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Alcohol Abuse & Addiction | Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

Alcohol Addiction | Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Article Contents

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can make you feel relaxed by slowing down your brain activity. Every year, more than 95,000 people die from abusing alcohol.

Many people who abuse alcohol develop alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder or alcoholism. If you or a loved one suffers from this disease, recovery is possible. 

What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

As stated above, you’re more likely to develop alcohol addiction if you abuse alcohol. The two main types of alcohol abuse are binge drinking and heavy drinking. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as:

  • drinking four or more drinks within a few hours if you’re a woman
  • drinking five or more drinks within a few hours if you’re a man

The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as:

  • drinking more than 3 drinks in one day if you’re a woman
  • drinking more than 4 drinks in one day if you’re a man

A “drink” is defined as a beverage that contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol.

You face a higher risk of alcohol abuse and addiction if you:

  • experience mental health concerns, such as stress, grief, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia 
  • have a family history of alcohol addiction
  • witnessed alcohol abuse or addiction at an early age
  • live in a culture where regular drinking is considered normal
  • experience pressure from friends, family, or coworkers to drink 

Symptoms Of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction changes your brain chemistry, causing tolerance and dependence. 

Tolerance means that your brain becomes less sensitive to alcohol over time. You’ll then need increasingly larger and more frequent drinks to feel the desired effects. 

Alcohol dependence means your body relies on alcohol to function normally. When you don’t drink, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fever
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • restlessness
  • hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there) 
  • shaking
  • seizures

Other symptoms of alcohol addiction include:

  • experiencing strong cravings for alcohol
  • drinking at work, school, or other inappropriate places
  • drinking even when it damages your relationships
  • drinking even when it worsens existing health problems
  • feeling unable to stop drinking even if you want to
  • losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • neglecting responsibilities at work or school to spend more time drinking
  • avoiding friends and family members to spend more time drinking

Effects Of Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

A person who’s abusing or addicted to alcohol may experience short-term side effects and long-term health problems.

Short-Term Side Effects

Short-term side effects of alcohol abuse may include:

  • slurred speech
  • trouble balancing
  • trouble concentrating
  • poor judgment
  • memory loss, also called “blackouts”
  • irritability
  • aggression
  • diarrhea
  • frequent urination 

In addition, since alcohol weakens your judgment, you might put yourself in dangerous situations, such as driving while drunk or getting in fights. These situations can lead to injuries like falls, burns, and car crashes. 

You may also engage in unproteced sex that results in sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy.

Alcohol Poisoning

Also, if you drink too much alcohol at once, you may experience alcohol poisoning. This condition occurs when alcohol floods your bloodstream and impacts your body temperature, breathing, heart rate, and other important functions. 

Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • slowed or irregular breathing
  • vomiting
  • bluish or pale skin
  • low body temperature
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness

If you or someone you know shows these symptoms, seek emergency health care services immediately. You’re more likely to experience alcohol poisoning if you mix alcohol with other drugs, particularly other depressants like benzodiazepines and barbiturates. 

Long-Term Health Problems

Over time, alcohol abuse and addiction can lead to:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • brain damage
  • high blood pressure
  • stroke
  • heart attack
  • cancer in the mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, or liver
  • increased risk of miscarriages, stillbirths, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)
  • cirrhosis (the final stage of liver disease, which can cause permanent liver scarring and loss of function)
  • pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, which can be fatal)
  • weakened immune system, which increases your risk of various illnesses 

Continued alcohol use can also worsen rosacea, a condition that causes redness and swelling of the skin. One type of rosacea, rhinophyma, affects the nose. It’s sometimes called “alcoholic nose” because people used to think drinking caused rhinophyma. However, recent studies suggest drinking only worsens it. 

How To Stop Drinking

If you’re a binge drinker or heavy drinker but don’t show signs of alcohol addiction, you may benefit from a Moderation Management program

These programs can help people become moderate drinkers. The NIAAA defines moderate drinking as drinking up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. 

Most Moderation Management programs will instruct you to:

  • stop using alcohol for 30 days
  • mindfully observe your cravings for alcohol without giving in to them
  • notice what triggers your cravings for alcohol 
  • develop healthy coping skills to use when you experience cravings
  • try drinking in moderation after the 30 days of abstinence

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

If you do show signs of alcohol addiction, you should seek help at a substance abuse treatment program.

These programs are available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Inpatient programs are best for people with moderate-to-severe addictions. Outpatient programs may work for those with milder addictions and strong support systems at home. 

Whether inpatient or outpatient, alcohol addiction programs offer services such as:

Medical Detoxification

During medical detox, a team of health professionals will help you slowly and safely stop using alcohol. They’ll closely monitor your health and may prescribe medications to treat certain withdrawal symptoms. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

In MAT, doctors prescribe medications to make recovery easier. These medications include:

  • acamprosate (brand name Campral), which can decrease cravings for alcohol
  • disulfiram (Antabuse), which discourages drinking by causing unpleasant effects (such as sweating, nausea, and chest pain) when you consume alcohol
  • naltrexone (Vivitrol), which discourages drinking by blocking the pleasant effects of alcohol

MAT is always combined with other recovery-focused services, including therapy. 

Therapy

Therapy is one of the most important parts of addiction treatment. The most common types of therapy for alcohol addiction include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help you identify and treat underlying reasons for your alcohol use (such as stress or depression) and develop healthier behaviors 
  • motivational enhancement therapy, which can help you improve your motivation to stop drinking 
  • family therapy, which can help you and your loved ones maintain your recovery and strengthen your relationships

Support Groups

People who struggle with alcohol addiction often feel ashamed and alone. Support groups can decrease these feelings by connecting you with others facing similar challenges. 

One popular support group, Alcoholics Anonymous, encourages members to follow a 12-step plan to maintain recovery. 

The steps include admitting you have an alcohol problem, making amends with people who’ve been hurt by your alcohol problem, and putting your faith in a higher power (whether that’s a traditional God or gods or a meaningful concept such as love, science, nature, or the universe). 

Wellness Activities

Most treatment programs include healthy activities like exercise, meditation, yoga, and journaling. These activities can help you manage stress and strengthen your health as you recover from addiction. 

Aftercare Planning

Before you leave the program, your treatment team will help you design a personalized aftercare plan to reduce the risk of relapse. Many plans feature ongoing therapy, support groups, wellness activities, and, if necessary, assistance with housing, employment, and legal matters.

To learn more about alcohol addiction treatment options, please reach out to a Recovering Champions treatment specialist today. 

Written by Recovering Champions Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Alcohol and Public Health
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Drinking Levels Defined
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Alcohol Addiction
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Genetics and alcoholism

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