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Understanding Alcohol Addiction

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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. 

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 eneral life stressors, catastrophic events, trauma, or racial/ethnic stress. 2

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 Abuse

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

  • Impaired judgement:  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.
  • Slurred speech: 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.
  • Blurred vision: Heavy drinking impairs brain functions, and eyesight can be one of these. Blurring can be an alarming sign of intoxication.
  • Passing out: 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:  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.
  • Gastric ulcers: 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.
  • Sexual dysfunction: 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.

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

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

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.

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.

Alcohol Withdrawal & Detox

While understanding the physical and behavioral symptoms of addiction can help you determine if you or someone you love truly has a problem, it is important to understand that the physical symptoms of alcohol addiction and withdrawal can be the most challenging pieces of acheiving sobriety.

That is why the first phase of addiction treatment for most programs often includes detox. Detox is generally a 5-7 day period in which you are supervised by clinicians or medical staff to ensure your health and safety are preserved. You can find more information on detox here. 

American Addiction Centers (AAC) a leading provider of drug and alcohol addiction and dual diagnosis treatment nationwide. AAC is in network with many of the top insurance providers in the U.S. Use the form below to find out instantly if your insurance benefits cover some or all of the cost of treatment.

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, American Addiction Centers can help. We operate a confidential helpline that’s accessible 24/7 and can be reached at .