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 how do you know if you have an alcohol addiction? What is the difference between someone who drinks a lot and someone who has alcohol problems?
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 or control their alcohol use.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
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 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. Some of physical symptoms of alcohol addiction 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?
American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment in the U.S.; our facilities specialize in treating not just alcohol dependence, but in treating its underlying causes. Treatment is available at 8 locations across the U.S.
Not Sure About Alcohol Addiction Treatment?
You may be unsure about what getting treatment for alcohol addiction looks like. Generally, there are 3 major components for treating alcohol addiction: Detox, inpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment.
Consider the links below if you are interested in learning more:
- 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.