Navigating the landscape of drinking habits can be complex. It’s challenging to discern when one’s alcohol consumption transitions from being casual to indicative of alcohol use disorder, commonly known as alcoholism. This section aims to shed light on that very question. Furthermore, understanding the nuances, symptoms, health risks, and the available addiction treatment options is paramount.

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    Alcoholism Quiz

    Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder and Alcoholism

    Alcohol use disorder encompasses conditions like alcoholism and alcohol addiction. This disorder is defined by: 1

    • A notable lack of control over alcohol consumption.
    • An obsessive preoccupation with drinking.
    • Continuation of alcohol use despite facing negative consequences.
    • The need to consume more alcohol to achieve the same initial effects, suggesting a growing tolerance.
    • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when reducing or halting alcohol intake abruptly.
    • Binge drinking, a form of unhealthy alcohol use, is characterized by a male consuming five or more drinks or a female consuming at least four drinks within two hours. This drinking pattern poses significant health and safety risks.

    Alcohol use disorder’s severity can range, but even a mild form can severely impede daily life, causing distress and functional issues. If there’s suspicion of oneself or a loved one grappling with alcoholism, seeking treatment immediately becomes crucial.

    Alcohol Consumption Statistics

    Prevalence of binge drinking & heavy alcohol use

    • In 2019, 25.8% of all individuals, 29.7% of men, and 22.2% of women age 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past month 2
    • In 2019, 6.3% of all individuals, 8.3% of men, and 4.5% of women age 18 and older reported engaging in heavy alcohol use in the past month 2

    High-intensity drinking

    High-intensity drinking is characterized by alcohol consumption at levels two or more times the gender-specific binge drinking thresholds described above. 2
    • High-intensity drinkers who drank alcohol twice as much as binge drinking thresholds were 70 times more likely than none binge drinkers to have alcohol-related emergency department visits
    • High-intensity drinkers who drank alcohol three times as much as binge drinking thresholds were 93 times more likely to have alcohol-related emergency department visits

    Ages 12 & older

    • 14.5 million people (5.3%), including 9.0 million men (6.8%) and 5.5 million women (3.9%) ages 12 and older, had an alcohol use disorder in 2019 2

    Youth ages 12 to 17

    • 414,000 adolescents (1.7%) age 12 to 27, including 163,000 males (1.3%), and 251,000 females (2.1%) had an alcohol use disorder in 2019 2

    Additional alcohol-related statistics

    • The rate of all alcohol-related ED visits increased 47% from 2006 to 2014, which is roughly 210,000 a year 2
    • Alcohol contributes to 18.5% of ED visits and 22.1% of overdose deaths, including prescription opioids 2
    • Approximately 95,000 people (68,000 men and 27,000 women) die a year from alcohol-related causes 2
    • In 2019, there were 10,142 deaths caused by alcohol-related driving fatalities, which made up 28% of all driving fatalities 2
    A shot from the inside of a glass full of yellow alcohol

    Identifying Signs of Alcoholism

    Understanding the symptoms of alcohol use disorder is pivotal in identifying the issue early. The severity of this disorder often correlates with the number and intensity of symptoms an individual exhibits. The following are common indicators: 2

    • Drinking more or longer than planned 3
    • Having an inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumed 1
    • Trying to cut back or stop more than once without success 3
    • Spending a lot of time drinking, getting alcohol, or recovering from alcohol use 1
    • Feeling an intense craving or urge to drink alcohol 1
    • Having an inability to think of anything other than drinking for a time 3
    • Having problems with work, school, or family due to drinking habits 3
    • Continuing to drink even though it causes these problems 3
    • Quitting or cutting back on other vital activities in favor of drinking 3
    • Needing to drink more than before to get the same effect 3
    • Using alcohol in unsafe situations, like when driving or swimming 1
    • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, including trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, a seizure, or hallucinations, after a buzz wears off 3
    Someone with alcohol use disorder may experience periods of both alcohol intoxication and withdrawal symptoms. 1

    Alcohol Intoxication and its Effects

    Alcohol intoxication occurs when alcohol increases in the bloodstream. It creates changes in behavior and cognitive abilities resulting in: 1
    • Inappropriate behavior
    • Unstable moods
    • Impaired judgment
    • Slurred speech
    • Impaired attention or memory
    • Poor coordination
    High blood alcohol levels can lead to “blackouts,” in which the individual does not remember events that occurred during that time. Very high blood alcohol levels can lead to coma or even death. 1

    The Challenges of Alcohol Withdrawal

    Alcohol withdrawal may occur when someone stops or severely reduces heavy and prolonged alcohol use. Symptoms of withdrawal can occur between several hours and up to 5 days after the alcohol use is decreased or ceased. Signs and symptoms can include: 1
    • sweating
    • rapid heartbeat
    • hand tremors
    • problems sleeping
    • nausea and vomiting
    • hallucinations
    • restlessness and agitation
    • anxiety
    • seizures (occasionally)
    Symptoms of withdrawal may be severe enough to impair functioning at work or in social situations. 1
    A man in a hoodie drinking from am bottle next to a stationary train

    Excessive Drinking Health risks

    Excessive alcohol use, whether in short bursts like binge drinking or as a prolonged habit, can lead to various health complications. Understanding these risks is essential for promoting safe drinking habits. 4

    Short-term health risks

    There are immediate health risks associated with heavy alcohol use that usually occur due to binge drinking. These short-term health risks include: 4
    • Injuries, including motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns
    • Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and domestic violence
    • Alcohol poisoning
    • Risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners
    • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in pregnant women

    Long-term health risks

    Heavy and prolonged alcohol use can lead to long-term health risks like chronic diseases and other serious problems. These long-term health risks include: 4
    • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems
    • Cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, rectum, and breast
    • Weakening of the immune system
    • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor performance at school and work
    • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
    • Social problems, including those related to family, friendships, and work
    • Alcohol use disorders, alcohol dependence, or alcoholism

    How Alcohol Impacts the Body

    he consumption of alcohol, particularly when heavy and extended, has substantial effects on various parts of the body, potentially leading to serious health complications. 5


    Alcohol has a direct impact on the brain, altering brain functions and leading to changes in behavior, mood, and neuromotor skills. Over time, chronic drinking can result in permanent brain damage and cognitive impairments. 5


    Regular and excessive alcohol consumption can strain the heart, leading to: 5

    • Cardiomyopathy: A condition where the heart muscle stretches and droops.
    • Arrhythmia: Irregular heart rhythms.
    • High Blood Pressure: Elevated blood pressure levels increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks.


    The liver is particularly vulnerable to prolonged alcohol use: 5

    • Steatosis (Fatty Liver): A common initial response to heavy drinking.
    • Alcoholic Hepatitis: Inflammation and damage to the liver.
    • Fibrosis: Thickening and scarring of connective tissue.
    • Cirrhosis: Late-stage scarring of the liver due to various liver diseases.


    Contrary to the information provided, the pancreas’s primary issue concerning alcohol is the production of toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis, which is a dangerous inflammation and swelling that hinder the pancreas from functioning properly. 5

    Immune system

    Frequent heavy drinking weakens the immune system, raising susceptibility to diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. This weakened immunity lasts for up to 24 hours post-drinking, reducing the body’s ability to counter infections. 5


    Prolonged alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk of developing various cancers. The National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services has recognized it as a human carcinogen. The risk is elevated even for those who consume only one drink per day or engage in binge drinking. Associated cancers include: 5

    • Head and Neck Cancers: Covering oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx cancers.
    • Esophageal Cancer: Particularly esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.
    • Liver Cancer
    • Breast Cancer
    • Colorectal Cancer
    Someone laying in a hospital bed with an iv drip

    Underlying Causes of Alcohol Dependence

    Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), commonly referred to as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence, is a complex condition. While the exact cause remains under investigation, experts recognize that several factors play a role. 6

    Excessive and frequent alcohol consumption can induce chemical alterations in the brain. These changes amplify the feelings of pleasure or euphoria derived from drinking, subsequently compelling the individual to consume more. As a result, even if alcohol consumption leads to detrimental outcomes, the desire to drink persists.

    With continuous exposure to alcohol, the brain develops a tolerance. This means the pleasurable effects diminish over time, prompting an increase in alcohol intake to achieve the same sensations. Avoiding unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms becomes another reason for continued consumption. Hence, AUD tends to progress insidiously

    Alcohol Dependency Risk factors

    Certain risk factors increase an individual’s chances of developing an alcohol use disorder. These risk factors include:

    • Age. Alcohol use disorder most commonly occurs between ages 18 and 24.
    • Gender. Men are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder than women.
    • Early alcohol use. Individuals who first use alcohol as children or teens are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
    • Steady drinking over time. Excessive drinking regularly over an extended period or binge drinking can increase someone’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder.
    • Family history. Someone who has parents, siblings, or children with alcohol use disorder is more likely to develop it themselves.
    • Genetics. Genetic factors can also increase someone’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder.
    • Mental health issues. Individuals with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder.
    • History of trauma. People who have a history of emotional or physical trauma are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder.
    • Parental approval. Teens who have parents who approve of alcohol use are at higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder.

    A person may have an alcohol use disorder even if they do not have any of these risk factors; however, the more risks a person has, the greater their chances of developing alcohol use disorder.

    Preventing Alcohol Addiction

    To curb the onset or progression of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), adopting responsible drinking habits is vital: 7

    • Mindful Consumption: Opt for moderate drinking. This means not letting consumption get out of control.
    • Adherence to Guidelines: Abide by the recommended dietary guidelines. Typically, these suggest that women limit their intake to one drink per day, while men restrict themselves to two.
    • Consult a Healthcare Provider: Engage in open conversations with healthcare professionals about drinking behaviors. If needed, seek counseling or therapeutic interventions.
    Unfortunately, some individuals may be unable to control their drinking. If this is the case, it is essential to seek a diagnosis from a healthcare professional as soon as possible. 7

    Diagnosis of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

    Suspecting AUD in oneself or in a loved one necessitates prompt diagnostic measures. The pathway usually starts with: 8

    • Ask questions regarding your drinking habits. The doctor may ask you questions directly and ask permission to speak with your friends or family regarding your drinking habits. Without your consent, your doctor cannot share any information about you.
    • Perform a physical exam. The doctor may find many physical signs to indicate any complications associated with your alcohol use.
    • Perform tests. These tests can include lab tests and imaging tests that can show abnormalities that may be associated with alcohol use disorder. These tests will also identify any health problems related to your alcohol use.
    • Complete a psychological evaluation. A psychological assessment includes questions regarding any symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns you experience. This evaluation may sometimes include a questionnaire.
    An AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting sign board

    Alcohol Abuse Treatment Options

    If you or someone you know faces challenges with alcohol use disorder or alcohol dependence, prompt intervention with a mental health expert is crucial. The therapeutic journey is multifaceted and tailored to each individual’s needs. Often, a blend of strategies proves most effective. 9

    Treatment Modalities

    Many people who suffer from alcoholism find that a combination of treatments is the best option, and different types of treatment programs will often offer a combination. These treatment programs include inpatient residential programs, where the individual stays at the treatment center for a time, and outpatient treatment programs, where the individual lives at home and travels to the treatment center regularly. These programs may require an initial detox. 9


    Detox is not a complete alcohol treatment, but it can be the first step to seeking treatment. Detox from alcohol will allow the individual to stop drinking and remove the alcohol from their system. This detox can take a few days to a week. 9
    Many people will go to a hospital or treatment center to detox from alcohol to avoid the withdrawal symptoms mentioned above. During this type of detox, doctors and other professionals administer medicine to help alleviate symptoms. Detox can also occur on an inpatient or outpatient basis. 9


    Meeting with a counselor or therapist can help the individual recovering from alcoholism to learn new skills and strategies to maintain sobriety from alcohol. These mental health professionals can teach how to: 9
    • Change behaviors that cause the desire to drink
    • Cope with stress and other triggers
    • Create a strong support system
    • Set goals and find ways to reach them
    Some individuals will only need one focused counseling session. In contrast, others may require individual therapy for a more extended period, especially if they also experience mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Couples and family therapy can also be helpful. 9


    Many medications can help individuals recover from an alcohol use disorder. Some medications that are useful for recovery from alcoholism include: 9
    • Disulfiram (Antabuse). This medication makes the user feel sick or throw up any time they consume alcohol.
    • Acamprosate (Campral). This medication helps to reduce cravings for alcohol.
    • Naltrexone (Revia). This medication blocks the high that usually occurs when alcohol is ingested

    Building a Supportive Environment

    It can be difficult to stop alcohol use and stay away from it entirely. It can often require the development of healthy habits and coping mechanisms that are useful in daily life. Steps to creating a supportive environment include: 9
    • Staying surrounded by family, friends, and other supportive individuals who are aware that the individual should not drink alcohol
    • Taking care of the body by eating a healthy diet, getting the right amount of sleep, staying active, and managing stress levels
    • Engaging in activities and hobbies that do not involve alcohol
    • Getting involved in group therapy during a treatment program
    • Joining a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and other programs
    It can take a long time to recover from alcohol use disorder, alcohol dependence, or alcoholism. Long-term treatment with a dedicated alcohol rehab program may be the best option to prevent future relapse. It is essential to consult a mental health professional to decide the best option if you or a loved one is struggling with a heavy drinking problem. 9

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