With over half of Americans over the age of 18 partaking in the consumption of alcohol, it is no wonder that alcohol remains the third leading cause in preventable deaths, with tobacco being first and lack of healthy diet and exercise being second. From a round of beers with your friends to heavy binge drinking on weekends, alcohol is a dangerous substance anywhere. Because alcohol use is so much more common in society than other substances like heroin or meth, there is little to no stigma around alcohol consumption.
This, in turn, makes it difficult to differentiate between use and abuse.
Treating alcoholism can be a difficult journey to undertake. However, just because recovery and seeking treatment can be hard at times does not mean it has to be. Understanding how to treat alcohol addiction and abuse starts with understanding the causes behind it. Why do people become addicted? What are the withdrawal symptoms? How can I treat my addiction?
In this guide to alcohol addiction and treatment, you will learn all you need to know regarding alcohol and alcohol addiction. Seeking treatment can prove to be more and more difficult over time, so pay close attention to the potential side effects and symptoms of alcoholism mentioned in this guide.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is defined as “an addiction to the consumption of alcoholic liquor or the mental illness and compulsive behavior resulting from alcohol dependency.” The fact that alcohol is so popular amongst adults is one of the main reasons it is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, even more than cigarettes. Nearly 18 million people, or one in twelve adults, suffer from alcohol dependence or abuse.
While it is popularly known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, the medical term is named alcohol use disorder. As defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disease distinguished by compulsive alcohol use, a negative mental and emotional state when not using, and a lack of control over alcohol intake.
Causes of Addiction
Determining what factors are taken into account when it comes to determining the cause of addiction may be difficult, but can be classified into a few different categories including environmental and psychological. While there are other categories that are important, these two kinds of factors are generally more influential than others. For example, the risk of someone potentially becoming an alcoholic rises by 200-300% if their caretaker is an alcoholic; this is evidence of environment playing a much more crucial role than biology or genetics.
Though the reason behind addiction may vary from person to person, studies have shown that the roots of addiction can commonly be traced back to childhood. Being exposed to alcohol at an early age greatly raises the rate of addiction.
For example, children who drink before the age of 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who wait until the legal age of 21. This is especially dangerous when taking into account that more than 40% of tenth graders drink alcohol. It is also very important to note that, according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, almost one in five people grow up with an alcoholic parent.
The dangers of alcohol addiction do not simply fade after you become an adult. As a matter of fact, college is one of the major starting points for substance abuse. New students generally do not know how to responsibly handle their newfound freedom. And while many people associate alcoholism with an older demographic, the “young adult” population is actually the largest subtype of people suffering from alcohol addiction.
Another environmental factor that can contribute to alcohol and/or drug abuse may include media glorifying the use of alcohol and drugs. Movies and shows will commonly mislead the audience by showing consumption of alcohol or other substances to have little-to-no side effects, which is clearly incorrect.
While not numerous, the psychological factors that do affect alcoholism and alcohol addiction development are very influential in determining if alcohol addiction can develop. The most common psychological cause of addiction is someone’s thoughts and beliefs, primarily denial. For example, if someone starts to drink and it turns into alcohol abuse, he or she may notice, but does not think that recovery is needed or if recovery will even help. The psychological factor of the abuser thinking that recovery will not be possible pushes them to continue abusing instead of seeking the treatment they need.
The other common psychological factor that plays a large role in determining if someone will become addicted to alcohol is their mental development and maturity. This factor is fairly self-explanatory: if someone continuously acts without thinking, such as participating in binge drinking, they will fall into addiction more easily. However, if that same person were to think before drinking, they would pace themselves much more carefully and thus has a higher chance to prevent addiction.
In mental maturity, age is arguably one of the most important factors when deciding if someone will drink. Many teenagers will feel pressured by those around them to drink, and if a teen hangs around constant alcohol abusers, studies show that he has a much higher chance to become an addict. People are generally affected and influenced by those around them, and at a young age, the mind is very malleable and susceptible to peer pressure.
What are the Signs of Alcohol Addiction?
As a user shifts from alcohol use to dependency and abuse and then on to full-blown addiction, he or she loses control of behaviors and may say or do unexpected things that would be considered strange if they had been sober. A small list of questions called the CAGE Questionnaire can be used to diagnose alcohol addiction symptoms:
- Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
- Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
- Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (an Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
Answering “yes” to at least two is an indication that you may be suffering from alcohol addiction. Apart from the CAGE Questionnaire, there are many other signs of alcohol addiction, some being harder to detect than others.
Other features of someone who is highly susceptible to alcohol addiction include the following:
Features That Contribute to Alcohol Addiction
- A tolerance to alcohol, resulting in the need to drink more to achieve the effects
- Withdrawal symptoms even when not drinking
- Day drinking habits
- Willingness to drive under the influence
- Needing to drink throughout the day
- Prioritizing alcohol over hobbies, work, friends, or family
As someone with a potential for addiction develops an alcohol use disorder, the signs of their fully-fledged addiction are much more prominent and hard to ignore such as:
- Constant domestic arguments
- DUI charges/accidents
- Job loss
- Concerns for child welfare
Early detection of alcohol addiction is crucial and can save someone’s life. It is very important to stop alcohol abuse before it turns into full-blown addiction, so knowledge of the signs before it happens is valuable.
After using the CAGE Questionnaire and noticing certain signs, now you may be certain that you or someone you know suffers from addiction. Seek treatment immediately. Although many people notice this, only 10% of people who know they need treatment actually take action. So what happens to the other 90%?
Ignoring professional treatment can go one of two ways. The first option is to continue abusing and fueling your addiction, clearly not a suitable option. The second option is going cold turkey and, while it may sound good on paper, it is almost as dangerous as simply ignoring your addiction.
The term “cold turkey” refers to a commonplace, home detox method involved instant cessation of a substance. Try to avoid this at all costs. The cold turkey method often leads to severe withdrawals and side effects, and should almost never be used to treat addictions. Supervised medical detox is much safer and it allows a comfortable cessation period under 24-hour medical support.
Alcohol is classed as a depressant, slowing down brain function and the speed at which information travels from the brain to the body. Constant drinking forces your body to work overtime to counter the sedative effects of alcohol, working harder to stay awake and keep your nerves communicating. The human body needs time to adjust from working overtime, and quitting cold turkey gives your body no time to readjust, resulting in withdrawal and withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild/moderate to extremely severe. Depending on the severity and duration of alcohol abuse, withdrawal symptoms can include the following:
- Shaky hands
These are the more common symptoms and cause mild discomfort. However, there are more rare and severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as hallucinations and seizures.
Delirium tremens, known more frequently as DTs, are relatively uncommon and only happen in roughly 5% of people diagnosed with alcohol withdrawal. These are similar to the other withdrawal symptoms, but much more severe symptoms like intense hallucinations and delusions may occur. Other side effects of DTs are:
- Fast heart rate
- High blood pressure
- High body temperature
- Excessive sweating
What is Involved in Alcohol Addiction Treatment?
There are a variety of factors that go into whether or not addiction treatment is a success. If a medically-supervised detox is necessary, then it must be done at an inpatient center. If alcohol withdrawal symptoms are not tended to by an expert doctor or nurse, the results can be severe and even fatal. As a matter of fact, 10% of people suffering from alcohol addiction will experience a life-threatening withdrawal, so medical detox is almost always the first step.
Most treatment starts with a doctor’s evaluation, which will typically involve an assortment of the following:
- Individual therapy
- Group therapy
- Family therapy
- Nutrition guidance
- Exercise therapy
- Relapse prevention plans
- Support group work
The duration of treatment a person needs will vary depending on several factors such as the severity of the addiction and the time spent abusing the drug. It is extremely important to keep in mind that alcohol addiction cannot be cured by treatment centers alone. Similar to other drugs detrimental to your health, alcoholism requires well organized, supportive, and lifelong management. Because relapse rates tend to be relatively high (between 40-60%), it is important to remember that relapse does not mean immediate failure. Instead, you should think of relapse as a chance to refine further treatment and management plans in order to prevent future relapse.
How Dangerous is Alcohol?
Despite the socially glorified view of alcohol in the media, the dangers of alcoholism are very real and are often fatal. Alcohol addiction is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., contributing to roughly 88,000 deaths per year. More than half of these deaths are a direct result of binge drinking. Binge drinking is the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time, which is very common when it comes to alcohol abuse and the beginning stages of addiction.
Chronic and excessive alcohol abuse can negatively affect your body in a number of ways, including:
Effects of Excessive Alcohol Abuse
- Disruptions in the way that the brain communicates information throughout the body, affecting mood and behavior as well as impairing clear thinking and coordination.
- Severe heart problems such as arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and stroke.
- Major liver damage such as cirrhosis, fibrosis, and alcoholic hepatitis.
- A weakened immune system that is more likely to contract infections as well as diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
- An increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, breast, and esophageal cancers.
- Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders, and alcohol-related birth defects, which can occur when a woman drinks while pregnant.
All of these symptoms are very serious, and thus alcohol addiction is no laughing matter. Chronic alcohol use and abuse easily leads to addiction and many of the listed negative effects of alcohol can prove fatal.
This is only a small portion of the negative effects and results of drinking. We haven’t even touched on the various ways that your clear thinking impairment can cause disasters to yourself as well as others. Driving under the influence, being easily irritated or made aggressive, and even causing harm to loved ones are just some of the ways that alcohol can make you do things you could not even think to do while sober.
Alcohol Abuse Statistics
- 40% of hospital beds in the country are currently occupied by those with health conditions relating to excessive alcohol consumption.
- 1 in 7 teens binge drink, yet only 1 in 100 parents believe their teen binge drinks.
- Over 7 million children currently live in a household where at least one parent is abusing alcohol.
Helping a Friend or Loved One
There are a number of things that you can do to help if someone you care about is recovering from alcohol addiction. Of course, professional care will almost always be the best course of action, but you may wonder what you can do to help a friend or family member.
While under the effects of alcohol addiction, your friend or loved one may find it difficult or even impossible to start (or continue) their addiction treatment. As someone who cares about them, it can be up to you to ensure that recovery is as easy and successful as possible. We have a few tips that can greatly aid in helping someone that is in recovery.
If the person you are seeking to help is enrolled in an inpatient or residential treatment program, calling them on the phone every now and then works wonders. The greatest tool you have, as an influence in their life, is constant positive feedback. A simple “Hey, just calling to let you know that we are all proud of you” can easily be the difference between relapse and recovery.
If the person you are seeking to help is part of an outpatient program, you should always make sure you are providing them a stable, positive environment to live in. By encouraging positive behaviors such as exercising and healthy eating, an addicted loved one will feel a lot more comfortable and happy with themselves.
A method that has been found to be exceptional at providing encouragement is the use of more personal pronouns such as “I”, “we”, or “us”. This gives people a sense of connection and trust and makes it seem more of a team effort than a lonely battle with addiction. You should also avoid playing the “blame game” and pointing fingers, as both you and the person you are trying to help will easily get frustrated and may cause unnecessary conflict.