Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Alcohol use occurs along a spectrum that can range from casual drinking to abuse and addiction. Alcohol abuse involves drinking in harmful ways, while an alcohol addiction—also known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD)—is a much more severe form of problematic drinking.1,2
Drinking issues can involve any combination of beer, wine, and liquor and may not necessarily stem from just one of these types of drinks. One standard drink refers to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.3
Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol misuse, where a large amount of alcohol is consumed in a short period of time.4,5,6 This generally means having 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women within a couple of hours.3,4,6
Binge drinking and heavy drinking are both patterns of drinking that can increase a person’s risk of AUD.4,6 Heavy drinking is defined as more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men and consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week for women. Binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month is also considered heavy drinking.
This article will help you learn more about:
- What is alcohol abuse and alcoholism?
- Is alcohol addictive?
- Why is alcohol addictive for some people and not others?
- How to tell if someone is abusing or addicted to alcohol.
- What is considered an alcoholic?
- How much do alcoholics drink?
- What to expect when getting a professional diagnosis.
- How is alcoholism treated?
- How to find out if your insurance covers alcohol rehab.
What is Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), refers to a chronic but treatable disease where it is difficult to control your use of alcohol, even after drinking has had a negative impact on 1 or more areas of your life.1,2 Alcohol dependency can be psychological—you rely on alcohol to manage stressors. It can also be physical, meaning your body becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol after long periods of heavy use (i.e., tolerance) and relies on alcohol to avoid going through withdrawal.1,4,7
Drinking alcohol over time can cause changes in how the brain works.3,8 These changes contribute to the diagnostic characteristics of an AUD, which includes trouble controlling how much you drink, alcohol use affecting your social functioning, drinking when it is harmful to your physical or mental health, and the development of tolerance and physical dependence.2,7-9
The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 65.8 million Americans aged 12 or over engaged in binge drinking in the previous month.10 Among them, 16 million engaged in binge drinking on 5 or more occasions in the last month.10 Some 14.5 million Americans aged 12 or over had an AUD in the last year in 2019.10
What Causes Alcoholism?
There isn’t one specific factor that causes alcoholism but rather it is the result of a complex interaction of a variety of factors. Genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences can all play a role in a person developing an AUD.3,8,9 Drinking larger amounts, more often, and more rapidly can raise the risk of alcoholism.9 Excessive alcohol consumption over long periods of time causes changes in the brain that can make it difficult to stop drinking, which can lead to alcoholism.8
What Leads to Alcoholism?
Various risk factors that increase a person’s risk for developing an AUD include:3-5,7-9,11
- Drinking at earlier ages. If you start drinking alcohol before the age of 15, you are more than 5 times more likely to develop an AUD at some point than people who begin drinking at age 21 or older.
- Drinking to cope with stress. People who utilize alcohol to manage stress may be more likely to drink more often, abuse alcohol, and develop AUDs.
- Males tend to drink more and are, in general, more likely to abuse alcohol and develop AUDs than females. However, females who begin drinking under the age of 15 are more likely than males to develop an AUD.
- Genetics and family history. There is a genetic component to AUD, with a higher risk of developing the disorder if you have many direct relatives with alcoholism.
- Binge or heavy drinking. People who binge drink and people who engage in heavy drinking are at a higher risk of developing an AUD than people who do not engage in these drinking patterns.
- Long periods of exposure to alcohol. Long stretches of drinking, especially large amounts, can increase the risk for develop an AUD.
- Presence of mental health disorders. People with certain mental health disorders may be more likely to engage in problematic drinking. Depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are associated with an increased risk of AUD. Exposure to trauma, especially in childhood, has also been shown to increase the likelihood of AUD.
- Spending time around people who drink frequently and heavily. Peer pressure can contribute to alcohol use. It can be found in social groups like high school and college students or those in the military, where drinking is common.
- Your family and cultural views towards drinking and intoxication. If alcohol is viewed negatively and you enjoy it, it can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. These feelings can contribute to the desire to drink more and the urge to hide it. If alcohol is seen as acceptable, alcohol abuse and alcoholism may be common and even encouraged.
Moderate drinking, which is lower-risk, involves having no more than 1 drink daily for women and no more than 2 drinks daily for men.5 Drinking more than this on a regular basis can put you at risk for potential health issues, including developing an AUD.1
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
If you are concerned that you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, you may want to be aware of some behaviors and physical signs. These include:3,4,7
- Difficulty paying attention or remembering what happened while intoxicated.
- Drinking more than usual, or drinking throughout the day, such as in the morning.
- Experiencing anxiety or irritability when alcohol is not available.
- Having less energy.
- Having trouble at school or work because of drinking.
- Hiding alcohol among possessions or around the house.
- Impaired judgment leading to making bad decisions.
- Legal problems related to drinking.
- Mood changes, such as becoming angry or irritable for no apparent reason.
- Paying less attention to personal hygiene or appearance.
- Rebellious behavior.
- Slurring while speaking.
- Smelling like alcohol.
- Spending time with a new social group.
The effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism can have negative consequences on your physical health.1,7,11 Drinking too much alcohol at one time, such as while binge drinking, can cause alcohol poisoning, which can be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal.1 Chronic alcohol use can affect the cardiovascular system, resulting in damage to the heart muscle, high cholesterol, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. 1,7,11, 12
Alcohol use also impacts the digestive system, raising the risk of developing issues like inflammation of the stomach (gastritis) and pancreas (pancreatitis), ulcers in the digestive tract, and liver diseases such as cirrhosis.1,7,11,12 Alcohol use can damage the nervous system, leading to muscle weakness, sensations of “pins and needles,” and loss of sensation. Changes in the brain can cause memory loss, trouble thinking properly, coordination issues, and difficulty learning.7,12,13
Alcohol can also affect your mental health. It can increase the risk of depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide.7,11 Long periods of alcohol use have been shown to increase the risk of cancer of the mouth, breast, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, and bowel.1,7,11,12 Drinking alcohol reduces your ability to fight off illnesses.12 Those who drink regularly may also become physically dependent on it and experience withdrawal when they try to stop.1 Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include tremors in your hands, sweating, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.1
The cost of alcohol or drug addiction treatment may appear to be an obstacle, but we are here to help. Insurance may cover all or some of your rehab.
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Am I an Alcoholic?
A person who finds it difficult to control their use of alcohol, even after experiencing significant personal or professional problems, is likely to be considered an alcoholic.7,11 The best way to find out if you have a problem with alcohol is to speak honestly with a medical or psychiatric professional who can accurately diagnose you.2,11 There is no specific number of drinks you need to consume daily to be considered an alcoholic, but if you regularly drink more than moderate amounts of alcohol, you may have an issue.
If you are worried that your drinking might be problematic, there are some questions you can ask yourself. You may want to speak to a professional about your drinking if you answer yes to one or more of these questions:1,14,15
- Do you ever drink first thing in the morning?
- Do you feel as though you should cut down on drinking?
- Do you feel ashamed or guilty about your drinking?
- Has drinking ever caused you to lose a job?
- Have others criticized your drinking?
- Have you blacked out from drinking?
- Have you ever been unable to stop drinking?
- Have you ever experienced withdrawal symptoms if you don’t drink alcohol?
- Have you ever had legal problems because of alcohol?
To be diagnosed with AUD, you will have to see a medical professional who will ask you about your alcohol use and how it affects various areas of your life.2,7 The criteria include:7,9
- Drinking despite causing or worsening a physical or mental health issue.
- Drinking in dangerous situations, like before driving.
- Drinking more or for longer than planned.
- Experiencing cravings to drink alcohol.
- Having trouble completing tasks at work, home, or school due to alcohol.
- Social problems caused or worsened by alcohol.
- Spending a lot of time getting and drinking alcohol or being hungover.
- Stepping back from activities due to alcohol.
- Wanting or being unable to cut down/stop drinking.
- Developing tolerance, where the usual amount of alcohol has less effect.
- Experiencing withdrawal if you stop drinking.
The severity of the disorder is determined by how many criteria you meet; 2-3 criteria indicate mild AUD, 4-5 indicate moderate AUD, and 6 or more indicate severe AUD.7,9
Treatment for Alcoholism
There are various types of alcohol rehab treatment. The most common types include:
- Detox, where you may receive medications to keep you comfortable and ensure your safety as you withdraw from alcohol.1,8, 9,16,17 This is important because alcohol withdrawal is potentially dangerous, especially for those who drink excessively on a daily basis.9,17
- Inpatient or residential, where you will receive group and individual counseling while staying at a facility for the duration of treatment, and where staff provide a high level of monitoring and support.8,9,16,18
- Outpatient, where you receive group and individual counseling while staying at your own home. This allows you to work on your recovery while being exposed to real-world triggers under lower levels of monitoring and support than inpatient facilities. 8,9,16,18
If you think you have a problem with alcohol, reach out to one of our admissions navigators at +1 (888) 341-7785 . They can answer all of your questions and provide you with the information and support that you need as you explore your treatment options. Don’t hesitate; call us today so that you can begin on your road toward recovery.
Find Out If Your Insurance Plan Covers Alcohol Rehab
American Addiction Centers can improve treatment outcomes for those in recovery for alcoholism and AUD. To find out if your insurance covers treatment at an American Addiction Centers facility, click here or fill out the form below. Your information is kept 100% confidential.
- National Health Service. (2018). Alcohol misuse.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol facts and statistics.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017). MedlinePlus: Alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking levels defined.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Fact sheets: Binge drinking.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (Third edition).
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding alcohol use disorder.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance abuse and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Frequently asked questions.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s effects on the body.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004/2005). Screening tests.
- Illinois Department of Human Services. (2005). Screening tools for substance abuse.
- Mayo Clinic. (2018). Alcohol use disorder.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2006). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 45, DHHS Publication No. (SMA) 06-4131. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help.