Understanding Alcohol Addiction
Although alcohol use is prevalent in the United States, there’s a lot of misunderstanding around alcohol addiction. It’s true that most people who use alcohol do not develop a problem with alcohol addiction or abuse. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are immune to alcohol addiction. You may wonder if you, a loved one, or a family member suffer from alcohol addiction?
You might ask, “What is the difference between someone who drinks a lot and someone who has drinking problems?“
You should know these are all common questions and you are not alone. This article will help you identify some of the signs to help identify addiction and teach you how you can access different treatment options.
How Do You Define an Alcoholic?
The most basic definition of alcohol addiction is when someone engages in alcohol use despite incurring negative consequences to themselves, without the ability to stop drinking.1 Studies estimate that roughly 14 million adults in the U.S. meet the criteria to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcohol addiction. This is equivalent to 5.8% of the country’s adult population. Furthermore, 1.6% of all adolescents also meet the criteria for an AUD.1 While alcohol addiction may not affect everybody, it remains a pressing issue for millions around the country, and needs to be understood in order to be overcome.
Is Alcoholism a Disease?
One big question that can lead to misunderstanding about alcohol addiction regards the nature of the condition: is alcoholism a disease? After centuries of debate, that answer is yes; alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing brain disease. There are many factors involved in the development of alcoholism. Stress is one such factor, which can come from numerous sources, including: 2
General life stressors
- such as work, family issues, moving, or legal charges.
- including man-made (such as a terrorist attack or plane crash) and natural disasters (such as a hurricane or tornado).
- neglect or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
- A result of one’s status as a member of an oppressed group.
While there is no absolute relationship between these stressors and the certainty that someone will develop an alcohol addiction, studies have linked these types of stressors with a greater risk of developing alcohol problems.2
Social anxiety can also contribute to alcohol problems. Around 7% of the US population has social anxiety. Many people cope with this anxiety by drinking to feel comfortable in social settings. Ironically, alcohol use often makes the anxiety worse.3
While this all may sound intimidating, you should rest assured that alcoholism treatment is widely available.
Immediate Effects of Alcohol
The immediate effects of alcohol tend to be noticeable and can appear soon after consumption. These immediate effects of alcohol contribute to a state of intoxication, or being “drunk” in modern terms. The immediate effects of alcohol include:4; 5
- This can be one of the most damaging immediate effects of alcohol. Impaired judgement can occur in many ways depending on the person. You may experience lowered inhibitions, increased aggression resulting in conflict with others, or poor decision-making. Impaired judgement can lead to you partaking in risky behavior that can lead to negative consequences.
- While alcohol may make one speak more or remove anxiety around speaking, it doesn’t make one speak better. Slurred speech is so emblematic of the immediate effects of alcohol that police officers use it as a measure of how drunk one is.
- Heavy drinking impairs brain functions, and eyesight can be one of these. Blurring can be an alarming sign of intoxication.
- When alcohol lowers brain activity, your brain and body may try to turn off for a minute. This can be incredibly dangerous, as being passed out can result in one choking on vomit, experiencing injury from a fall, or being unaware to notice the signs of alcohol poisoning.
- Blacking out, or being in a state of blackout, is when a person is still functional and interacting with others, but is experiencing a loss of memory, inhibitions, or physical senses.
Long-term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
As a person uses alcohol over a longer period, they may begin to suffer different effects. These long-term effects of alcohol abuse can include:4,5
Liver damage and disease
- The liver is an organ responsible for filtering toxins, like alcohol, from your body. Long-term alcohol abuse can cause your liver to become swollen or inflamed. Scarring that results from this is called liver cirrhosis, and can be fatal.
High blood pressure
- Increased blood pressure is another one of the long-term effects of alcohol abuse. High blood pressure can increase the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in America.
Increased risk of stroke
- Similar to how the effects of alcohol abuse can lead to heart disease, heart disease can alter your heart rhythm. This can put you at elevated risk for a stroke.
- Alcohol abuse can cause many different types of ulcers long-term. These unpleasant sores in the stomach lining can be worsened when you drink alcohol.
- While this is more a problem for men who abuse alcohol over long periods of time, it does affect both men and women. Studies have shown that alcohol consumption increases the risk of sexual dysfunction.
Alcohol Addiction Symptoms
Alcohol addiction symptoms can manifest in physical and social forms. While alcohol addiction can cause physical symptoms like slurred speech and memory loss, the emotional effects of alcohol addiction can be seen in one’s relationships, work performance, and social interactions. Although only a substance abuse professional can diagnose a person with an AUD, it is helpful to know the alcohol addiction symptoms.
It’s important to remember that someone may only show a few symptoms. More importantly, it is only required that a person display 2 symptoms to meet the criteria for a mild AUD. The symptoms can be behavioral or physical; the person does not have to display both types of alcohol addiction symptoms to have a substance use disorder.6
Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
The physical symptoms of alcohol addiction are noticeable, but may go beyond the immediate effects of alcohol consumption. Often times withdrawal symptoms are the easiest way to spot addiction in the early stages of detoxification. Some of physical symptoms of alcohol addiction and alcohol withdrawal include: 5,7
- Slurred speech or difficulty communicating.
- Insomnia or other sleep problems.
- Loss of appetite.
- Mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
- Shakiness and tremors when alcohol is withheld.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Memory loss or other problems with memory and leaning.
Behavioral Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
The behavioral symptoms of alcohol addiction are harder to spot, but can be more emblematic of alcohol addiction. These symptoms can manifest in numerous ways, such as:6
- Drinking, rather than fulfilling responsibilities.
- Suffering legal consequences from drinking.
- Drinking in risky situations, such as driving.
- Financial issues related to drinking.
- Increased interpersonal conflict related to drinking.
- Giving up hobbies and personal interests in order to drink.
- Drinking despite knowing drinking makes an illness worse.
- Lying about using alcohol.
Are you Struggling With Alcohol Addiction?
Is alcohol starting to take over your life? Is your drinking affecting your work, your relationships with your loved ones, or your health?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should consider asking for help.
How American Addiction Centers Can Help
As a leading addiction treatment provider in the United States, American Addiction Centers focuses on not only treating the addiction itself, but the causes that led to its development. At American Addiction Centers, treatment is specialized to meet the needs of each person.
Our treatment model focuses on identifying any existing mental illnesses or mental health issues that may stimulate the need to cope with issues by using alcohol.
Our treatment facilities then focus on providing an initial support system for those attending treatment and teach them healthier ways to cope with their addiction.
We offer a full continuum of care that encompasses the primary types of treatment all the way from detox for those initially struggling to aftercare options like sober living, counseling sessions, and support groups for those maintaining their recovery.
To find out more, or to get started, American Addiction Centers operates a confidential addiction hotline available 24/7 to help people find their path to recovery.
Still Unsure About Seeking Treatment?
Learning about addiction and treatment options may feel overwhelming. If you are still unsure about how treatment works, how to ask for help, or how to get treatment, consider the following guides:
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol facts and statistics.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol alert 85.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2018). Social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse.
- California Administrative Office of the Courts. (2020). Alcohol: Short and long-term effects.
- Centers for Disease Control. (2019). Alcohol use and your health.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA:
- Becker H. C. (2008). Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse.Alcohol Research & Health, 31(4), 348–361.