Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Causes, Effects, and Treatment

Alcohol is one of the most used psychoactive substances in the world. It is also the most common type of addiction the United States.1 Chronic alcohol misuse, including heavy drinking and binge drinking, can lead to an alcohol addiction, which is a complex, multi-faceted condition with several causes and risk factors. When untreated, alcohol addiction can lead to many harmful effects, but thankfully, treatment can help mitigate these risks and help you obtain and maintain sobriety.

What is an Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder, is a chronic condition characterized by compulsive drinking of regardless of negative health, social, or occupational consequences in your life.2

Like many other conditions, alcohol use disorder can range from mild, in which you exhibit just a couple symptoms, to severe, which can be extremely debilitating. The good news is, no matter how severe, an alcohol addiction is a treatable disorder.3

What are the Signs of an Alcohol Addiction?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), you must exhibit at least two of the following symptoms of alcohol addiction within the past year:4

  • Drinking larger amounts or over a longer period than originally intended
  • Wanting to cut down or control alcohol use but failing to do so
  • Spending an excessive amount of time drinking alcohol and recovering from its effects
  • Experiencing strong cravings for alcohol
  • Continuing alcohol use despite failing to fulfill obligations at home, work, or school
  • Continuing alcohol use despite interpersonal or social issues caused or worsened by drinking
  • Giving up important recreational or social activities in favor of drinking
  • Using alcohol in dangerous situations, such as while driving
  • Continuing alcohol use despite knowing that its causing or worsening psychological or physical problems
  • Experiencing tolerance (needing higher amounts to get drunk)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly quit or reduce use

Experiencing two or three symptoms may indicate mild alcohol use disorder, while four or five symptoms constitutes a moderate alcohol addiction and six or more indicates a severe condition.4

How is an Alcohol Addiction Diagnosed?

Even if you believe you meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, you still cannot diagnose yourself. Only a mental health professional, addiction specialist, or medical doctor can formally diagnose you with an alcohol addiction. They will use a screening tool to determine the presence of this condition and its severity. They may utilize the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), or something similar. That test is comprised of a series of ten questions related to your alcohol consumption, such as:5

  • How often do you have an alcoholic drink?
  • On drinking days, how many drinks do you typically have?
  • How often do you have six or more drinks in one sitting?
  • How often during the past 12 months have you been unable to stop drinking once you started?
  • How often during the past 12 months have you failed to meet your responsibilities due to drinking?
  • How often in the last year have you needed a drink when you first woke up?
  • How often in the last year have you felt remorse or guilt after drinking?
  • How often in the last year have you experienced blackouts due to drinking?
  • Have you or someone else been injured because of your alcohol use?
  • Has a medical professional or loved one expressed concern about your drinking?

If a health care provider diagnoses you with alcohol use disorder, they will likely refer you to an appropriate treatment setting, such as inpatient for a severe addiction or outpatient for a milder addiction. Ultimately, though, the decision is up to you and your treatment needs and preferences. If you need help finding a rehab program, give us a call at 800-926-8143Who Answers? to speak to a knowledgeable and compassionate treatment support specialist.

What are the Causes of Alcohol Addiction?

There is no singular cause of alcohol addiction—rather, a series of complex risk factors interact to increase your likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder. Two of the most significant risk factors for alcohol use disorder include heavy alcohol use and chronic binge drinking.2

Other risk factors for alcohol addiction may include:2

  • Starting drinking at a young age
  • Family history of alcohol use disorder
  • Genetics, which are responsible for about 60% of development of alcohol addiction
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • A history of trauma

However, risk factors do not determine your fate. Just because you have one or more risk factors it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically develop alcohol use disorder. Plenty of protective factors, such as parental involvement and positive self-image, can reduce the chance of alcohol misuse and addiction. And what’s more, is some risk factors may be fixed, while others change throughout your life. Protective factors interact with risk factors to potentially mitigate their influence.6

What are the Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism?

Excessive drinking can cause a myriad of long-term physical and psychological complications, such as:7,8

  • Poor academic performance
  • Dementia
  • Learning and memory impairments
  • Mood and behavior changes
  • Coordination problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression
  • Cancer of the colon, rectum, liver, voice box, esophagus, throat, mouth, and breast
  • Heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathy (stretching and weakening of the heart muscle)
  • Arrhythmias
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fatty liver
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Fibrosis
  • Pancreatitis

Fortunately, it’s never too late to seek treatment. An alcohol recovery program is the best decision you can make for your health and happiness. Call our 24/7 helpline at 800-926-8143Who Answers? to find an alcohol rehab that fits your needs.

What Types of Treatment are Available?

Treatment for alcohol addiction can occur on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Both treatment settings have their advantages and disadvantages, and the right one for you depends on factors, such as:

  • The severity of your alcohol use disorder
  • The presence of a co-occurring mental health disorder, known as a dual diagnosis
  • The presence of a comorbid medical condition
  • Whether you need medical detox or not
  • Whether you have a strong support system
  • Where you want to attend treatment
  • Your insurance provider and plan
  • Your budget for treatment
  • Whether you want to continue working or fulfilling other obligations during treatment
  • Your previous treatment experiences, if any

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Inpatient Rehab

When you attend inpatient alcohol addiction treatment, you live at the recovery center for the length of your treatment program. Your program is usually a fixed duration, such as 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days. Many people benefit from the structure and intensiveness of an inpatient program given that they are separated from their everyday environment. Inpatient rehab provides patients with a distraction–and trigger-free setting where they can focus on their alcoholism recovery.

Inpatient alcohol rehab may be beneficial if you:

  • Have a severe alcohol addiction
  • Have a polysubstance addiction
  • Have a co-occurring mental health condition
  • Have previously dropped out of an outpatient program
  • Lack stable housing or a sober support system
  • Require 24/7 medical care
  • Want structure and a strict routine to facilitate sobriety

Outpatient Care

Outpatient rehab is the more flexible option for those looking to recover from alcohol use disorder while still working, attending school, or managing household responsibilities. You attend individual counseling and group therapy sessions at a clinic during the day then return home during non-treatment hours.

Outpatient alcohol rehab may be a good option if you:

  • Have a mild alcohol addiction
  • Have a solid support system at home
  • Need to continue working or attending school
  • Want little disruption to your routine
  • Have a strong internal motivation for change

Another great resource, which may be used in conjunction with outpatient treatment, is a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). You can receive extra support outside of rehab and make new sober friends as well.

Medications for Alcohol Use Disorder

During recovery, your treatment team may prescribe you an alcohol addiction treatment medication that can help mitigate cravings and prevent relapse. These medications may include:9

  • Naltrexone: This medication binds to receptors in the brain responsible for the pleasurable effects of alcohol, blocking the rewarding effects and reducing the likelihood of drinking.
  • Acamprosate: This medication decreases protracted alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as restlessness and anxiety.
  • Disulfiram: This medication, when taken before drinking, creates an unpleasant reaction when you drink alcohol, thus reducing the desire to drink.

For help finding an alcohol addiction treatment program, call 800-926-8143Who Answers?. One of our treatment support specialists can help you find a rehab.

Resources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Alcohol: Key Takeaways.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Treatment and Recovery.
  4. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). AUDIT.
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Risk and Protective Factors.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Alcohol Use and Your Health.
  8. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Addiction Medications.
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