Leah is a mental health counselor and specializes in substance use disorders and dual diagnosis.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Many people use alcohol socially or to help them relax and unwind. For some people, drinking crosses a line and develops into alcohol use disorder, commonly known as alcoholism or addiction. According to a survey taken in 2017, over 14 million Americans aged 18 or over (5.7% of the population) were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. This page will provide some basic information about alcohol use disorder and how it is treated.
Symptoms Of Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder involves more than just drinking a little too much. It creates a pattern of issues that interfere with a person’s functioning over time, and includes at least two of the following symptoms over a one-year period:
- Alcohol getting in the way of your responsibilities at home, work, or school
- Drinking even after it has caused or worsened issues in relationships with others
- Drinking even after it has caused or worsened a physical or mental health condition
- Drinking for a longer period of time than you meant to
- Drinking more than you meant to
- Experiencing strong cravings to drink
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you cut back or stop drinking
- Frequently drinking in situations where it is dangerous, such as just before driving
- Needing more alcohol to get the desired effect (tolerance)
- Quitting or cutting back on social events or hobbies due to drinking
- Spending a lot of time getting, drinking, or recovering from the effects of alcohol
- Trying to cut down or stop but not being able to
If you experience 2-3 of these symptoms, alcohol use disorder can be classified as mild. If you meet 4-5 of these symptoms, alcohol use disorder can be diagnosed as moderate. If you meet 6 or more symptoms, your alcohol use disorder would be diagnosed as severe.
What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder?
There is no specific factor that causes alcohol use disorder. It results as a complex interaction between factors, and it is a field that continues to be studied. So far, researchers have identified that the following factors influence the development of alcohol use disorder:
- Genetic – how you react to alcohol can play a role in whether you are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. If you experience unpleasant effects when drinking alcohol, such as flushed skin, nausea, headaches, and a racing heartbeat, you may be less likely to want to drink. If you have a parent with an addiction, you are 2-6 times more likely to develop an addiction than people in the rest of the population.
- Environmental – having easy access to alcohol can influence whether or not you may develop a problem. Being around others who drink alcohol and starting to drink early in life can also play a role in developing an alcohol use disorder.
- Lifestyle – people with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), having low self-esteem, being impulsive, and being under a lot of stress can all increase your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
What Are The Risks Of Alcohol Consumption?
Alcohol can have a toxic effect on many of the organs and systems in the body. These can include:
- The brain – alcohol affects how the brain functions, appears, and communicates. It can make it difficult to think properly and negatively impacts your coordination. Over time, vitamin deficiencies due to alcohol use disorder can lead to irreversible brain damage.
- The heart – over time, drinking can cause damage to the heart, but this can also happen even in one episode of binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks for women, or 5 or more drinks for men in a period of 2 hours). It can cause cardiomyopathy (when your heart muscle stretches and droops), irregular heart beats (arrhythmias), and increase your risk of stroke or high blood pressure.
- The liver – since alcohol is processed through the liver, it has a strong effect on this organ. Over time, alcohol use can lead to development of liver problems like fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), fibrosis (scarring of the liver), and cirrhosis.
- The pancreas – when you drink alcohol, your pancreas produces substances that are toxic. This can lead to pancreatitis, which involves inflammation and swelling of blood vessels. This condition interferes with digestion, can be dangerous, and is very painful.
- Cancer – alcohol is a known carcinogen that can increase your risk for various types of cancer, including mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal cancer.
- The immune system – alcohol lowers your ability to fight off infection, making it easier for people who drink alcohol frequently to get sick. Binge drinking can lower your ability to fight infection for up to 24 hours after an episode.
- The nerves – alcohol use can cause nerve damage, known as neuropathy. Neuropathy can make the affected area feel weak, numb, tingly, sensitive to touch, or as if the area is burning. It can be a very painful condition, and often affects the hands or feet.
- Birth defects – drinking alcohol during pregnancy is especially dangerous. Babies who are born to women that drank during pregnancy are more likely to have birth defects and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which can create lasting issues for the baby.
- Withdrawal – while withdrawal from many substances can be uncomfortable, withdrawal from alcohol can be dangerous and even life threatening without medical supervision. Since alcohol withdrawal can involve hallucinations and seizures, it should not be attempted without proper medical oversight and care.
Alcohol use disorder is treatable. There are facilities available to provide care for every step of the way. These include:
- Detox – this is a facility where medical staff provides medication and supervision to make sure that you are safe as your body clears itself of alcohol and any other substances you may have been taking. Counseling staff will be available to provide education about alcohol use disorder, and you will be there for about a week. Staff will work with you to prepare a plan, and figure out your next step in the treatment process. Detox is just the first step on your journey, and isn’t considered treatment.
- Inpatient – this is a facility where you will stay for between 1-3 months, with medical and counseling staff to oversee your care. You will receive counseling in group and individual sessions, and work on understanding your triggers, and learning about effective coping skills and relapse prevention. While you are in treatment, your family and loved ones may be invited (with your permission only) to participate in family sessions, where they learn how to resolve conflicts and support you in your recovery. If needed, a psychiatrist can provide medication to help you manage cravings and any underlying psychiatric conditions. Self-help meetings are encouraged. When it is close to your discharge date, staff will work with you to develop a discharge plan.
- Outpatient – this is less intensive care, where you will still receive group and individual counseling sessions, but you’ll live at home. This allows you to work, attend school, and manage duties at home while still getting treatment, and works best if you have a stable living environment and a strong support group. You can still have family sessions and psychiatric care as needed, if you’d like. Staff will work with you to develop a discharge plan once you are close to completing your program. Self-help meeting attendance is encouraged as well, to promote ongoing sobriety.
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For More Information
If you think you may have a problem with alcohol, here are some sites that you can visit. They can give you some assistance in getting sober if you want. If you prefer a more personal approach, you can always talk to your doctor. They can also steer you in the right direction.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to help link you to a treatment provider.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has an Alcohol Treatment Navigator to help direct you to alcohol disorder use treatment.
Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the oldest and best-known self-help groups in the world.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Alcohol facts and statistics.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). Alcohol use disorder.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking levels defined.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol's effects on the body.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Alcohol use disorder (AUD) treatment.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Leah