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Alcohol abuse is a widespread problem with more than half of people 12 and older drinking alcohol in the month prior to the survey and 17 million people in the U.S. being heavy alcohol users.1 Some things to know about alcohol abuse include the following:
Alcohol is legal, ever-present, and largely socially acceptable, so it’s no surprise that it is widely used (and abused). According to a 2015 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 138 million people said they used alcohol in the previous month—that’s over half of the population 12 years and older.1 In the same survey, 67 million people reported binge drinking, while 17 million reported “heavy” alcohol use (having 5 or more “binges” in a month) during the same time span.1
When moderation takes a backseat, serious harm can ensue.
Alcohol is commonly used in moderation, but when moderation takes a backseat, serious harm can ensue, and with time, alcohol addiction may develop. In 2015, an estimated 15 million adults in the U.S. had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), but only about 8% of them received care in a specialized treatment facility.2 This treatment gap leaves many without the professional assistance needed to safely detox and address their addictions.
Alcohol produces a range of effects, and the speed at which they manifest will be influenced by:
People might feel a surge of happiness or excitement when they begin drinking, but alcohol is, in fact, a depressant.3,4 This fact can be seen in alcohol’s ability to make someone feel drowsy, inattentive, and uncoordinated.3,4
BAC, or blood alcohol content, is a percentage measurement that can be used to indicate how much influence alcohol has on an individual’s body. As BAC increases, the effects of alcohol become more noticeable and more serious:3
BAC can rise quickly. Women that have just 4 drinks over 2 hours can reach the legal limit of 0.08%.3 Many drinkers may not realize that their BAC can continue to climb even after the final drink, as the stomach and intestine continue releasing the alcohol into the bloodstream.3
Each drink increases your BAC, so it is essential to know what counts as one drink. Most likely, it’s less than you think. One serving of alcohol depends on the type of drink consumed and the alcohol content of that specific beverage. Examples of one serving include:3
Keep in mind, the drink you pour for yourself or get out at a bar or restaurant is likely to be larger than the servings listed above. For example, the glass of red wine you order with dinner may actually be large enough to count as two drinks. So if you have 2 of these glasses, you may, in fact, have had 4 drinks—and those 2 glasses may have put you at or over the legal BAC limit.
Significant danger may result from mixing alcohol with illicit drugs, prescription medications, over-the-counter products, or even herbal remedies.4 Mixing alcohol with other drugs may result in serious complications in 3 ways:4,5
Sometimes the user may combine substances without any awareness of the potential interactions and risks. But other times, a user will intentionally drink alcohol while taking other drugs in order to intensify or modify the effects and/or attain a “better” high.5 In either case, combining alcohol and other drugs can be extremely dangerous and result in effects such as:3,4
As mentioned, almost 67 million people in the U.S. reported binge drinking in the last month, which is about 25% of people 12 and older.1 Binge drinking means consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time at least one time in the last month. For women, binge drinking is defined as having 4 drinks in 2 hours or less. For men, it is having 5 drinks in 2 hours or less.2 People that binge drink 5 or more days in a month are classified as heavy drinkers.2
Consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period can push the BAC to severe or life-threatening impairment and may easily lead to alcohol poisoning, signs of which include:3
Binge drinking is possible in any age group, but per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, binge drinking is a major concern for drinkers between 18 and 25 years old.1 Binge drinking is an ongoing problem on college campuses, resulting in issues such as:2
Another problem with binge and heavy drinking is the increased likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Low-risk alcohol consumption is associated with a very small likelihood of AUD:2 Specifically, women that have 3 or fewer drinks in a day and no more than 7 drinks per week and men that have 4 or fewer drinks in a day and no more than 14 drinks per week have only a 2% chance of developing an AUD.2
The main indication that a person has an AUD is if alcohol is causing major distress in their life yet they are unable to stop drinking.2 Learn more about the signs of an alcohol addiction below.
Determining whether you or someone you love may have a problem with alcohol can be challenging because alcohol consumption is so normalized. In fact, you may have even heard of some of the touted benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol, such as:2
The key here is moderate (low-risk) drinking. This type of consumption may be safe and may have some benefits, but heavy or binge drinking is extremely problematic—even when some time passes between episodes. Any binge drinking is associated with a higher risk of developing an AUD, and so is high weekly consumption of alcohol.2 Remember, men drinking more than 14 servings and women drinking more than 7 servings in a week are at high risk of an AUD, regardless of whether they engage in binge drinking episodes.2
Any binge drinking is associated with a higher risk of developing an AUD, and so is high weekly consumption of alcohol.
If you’re worried that your or your loved one’s drinking is problematic, check for the following signs of an AUD:6
Having two or more of these signs generally indicates the individual may have an AUD.6 An AUD is further classified as mild, moderate, and severe. So while you or someone you care about might only have two of the symptoms above, an AUD may still be present but in the beginning stages. Always seek a professional evaluation if you think there’s a problem, even if you think it may not be particularly severe (yet). Getting help while the problem is in its initial stages can increase the likelihood of successful long-term recovery.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers a variety of alcohol screening tests to assess whether someone’s alcohol use is problematic.7 The CAGE, T-ACE, and AUDIT are self-evaluation tools to quickly investigate how alcohol impacts your life and the life of your loved ones.7 For example, the CAGE looks at whether you:7
The progression from recreational drinking to alcohol dependence and addiction is complex. Before alcohol is consumed, chemicals called neurotransmitters function in balance. Alcohol disrupts this balance, causing euphoria as well as the negative effects of intoxication.8
These adjustments are mild at first, but as use continues, the brain will adapt more significantly to find balance. The adaptations will produce a higher tolerance for alcohol and make each drink less effective.8 The individual will have to keep drinking more and more to counter their increased tolerance, significantly increasing their risk of dangerous consequences and alcohol poisoning.
Continued drinking over time, especially with increasing doses, may eventually lead to physical dependence, a phenomenon in which the body needs alcohol simply to feel well enough to function. Once a user is dependent, the person will need to have alcohol in their system to avoid withdrawal, which has the potential to cause dangerous medical complications.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:9
People with more severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms may experience:9
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can begin anywhere from 6 to 24 hours after last use and continue for up to 10 days.9 The most severe, dangerous symptoms commonly appear between 36 and 72 hours after the last drink.8
Problems stemming from alcohol withdrawal can continue beyond this acute stage. Protracted withdrawal (sometimes called “post-acute withdrawal syndrome,” or PAWS) represents symptoms that persist past the initial acute period of withdrawal.10 Protracted withdrawal can last for months or sometimes years after alcohol use ends. PAWS symptoms may include:10
The more someone consumes alcohol, the more at risk of serious symptoms they are, not only in the short term but in the long term as well. The consequences of enduring alcohol abuse may show up in many ways:11,12
Long-term alcohol use is also associated with an increased risk of developing several types of cancer, including:11,12
Of course, the impact of alcohol addiction doesn’t rest solely on the physical and mental health of the user—it extends into every area of their life. People suffering from an addiction to alcohol often experience:
Alcohol has the potential to have serious consequences for a woman’s reproductive health. Consider that:13
Drinking alcohol is a special concern for women that are or may become pregnant. Use of alcohol during pregnancy leads to lasting issues for the mother and the baby. If a woman is drinking, having sex, and not using birth control, she may get pregnant and unknowingly expose her baby to the harmful effects of alcohol. Most women do not know that they are pregnant until they are 4-6 weeks into their pregnancies.14 Alcohol exposure, even during these early weeks, can have a negative impact on the developing fetus. It is important to remember that there is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy.14
Unfortunately, about 10% of pregnant women drink during their pregnancies.13 In-utero alcohol exposure can have devastating consequences, including:13-15
Drinking while pregnant can also cause the child to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).13,14 Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe type of FASD.
Fetal alcohol syndrome can lead to permanent problems like:13,14
As children with FAS grow into teens and adults, they are more likely to struggle with:14
Alcohol addiction most often requires professional treatment, especially because quitting “cold turkey” has the potential to be fatal. Withdrawal is sometimes associated with severe health developments such as grand mal seizures and delirium tremens (DTs).15 It is not safe to “go it alone” when attempting to quit or significantly decrease your alcohol use. The best course of action is to contact a professional, such as your primary care doctor, or an addiction treatment program.
It is not safe to “go it alone” when attempting to quit.Because the withdrawal syndrome associated with alcohol dependence is so severe, treatment should begin with some form of supervised medical detoxification.15 This will help to ensure that you stay safe and your symptoms are well managed.16 To mitigate the risks of severe alcohol withdrawal, a closely supervised, medical detox will take place in a hospital or other inpatient setting and, when needed, will incorporate the use of certain medications to ease discomfort and prevent dangerous complications, such as seizure.
Medications used in alcohol withdrawal include:16
Other medications and over-the-counter drugs can be used to manage related symptoms like headaches and diahrrea.16
Detox is a crucial stage of treatment. However, people that only undergo detoxification and don’t continue with further treatment may quickly return to drinking, as they have not addressed the behavior, only the physiological dependence. Without treatment that includes therapy to work through the issues that lead you to drink, your treatment will be incomplete.
Once your body is safely cleared of alcohol, you can move on to one or more of the following programs:15,16
A person attempting to recover from alcohol abuse may progress through multiple treatment types by beginning with detox and subsequently moving to a residential program. Once that is complete, outpatient treatment can be a next step. In some cases, an IOP or PHP may be the primary course of rehab, with another less intensive form of outpatient treatment potentially being a step-down treatment.
When it comes to addiction recovery, there is not one treatment type or course of treatment that works for everyone.15 Instead, there needs to be a focus on meeting the specific needs of the individual and treating the entire person, not just the addiction. This includes making sure that their mental health and social needs are addressed.
Treatment for alcoholism may include medication to help recovering individuals stay sober. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for alcohol addiction involves medications combined with behavioral therapy.15
MAT options for individuals in recovery from alcohol include:15
Aftercare refers to continuing treatment that takes places after an initial round of rehabilitation and helps recovering individuals prevent relapse. For example, engaging in standard outpatient care that involves weekly or monthly appointments with a therapist can continue for years into recovery.16
Other options for finding continued support in recovery include:15,17
Like other chronic conditions, alcohol recovery is a lifelong process. Shorter courses of treatment are associated with higher risk of relapse, so committing to a longer-term program and making efforts to find support—whether in a sober living home, outpatient program, or a support group—can you help you find freedom from alcohol.15
What would you do with that money if treatment was affordable? Find out if your insurance covers treatment now!