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ALCOHOL ADDICTION DEFINED

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) occurs when a person feels compelled to drink alcohol regardless of the negative consequences alcohol has on their health and well-being. While an alcohol dependence refers to the physiological process by which a person becomes physically dependent on alcohol, alcohol addiction involves mental and behavioral dependencies as well. Each condition may occur individually or together. When all are present, the person may be diagnosed with alcohol addiction.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) reports that alcohol addiction should be regarded as a mental health condition. Alcohol causes lasting changes to an individual’s brain chemistry. These changes leave a person vulnerable to continued substance abuse or relapse, particularly if the condition goes untreated. The symptoms of alcoholism can range greatly from mild to quite severe. Alcohol addiction will negatively impact a person’s physical, mental, social, and even spiritual health.

Although any person can become addicted to alcohol given certain circumstances, there are risk factors that are associated with this condition. These include:

  • Drinking alcohol before the age of 15
  • Binge drinking
  • Excessive drinking on a routine basis
  • Genetics
  • Growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs
  • Suffering from another mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, personality disorders, or schizophrenia
  • Suffering a traumatic event or series of traumas

Not every person who abuses alcohol will necessarily develop an alcohol addiction; however, continued alcohol abuse can lead to heightened risk. Once a person becomes addicted to alcohol, there is no cure. The condition can only be managed effectively with abstinence.

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SIGNS OF ALCOHOL ABUSE

There are many signs and symptoms associated with alcohol abuse. These signs and symptoms can erode a person’s well-being and health over time. Understanding the signs may help someone realize the seriousness of their condition and the importance of seeking help. Some of the major physical, psychological, and social symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

Physical Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Physical signs of alcohol abuse may include:

  • Spending excessive time drinking or thinking about drinking
  • Spending more time suffering from the effects of excessive drinking (i.e. hangover)
  • Drinking to the point of intoxication and experiencing poor coordination or slurred speech
  • Needing to drink more alcohol in order to achieve similar effects as previously achieved
  • Suffering injuries because of accidents (slips or falls) that occurred while drinking
  • Engaging in risk taking behaviors while under the influence of alcohol (i.e. drinking and driving)
  • Reduction in self care
  • Experiencing changes in weight / diet
  • Smelling like alcohol

Psychological Signs of Alcohol Abuse

As alcohol begins to change the chemistry of the brain, individuals may begin to demonstrate psychological symptoms of alcohol abuse including:

  • Experiencing problems with concentration and memory
  • Development or worsening of anxiety or depression
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Failure to live up to responsibilities or obligations
  • Experiencing delusional thoughts or hallucinations during withdrawal

A person addicted to alcohol may have already had a mental health condition and started drinking as a means of self-medication. Additionally, addiction may cause the mental health disorder to develop. When both conditions are present, the individual is said to have a dual diagnosis. It can be difficult to diagnose mental illness when addiction is present because the addiction does impact mental health.

Social Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Alcoholism does not only affect a person’s mind and body. It can also affect the social aspects of life. The most common signs that alcohol is affecting the social aspects of a person’s life include:

  • Preferring to spend time amongst people who also abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Isolating oneself and spending a decreased amount of time among family or friends
  • Lying about one’s drinking or about other aspects of their life
  • Failing to follow through with responsibilities or plans
  • Experiencing more conflicts with family, friends, or colleagues
  • Declining performance on the job or at school

A person who is addicted to alcohol tends to behave erratically. They may be positive and outgoing one day but withdrawn or angry for some unknown reason the next. People suffering from alcoholism can be unpredictable. This unpredictability is in itself a powerful indicator that the person is suffering from the effects of a substance addiction.

LONG TERM EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL ADDICTION

Alcohol can take a toll on a person’s health after an acute session of use as is the case with alcohol blood poisoning. However, it can also lead to long-term health effects. It’s not uncommon for people who suffer from alcoholism to be diagnosed with certain types of cancers, pancreatitis, or liver problems like hepatitis, fatty liver disease, or cirrhosis. Alcoholism is also associated with an increase in cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, heart rhythm irregularities, and stroke. Alcoholism can also reduce the ability of the immune system to function normally.

Many of these effects can be permanent and pose a serious threat to health. Some health conditions are not reversible. Alcohol causes both physical and mental health to deteriorate over time. The longer a person drinks and abuses alcohol, the higher the risks to contract another health problem such as those mentioned. It’s possible that by stopping the consumption of alcohol, some conditions may improve and respond better to treatment.
Additionally, an individual who has a long-term alcohol abuse problem may experience a disruption of the neurotransmitters in their brain. This could trigger the development of or worsen an existing mental health issue. Alcoholism is associated with an increased risk for mental illnesses such as depression. As a chronic condition, alcoholism can continue to impede mental health unless its use is halted.

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ALCOHOL ADDICTION STATISTICS

The prevalence of alcohol abuse and addiction has risen over the past decades. In 1970, the U.S. government formed the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in order to support research efforts surrounding alcoholism and its treatment. This agency continues to track statistics related to alcohol consumption as well as the rates of death related to alcohol abuse and addiction.

Each year, NIAAA reports on the latest wave of data surrounding alcohol abuse, alcohol deaths, and other statistics related to alcohol such as the age at which individuals report drinking alcohol or the number of times individuals binge drink alcohol during a month. Some of the most recent statistics related to alcohol abuse in the U.S. include:

  • 69.5% of adults report drinking alcohol within the last year
  • 54.9% of adults report drinking alcohol in the last month
  • More than 85% of adults (over the age of 18) report that they consumed alcohol at some point in their lives.
  • 25.8% of adults reported binge drinking in the last month
  • More than 14.5% million people over the age of 12 have an alcohol use disorder
  • Less than 8% of people with an alcohol addiction have gotten treatment
  • More than 10% of minors live with an adult who has a drinking issue
  • In a recent year, nearly 30% of all traffic fatalities were alcohol related
  • Estimates show that one college student dies from an alcohol-related incident every six hours

ALCOHOL WITHDRAWAL EXPLAINED

Alcohol can impact most aspects of an individual’s physical and psychological health. Once alcoholism sets in, the effects can linger. However, if a person commits to treatment and is able to maintain abstinence, the brain and body can begin to heal.

In order for recovery to begin, the individual must be slowly weaned from alcohol in order to break the body’s dependence on it. This is a process known as detox. During this period, a person is likely to experience withdrawal symptoms that range in strength from mild to severe. These symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of depression
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting

In severe cases, a person can also experience hallucinations or seizures. These symptoms can become health emergencies, which is why it’s crucial to undergo detox in an addiction rehab or hospital where withdrawal symptoms can be treated to reduce their intensity.

Generally, these symptoms will begin anywhere from two to eight hours from the last drink that an individual had. They can last anywhere from three days to eight days. Some symptoms such as anxiety may even last for months. While these symptoms can be uncomfortable, they are part of the healing process. With time, they will dissipate.

It’s important to enter treatment to undergo clinically supervised detox in order to ward off any potential health emergency that could develop as a result of severe withdrawal symptoms. A person should never attempt to detox alone. Rehab clinicians can provide treatment to make individuals more comfortable as their bodies are carefully weaned of their alcohol dependency.

TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR ALCOHOL ADDICTION

There are many different treatment options available for people dealing with alcoholism. The key is to obtain a medical evaluation from an addiction specialist. An assessment allows your healthcare provider to recommend the most effective course of treatment. 

A person facing a severe addiction may benefit from inpatient or residential treatment programs. These programs provide 24-hour support and supervision in a safe environment. While in rehab, these clients will have limited contact with the outside world as they immerse themselves in their treatments, growing in stability and beginning their recovery process with the professional support they need.

On the other hand, some people prefer outpatient addiction treatment programs that allow them to reside at home. During the day, they arrive at their treatment center for therapy and then return home afterward. Some people choose to continue to work or attend school while enrolled in outpatient therapy. In some cases, addiction treatment sessions may be offered to clients who require more support.

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