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Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Risks & Treatment Resources

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“OMG, I was so wasted last night” is probably the most popular morning-after catchphrase of every great party you’ve been to in recent times! We live in a culture that celebrates alcohol and drunkenness, and with good reason.

Alcohol, in small amounts, makes us feel light-hearted, euphoric and lively. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”.

Whether it is a date, wedding, promotion or a weekend, we love having a reason to drink, get a buzz or even lose our senses a little bit. Happy hours, brunch cocktails and drinking games make our eyes light up in delight and it is socially acceptable to post pictures of our drunken shenanigans on Facebook and Instagram. We cheer on our binge-drinking friends and even join them enthusiastically on occasion. But where should we draw the line? How much is too much?

How much alcohol is too much alcohol?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation means having a maximum of 1 drink per day if you’re a woman and 2 drinks per day if you’re a man. The definition refers to the intake quantity for any particular day and is not meant to be an average for several days. Any alcohol consumption over this recommended limit on a regular basis is characterized as alcohol abuse.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that more than 7% of American adults have alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder is a blanket term that describes drinking patterns that involve difficulty controlling your drinking, excessive focus on alcohol, troublesome alcohol-induced behaviors and withdrawal symptoms when trying to abstain. Although not every person who drinks develops an alcohol use disorder, a.k.a addiction, alcohol is a physically and psychologically addictive substance that can affect your body in several ways right from the moment you take your first sip. If you suspect you have a drinking problem, speak to a health care provider or get a friend or family member to help you.

What are the effects of alcohol on the brain and body?

The side-effects of alcohol depend on how much and how often you drink. Moderate drinking, social drinking or the occasional glass of wine is unlikely to cause any serious health consequences unless you already suffer from a health condition that warrants alcohol abstinence. Common short-term side effects of alcohol include the following and usually disappear within a day or two:

  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting
  • Impaired judgment
  • Blackouts

On the other hand, regular excessive drinking that goes beyond the recommended weekly guideline for alcohol intake can wreak havoc in your system and result in severe alcohol addiction and other associated health risks. Read on to know more about alcohol addiction, its signs, risks, as well as how you can rid yourself of your drinking problem.

Who is an alcoholic?

An alcoholic is a person who suffers from chronic, compulsive and uncontrollable alcohol dependence that is detrimental to both physical and emotional health. Health care providers who evaluate people with severe drinking problems, use the term alcohol use disorder instead of alcoholism or alcohol addiction to describe their diagnosis.

Alcohol use disorder is considered a brain disease characterized by an intense physical need to drink, inability to control drinking habits, excessive focus on alcohol, regular absence from work, recurrent episodes of driving under the influence, lack of accountability and frequent legal troubles. Recovery from alcohol use disorder is difficult and people who experience symptoms of severe alcohol dependence need help to overcome the disease.

Unfortunately, public perception of this problem is still largely negative. We often hear critical and disapproving remarks like, “Why is he ruining his life? Doesn’t he have any willpower? Is he a weak person? Why is he so irresponsible?”. Society tends to label people with addiction disorders in a harsh and judgmental manner without realizing how difficult they are to overcome.  

What they need to understand is that addiction is not a moral failure but a medically-recognized illness that is hard to recover from just like cancer and diabetes. People cannot recover from an illness by simply resolving to recover from it. The stigmatization of people with alcohol use problems can have serious consequences on their psyche and prevent them from seeking much-needed help. If you know someone who is an alcoholic, try to be compassionate and put yourself in their shoes. Refraining from using hurtful words like “alky”, “lush” and “drunk” can have a meaningful impact.

What are the different types of alcoholics?

There are so many misconceptions about alcohol dependence. “Typical alcoholic” is one of them. No one is a typical alcoholic and it is wrong to dismiss everyone with an alcohol abuse condition into one group. Although people with drinking problems display some common traits, their root cause, behaviors and risk factors vary a lot. Perpetuating the myth that all alcoholics fall into the category of homeless and waiting in front of liquor stores to open often, gives other alcoholics the impression that their problem is not that serious.

A person can have alcohol use disorder even if he is educated, successful, has a stable family life and no family history of alcohol abuse. One’s station in life does not determine whether he or she is an alcoholic.  People who suffer from full-blown alcohol use disorder require professional treatment and a strong support system while in a process of recovery. According to the findings published by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, only about 10% of the people with Alcohol Use Disorder receive professional treatment. Medical treatment is often customized based on the severity of the patient’s condition and the degree of alcoholism. Here are the five most common types of alcoholics:

Young Adult Alcoholic

This category accounts for around 32% of alcoholics in the United States. People who fall into this category of alcohol use disorder are mostly men of the age group of around 19 to 25 who don’t think they require professional assistance. Although people in this group tend to drink less than others, they tend to binge-drink a lot, especially in social situations, and display a high likelihood of using alcohol in dangerous situations. They also have a relatively low probability of seeking treatment.  

Young Antisocial Alcoholic

This category makes up around 21% of alcoholics in the United States. People in this category may have a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder along with a family history of alcoholism and a history of antisocial behaviors such as deceitfulness, aggressiveness and a disregard for safety. The average age of people in this group is approximately 26. Three-quarters of these individuals smoke tobacco products and many of them meet the criteria for cannabis abuse, cocaine abuse, and opioid abuse.

Intermediate Familial Alcoholic

People in this group are predominantly male with a family history of alcohol dependence. They generally begin to drink in their teen years and often meet the criteria for a coexisting substance abuse disorder. Many of these individuals also have other mental health problems like bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and chronic depression.

Chronic Severe Alcoholic

This group exhibits symptoms of severe alcohol abuse with a very early age of onset of drinking habits. The average age of onset is 16 years. People in this group have the highest probability of emergency room admissions due to excessive use or overdose of alcohol. There is also a high prevalence of co- occurring mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression as well as other substance abuse disorders. Chronic alcoholics tend to be a danger to themselves and to others.

Functional alcoholic

Individuals who fall under this category behave in a manner that is in direct contrast to the “stereotypical” alcoholic. They are usually high-functioning adults who are educated, successful and have stable family lives. Individuals in this category often live in denial about their drinking problems and can convince people around them that their drinking habits are normal and pose no immediate threat to their health and well-being. Functional alcoholics often have co-existing mental health problems like depression and anxiety disorder and are unlikely to seek treatment.

What are the early signs of alcohol addiction?

Alcohol use disorder covers a host of unhealthy drinking behaviors ranging from frequent binge-drinking to alcohol-induced violence, disorderly conduct and suicidal tendencies. It can take a heavy toll on your physical and mental health, personal life, work, finances and interpersonal relationships. Since it builds over time, the early signs of alcohol addiction may go unnoticed. Here are some early warning signs that suggest you may have a drinking problem:

  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol at social gatherings and events
  • Drinking during the day on a regular basis
  • Frequent memory lapses or blackouts after drinking
  • Drinking daily to destress
  • Reduced ability to function in everyday life
  • Neglecting every other aspect of life other than alcohol
  • Poor appetite
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • High alcohol tolerance

What are the symptoms of advanced or end stage alcohol addiction?

Have you watched the popular 1962 drama Days of Wine and Roses? When Jo and Kristen’s “two-martini lunches” and social drinking transform into dangerous levels of alcoholism, Jo loses his job, their lives deteriorate, and their marriage spirals out of control. Jo is admitted to a hospital where he experiences frightening levels of delirium without alcohol. Kristen disappears for several days at a time with no contact with her friends or family. The movie is a vivid depiction of the dangers of alcohol addiction and co-dependence.

In advanced stages, an alcoholic completely loses control of his alcohol use and instead becomes dominated by it. An end stage alcoholic will experience intense alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop drinking suddenly. Symptoms experienced in advanced stages of alcoholism include the following and can often be life-threatening without medical intervention:

  • Shakiness
  • High Blood Pressure
  • High fever
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Seizures

Without active and determined recovery, alcoholism is rarely overcome. The primary reason that people don’t commit to recovery is due to the fear of severe withdrawal symptoms in which the abstainer is engaged in a tug of war with the innate desire to drink and the desire to lead a normal life.

What are the health effects of alcohol addiction?

People with advanced alcohol addiction experience a deep physical and psychological need to drink even though they are aware of its detrimental health consequences.  Like other forms of substance abuse, alcohol addiction can cause mild and treatable to catastrophic and irreversible physical and mental health problems. Common health effects of alcohol addiction include the following:

  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Vision problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of cancer and diabetes
  • Increased risk of complications from diabetes
  • Decreased immunity
  • Sexual dysfunctions
  • Digestive disorders like gastritis, ulcers and GERD
  • Pancreatitis
  • Permanent nerve and brain damage

What are the causes of alcohol addiction?

Although the exact causes of alcohol addiction are unknown, research has shown that the following factors can put you at a greater risk of developing a dependency:

  • If you are a male who has more than 15 drinks per week
  • If you are a female who has more than 12 drinks per week
  • If you have more than 5 drinks per day at least once a week
  • If you have a parent who is an alcoholic
  • If you have low self-esteem or high levels of stress
  • If you live in a culture where excessive drinking is common
  • If you have friends who binge-drink on a regular basis

What treatment options are available for alcohol addiction?

If your body craves alcohol to be normal, then you definitely have a problem. Don’t wait to hit rock bottom, by allowing your alcoholism to get out of control. The first step to finding a solution is accepting that you have a problem. Once you realize that you are showing signs of alcohol dependence and are unable to control your urge to drink, you should consult a healthcare provider or therapist immediately. There are many treatment facilities and rehab programs in the United States that can help you overcome your problems. Treatments for alcohol dependence focus on helping the alcoholic stop drinking altogether and are usually customized to the individual’s needs. Treatment options usually include some or all of the following:

Detoxification treatments

Once a doctor evaluates you and gives a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, alcohol detox is the first stage of treatment in your path to recovery. Surviving detox takes more than just willpower. Alcohol is a depressant and your body becomes physically dependent on it over a period of time. It can slow down your brain function and change the way nerves transmit messages. Detoxification treatments help you safely ween off alcohol without catastrophic health consequences. During this stage, you must abstain from alcohol entirely to flush it out of your system.

It is common to experience distressing withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, heavy sweating, high blood pressure, palpitations, confusion, delirium, head ache and nausea when you quit drinking suddenly. Since withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable at best or extremely painful and aggressive at worst, it is important to undergo a medically-supervised detox program. These symptoms usually peak within the first 24 to 48 hours after your last drink and last for a week or two but could be longer depending on the severity of your condition. During this period, you will start noticing visible differences in your physical craving for alcohol.

Rehabilitation treatments

Even after you get your life back on track, it is possible to relapse and start drinking again. You may go out with your friends for a “harmless” glass of wine or beer which can lead to a minor setback or a complete return to old ways. This is why rehabilitation is critical. Rehab treatments afford you the opportunity to learn coping skills and adjust to a new way of life without alcohol.

Counseling and Therapy

People in rehab undergo regular counseling and therapy sessions to help address the root cause of addiction and overcome their emotional issues. Certified professionals have the training necessary to extract pertinent information from the patient, therefore increasing the chances of recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Other Support Groups

Rehab also involves strengthening your support system with groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs that reinforce your resolve to stay sober. These groups hold regular meetings where members can voice difficulties and gather reassurances from the rest of the group. There is a certain bond that forms when fellow alcoholics share their stories and draw on each other’s experiences. This camaraderie along with family support goes a long way in keeping the alcoholic sober.

Family Reunification

Family reunification is another a crucial step in the rehabilitation process and your journey towards complete recovery. If you have broken away or been forcefully separated from your family owing to your drinking problems, the transition may be difficult as relationships might have been strained. Counselors generally arrange groups involving family members and the afflicted to discuss healthy ways to repair the relationship.

Society Reintegration

For alcoholics who have lost touch with what it takes to be part of a functional society, integration classes may prove useful. They often range from concepts as simple as what to say during an interview and what to wear to intensive anger management courses.

Alcohol abuse, if not identified and treated early, can cause severe alcoholism resulting in years of heartache and potentially dangerous health problems. Although society often glorifies alcohol use and associates it with having a good time, it is important to recognize if your drinking behavior has become excessive. Once a problem is accepted, it is easier to seek treatment and get your life back on track. For treatment options to be successful, it is imperative that you genuinely want to get sober.