Alcohol addiction. Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder. It goes by several names, but problematic consumption of alcohol affects people of all ages and walks of life. In the US, more than 5% of people age 12 and older have been identified with alcohol use disorder, including nearly 2% of adolescents age 12 to 17.
One in ten children live with a parent who is a problem drinker, and overuse of alcohol is blamed for one in ten deaths each year. The fallout from alcohol addiction can be devastating for both problem drinkers and those close to them.
“Approximately 17 million adults ages 18 and older have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and 1 in 10 children live in a home with a parent who has a drinking problem.”National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
“Alcohol use disorder” (AUD) is the term widely used to describe alcohol addiction. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, AUD “is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” Whether mild, moderate or severe, AUD is considered a brain disorder; addiction to alcohol causes changes in the brain that actually prolong AUD and put addicts at risk for relapse.
The defining characteristic of AUD is drinking that causes harm or distress. Signs and symptoms include:
- drinking more and more often, with an increasing tolerance for alcohol
- an inability to cut down or to stop drinking; withdrawal may cause sleep disturbance, irritability, nausea, sweating or “the shakes”
- craving alcohol and seeking out opportunities to consume it
- continuing to drink in spite of feeling depressed, anxious or unwell
- memory blackouts—forgetting what happened when drunk, even if conscious and functioning at the time
Other signs of AUD reflect the high social price of alcohol abuse:
- changes in relationships; seeking out others who drink or avoiding those who don’t
- continued drinking even when it causes trouble with family and friends
- cutting back on other activities in order to drink
- alcohol use that interferes with family, job or school responsibilities, or that causes legal or professional problems
- while drinking, engaging in risky situations such as driving, using machinery or having unsafe sex, in spite of the possibility of getting hurt
Moderate drinkers are able to limit their drinking to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. More than that can constitute heavy or binge drinking. Binge drinkers may or may not have AUD, but binge drinking causes nearly half of all alcohol-related mortalities.
The causes of alcohol abuse is not fully understood, but a family history of AUD creates a greater risk of developing it yourself. The risk for children of parents who are problem drinkers increases fourfold. Overall rates of AUD are higher for men than women.
Effects of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. Effects of AUD can include:
- Heart disease and high blood pressure
- Liver disease, such as cirrhosis
- Increased risk of cancer of the liver, mouth, throat and esophagus
- Diabetes complications
- Vision problems, bone damage, memory loss and sexual dysfunction
- Birth defects in babies of mothers who drink during pregnancy, as well as developmental delays in childhood
In addition to physiological effects, AUD has social and mental health costs. Drunk driving causes 29 deaths every day in the US. Heavy or binge drinking is associated with injuries and violence such as child abuse, suicide and homicide. Addicts may experience personality changes, often becoming “difficult,” and have trouble keeping jobs or relationships. Or they may suffer confusion, seizures and panic attacks.
Treating Alcohol Use Disorder
The alcoholic may be the last to realize they have a problem. Even if they’re drinking in the morning, using alcohol to function or hiding their alcohol use, they may not think they need help. This may be frustrating for family and friends, who can offer support and encouragement but should avoid enabling the addiction with money, excuses or tolerating destructive behavior. Loved ones can seek support for themselves and learn coping skills through counseling and support groups like Al-Anon.
The decision to overcome addiction belongs to the addict alone. Treatment often starts by consulting a mental healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment options.
Medication can help manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce drinking and prevent relapse. Some drugs produce an adverse reaction if alcohol is used—nausea, vomiting, skin flushing and/or headaches that make drinking unpleasant enough to avoid it. Other medications block the good feelings that alcohol causes, reducing the urge to drink. Medications also help manage detoxification and the symptoms of withdrawal, which are uncomfortable at best. At worst, they include hallucinations, seizures and delirium.
Therapy and behavioral treatment are designed to change the behaviors that lead to problem drinking, to become aware of triggers that could cause relapse and to build social support. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help the addict manage stress and feelings that lead to alcohol abuse, cope with underlying disorders like depression or anxiety, and address problems that drinking has caused in personal and professional relationships. Counseling sometimes include family members.
Support groups help addicts maintain sobriety (stay “in recovery”) over the long term and feel less alone in the journey. Staying sober from day to day is a challenge. Joining a support group creates accountability, provides support, builds relationships and helps with relapses.
Treatments can be in a number of settings, alone or in combination. Outpatient settings allow the addict to live at home and attend regular counseling and support group meetings. Inpatient settings may be needed for safe detoxification and medical management of withdrawal. Inpatient treatment is more intensive; besides medication and nutrition management, it may include daily counseling and support groups.
With the right help, people with AUD can achieve and maintain sobriety, no matter how long they have been drinking or how severe the problem. Research indicates that a third of people treated for AUD have no symptoms a year later; others manage to at least reduce their drinking.
It’s best to treat AUD as early as possible, before relationships and physical health are damaged. If you are wondering whether your drinking has become problematic—or if you’re concerned about a loved one’s drinking—don’t hesitate to contact Best Day. Our counselors will help you assess the situation and options to address it so everyone can move toward a healthier, happier life.
Al-Anon – Support group for families and friends of alcoholics
Rethinking Drinking – Online assessment of drinking patterns
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help:
Charlotte: (980) 867-4440• Durham: (919) 659-8686 • Fayetteville: (910) 323-1543
Fuquay-Varina: (919) 567-0684 • Greenville: (252) 375-3322 • Raleigh: (919) 670-3939
Wilmington: (910) 500-7072 • Winston-Salem: (336) 934-5556