BAC continues to climb, it may lead to alcohol poisoning, which can cause confusion, vomiting, hypothermia, and becoming unconscious. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention and it may require hospitalization.10, 11
Even people who do not binge drink, are not considered heavy drinkers, or have not been diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder can experience these short-term health effects. As a person continues to use or misuse alcohol, though, health risks become more severe and excessive alcohol use can contribute to the development of chronic medical conditions in addition to an alcohol use disorder.11
When a person drinks excessively over time, long-term health risks may include:11
- High blood pressure.
- Heart disease.
- Liver disease.
- Digestive problems.
- Several types of cancer, including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
- Learning and memory impairment, including dementia.
There are also concerns of unintended injuries to oneself and others, such as falls or car accidents, which can occur after a single drinking session. Those who abuse alcohol over time may also experience:12
- Unemployment or financial strain.
- Issues at work.
- Increased aggressive behavior.
- Problems with interpersonal relationships.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
There is no single cure for addiction but alcohol use disorder can be effectively treated, and there is plenty of hope for sustained sobriety for anyone with a mild, moderate, or even severe alcohol use disorder. Recovery can be reached and maintained with the proper treatment and tools.
Alcohol use disorder looks different from person to person. For example, one person may have a mild alcohol use disorder, whereas another might have a severe AUD and one or more mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety (called a “co-occurring disorder”) that may be exacerbated or a direct result of misusing alcohol. Because of this, individualized treatment approaches—geared specifically to the person’s specific needs—are often beneficial.
When a person enters treatment for alcohol use disorder, they may expect:13
- A formal assessment, where a clinical professional creates their treatment plan. At this time, co-occurring disorders, other substance abuse, and physical health concerns are discussed.
- Detox, or medically managed withdrawal, if necessary. Not all treatment start with detox. However, withdrawing from alcohol can be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, so it’s important that if you need detox, that it is monitored by healthcare professionals. FDA-approved benzodiazepines along with antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, or other drugs may be used during alcohol detox.14
- Behavioral therapy to encourage change, which can be administered intensively as an inpatient service, where the patient lives at the facility for care, or less intensively as outpatient therapy. This course of treatment will be determined by the patient and the medical professionals guiding their treatment.
- Disulfiram (Antabuse), Naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia), and Acamprosate (Campral) can be used after detox during treatment to help manage urges and desires to drink. 15, 16, 17, 18
- Mutual-help groups, like AA and other 12-step programs.
Some treatment facilities, like Sunrise House, offer a full continuum of care from detox and inpatient and outpatient treatment to aftercare, which sets you up for success once you leave the facility and treatment program.
Online Help to Stop Drinking
With a continuing pandemic, remote care is more important than ever. Some addiction treatment organizations are offering telehealth services. Although Sunrise House doesn’t have telehealth capabilities, other facilities run by American Addiction Centers, our parent company, do. Give our Admissions Navigators a call at to learn more about this treatment option.
Frequently Asked Questions
How common is alcoholism?
Approximately 14.5 million people aged 12 or older in the United States had an alcohol use disorder in 2019.1 This is about 5% of the population aged 12 or older.
How do I quit drinking for good?
Alcohol addiction is a disease, and most people can’t simply stop drinking for a few days and be alcohol free. Research and clinical experience, which has been ongoing for decades, show that quitting alcohol can be difficult, and withdrawal can be uncomfortable, and even dangerous, however, it has also identified effective approaches to manage withdrawal and treat addiction in both inpatient and outpatient settings.19
What are some of the underlying causes of alcoholism?
There is no single factor that predicts a person will develop an alcohol use disorder. There are many different risk factors that can contribute to a substance use disorder of any kind, including but not limited to:4
- A family history where members of the family have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder.
- A mental health disorder diagnosis.
- Experiencing trauma or stress.
- Interpersonal issues.
- Peer pressure.