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Alcohol Use Disorder

Though alcohol is a legal and controlled substance in the United States, many in the country suffer from problems in their use of it. Someone’s alcohol use may have led them to a point where they have a hard time controlling their drinking, or they continue despite the harmful effects. Over time, they may also develop a tolerance to alcohol or show withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. When this happens, they experience what’s called alcohol use disorder or alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder is a serious and costly problem in the US.

13 Minutes Read | Published Jan 11 2024 | Updated Mar 01 2024 Expert Verified
Emma Collins
Written by
Jennifer Williams
Reviewed by
Emma Collins
Written by
Jennifer Williams
Reviewed by

Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

As per the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), up to 14.4 million adults suffered from alcohol use disorder. The same survey estimated that up to 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes. In 2010, alcohol misuse was said to cost the US $249 billion, and in 2014, alcohol-impaired driving accounted for almost 10,000 deaths. The sobering truth about unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns is that they can put people’s health, safety, livelihood, and overall wellbeing at risk. And even though alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe, early treatment and prevention—even at the mild level—are essential.

When Does Someone’s Drinking Habits Evolve into Alcoholism?

Someone who drinks noticeable amounts of alcohol may not necessarily be an alcoholic, but there may be symptoms that they’re on their way there. A key symptom of alcoholism is that the person suffering from it already has a physical dependence on alcohol. That means that they have strong urges to drink alcohol and undergo withdrawal symptoms, like insomnia and irritability, when they don’t drink. Alcoholism is considered a chronic physical and mental condition. The next step for those suffering from alcoholism is likely an alcohol detox or alcohol withdrawal management. Medication, behavioral therapy, and support groups may also help the person curb their alcohol cravings and cease their unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns.

Which Types of Alcohol Can Lead to Alcoholism?

In the United States, there are types of substances that drive unhealthy consumption patterns of alcohol. They are the following. Beer Beer is an increasing problem among those suffering from alcohol use disorder and alcoholism, but unfortunately, many don’t see it as such. There’s the prevailing myth that one can’t be an alcoholic if one sticks only to beer. That’s because beer typically has a lower alcohol content per single serving (usually 5%) than wine or liquor.

Myths like that and long-ingrained beer-drinking culture make it harder to pay attention—and act decisively—when beer consumption habits become unhealthy. Wine Many people also have a similar mentality about wine. Wine is marketed as classy and even healthy to drink, and most don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a glass or two with meals. But just like beer and hard liquor, wine has alcohol content. At about 12% per single serving, wine has a more significant alcohol content than beer. It can also be the subject of alarming alcohol misuse, such as overconsumption and dependency on wine for one’s day to go just right.

Liquor The last in these categories is hard liquor like whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, tequila, and other spirits. Among the three beverage types, hard liquor has the highest alcohol content. A serving of about 1.5 ounces of these distilled spirits may contain 40% of alcohol. Hard liquor is usually paired with sweeter, milder-tasting beverages like juice or soda.

That makes it relatively easy for someone to consume it in large amounts within short periods, partly because the burning aftertaste is obscured. In summary, all three of these beverages have the potential for misuse. It’s just as important to pay attention to one’s habits while consuming these and what kind of drink one consumes. Look out for the following signs:

  • Does it take more of the same drink than before to get inebriated?
  • Has it come to the point where a person won’t eat a restaurant or attend a social event if there’s no alcohol being served?
  • Does the person’s mood or personality change as a consequence of drinking alcohol?
  • Are other people already expressing their concern?
  • Is it already a challenge to call it quits for the day?

If you see any of these signs manifesting in yourself or in a loved one, it’s time to recognize the problem—and time to get help.

What Is Binge Drinking?

One alcohol consumption pattern that can be deemed unhealthy—and that can gradually lead to alcoholism—is binge drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking occurs when someone’s blood alcohol concentration levels, or BAC, reaches 0.08 g/dL.

This usually occurs when men finish more than five alcoholic drinks or when women finish more than four alcoholic drinks in one two-hour sitting. If someone binge drinks only infrequently, they may be able to stop this pattern on their own. But if it becomes more frequent and results in heavy alcohol use—i.e., five days of straight binge drinking—it may be time for an intervention.

What Are the Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a complex problem that requires special attention. It is never as simple as someone choosing to have a challenging relationship with alcohol or choosing to get addicted to it. The following issues may be behind someone’s alcoholism.

  • The person may be drinking excessively in order to cope with life’s difficulties, such as relationship problems, finances, or socioeconomic circumstances.
  • The person may be drinking excessively to experience a pleasurable sensation. Alcohol is known for its propensity to “overload” the human brain’s pleasure and reward centers. As the problem intensifies, the person may think that alcohol is the only gateway to happiness and will seek these experiences over and over.
  • The person may have unhealthy alcohol consumption habits due to peer pressure at school, at the workplace, or in their social group. They may feel that they need alcohol to prove their manhood, toughness, or willingness to conform with social norms that they find important.

One must always remember that problems like alcohol use disorder are never straightforward. There’s always a human element to these problems, which is why they require a humane and compassionate response.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

Mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder can manifest in the following symptoms:

  • The person is having a hard time managing their urges to drink and limiting the amount of alcohol they drink.
  • The person spends a lot of time in their day, and a lot of their resources, just on alcohol use.
  • The person’s alcohol consumption has caused problems in their home, in their workplace, or at school. They may have neglected to fulfill major obligations, such as meeting deadlines or taking care of children, because of alcohol use.
  • Alcohol may have taken over the person’s life to the extent that they are no longer invested in their other hobbies or interests.
  • Alcohol consumption may have caused a change in the person’s physical appearance, such as drastic weight gain.
  • The person may be drinking in increasingly risky situations, like while swimming or right before driving a car.
  • The person wants to quit, but several attempts to do so on their own have failed.

You must respond quickly to the problem if any of these two signs occur:

  • The person is undergoing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal as a result of stopping or greatly reducing their alcohol intake after a period of prolonged consumption. Alcohol withdrawal can occur between hours or days after the person has stopped drinking alcohol. They may experience sweating, nausea, vomiting, tremors, agitation, insomnia, or rapid heartbeat. As this can affect how they function in their daily life, the withdrawal symptoms should be treated as soon as possible.
  • The person is experiencing frequent periods of alcohol intoxication, in which their high blood alcohol concentration results in high levels of impairment. Mental and behavioral changes that are a result of alcohol intoxication include slurred speech, rapidly changing moods, impaired memory (including “blackouts”), and poor coordination. High blood alcohol levels are no laughing matter, as they can lead to a coma or even death.

How Much Is Too Much Alcohol?

Part of what separates alcohol use disorder from ordinary alcohol consumption patterns is the person’s capacity to draw the line. It’s good to know how much alcohol may be too much, and to follow one’s limits. Consider the NIAAA’s definition for what one drink, or one serving of alcohol, constitutes for different alcoholic beverages:

  • 12 oz or 355 ml of beer, with about 5% alcohol content
  • 8-9 oz or 237-266 ml of malt liquor, with about 7% alcohol content
  • 5 oz. or 148 ml of unfortified wine, with about 12% alcohol content
  • 1.5 oz or 44 ml of 80-proof hard liquor (one shot), with about 40% alcohol content

After one drink, it’s good to call it quits. Depending on the person’s situation, anything more could contribute to unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns.

The Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder requires a lot of careful attention because a person’s vulnerability to it depends on several different factors. The most common risk factors for alcohol use disorder include the following.

  • How long they have been steadily drinking. If the person has been consuming large amounts of alcohol for extended periods, they may slowly become more susceptible to alcoholism.
  • At what age they began drinking. Those who start drinking at an early age, like in their teens, are also at higher risk of alcohol use disorder later in life.
  • Their family history. Genetic factors may also be at play. If the person has a close relative that had problems with alcohol, they may be at risk of experiencing something similar.
  • Other mental health problems. Someone’s problems with alcohol may also be tied to mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and the like.
  • Their history of trauma. Experiences of physical or emotional trauma may also increase a person’s risk of alcoholism.
  • Their socioeconomic circumstances. The person’s problems with alcohol may also be related to their socioeconomic circumstances, such as the culture they grew up in or their generational problems. They may have seen family members or peers turn to alcohol to cope with problems, or uphold high alcohol consumption as a rite of passage.

Unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns are usually detected when someone is in their 20s or 30s. But the underlying problems—and the consequences to their lives—can take root at any age.

The Complications of Alcohol Addiction & Abuse

Over time, alcohol use disorder will take a toll on the person experiencing it. Some of the long-term health detriments that are a result of alcohol use disorder are the following.

  • The person will become increasingly vulnerable to liver diseases, such as hepatic steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis.
  • The person may also have long-term issues with their digestion, as their alcohol use disorder can cause gastritis, ulcers, and pancreatitis. Drinking heavily may also affect the person’s absorption of necessary nutrients, like Vitamin B.
  • Drinking excessively may also lead to heart problems and increase the person’s likelihood of heart failure, stroke, or serious heart arrhythmia.
  • Heavy drinking may also make a person susceptible to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, and is dangerous if they already have diabetes.
  • Alcohol use disorder can also lead to reproductive problems, such as erectile dysfunction in men and interruptions in menstrual cycle for women.
  • Alcoholism can result in long-term damage to the nervous system. This may cause short-term memory loss, dementia, or numbness and pain in the hands and feet.
  • Alcohol use disorder may also weaken a person’s immune system, rendering them vulnerable to illnesses like pneumonia. Long-term drinking is also linked to risk for liver, throat, mouth, and colon cancer, among others.
  • Alcohol may also interact dangerously with prescribed medication, resulting in toxic effects. If a person is already taking medication for an existing health condition, they should definitely watch their consumption of alcohol.

In addition to health-related complications, alcohol use disorder may also bring about the following complications to a person’s everyday life:

  • They may increase their risk of getting themselves and others in serious, even fatal accidents.
  • They may suffer from problems in their relationships with family members, friends, romantic partners, and the community at large.
  • They may struggle to achieve at school or in the workplace.
  • They may face financial and legal troubles as a result of their excessive alcohol use.
  • Alcohol may be a gateway for the use of other dangerous substances, such as drugs.
  • Those suffering from alcohol use disorder are also at increased risk of death by suicide.

That said, if the signs of alcohol use disorder are there, it’s best to get help before it is too late.

Medications for Alcohol Addiction Treatment

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved various drugs to treat individuals with alcohol use disorder, this is called medication-assisted treatment.

  • Disulfiram: When alcohol is metabolized, it produces acetaldehyde. Disulfiram, also called Anabuse, stops your body from breaking down acetaldehyde, which causes it to build up in your bloodstream. When this happens, you have a negative reaction to any alcohol you consume, ranging from increased heart rate, to nausea, and headache. The goal of disulfiram is to produce a negative association with alcohol and encourage abstinence.6 It is widely considered a very effective drug for alcohol abuse disorders.
  • Naltrexone: This drug is an opioid antagonist that is used to treat both opioid and alcohol use disorders. It disrupts the pleasurable sensations typically felt after drinking alcohol and can help encourage sobriety.6
  • Anticonvulsants: Some anticonvulsants, such as carbamazepine and gabapentin, can be effective treatment for alcohol abuse disorder. These drugs help with alcohol withdrawal syndrome and help reduce cravings for alcohol.7

One study compared the efficacy of disulfiram, naltrexone, and anticonvulsants on alcohol use disorder. It found disulfiram to be the most effective.8

How Alcohol Rehab Services Can Help with Alcoholism

If someone’s problems with alcohol have spiraled out of control and they cannot take on the problem alone, the best recourse is getting help from a rehabilitation center. It is in a rehab center that someone suffering from alcohol use disorder or alcoholism can kickstart their journey toward recovery. They will be in the company of medical professionals who know how to treat the disorder, as well as peers who can support them. When checked into rehab, a person can expect the following things:

  • A healthy and tranquil environment that’s different from the one that encouraged misuse of alcohol.
  • Appropriate medical attention to assess the depth of the problem, as well as the right methods to treat it.
  • Resources like therapy and counseling to address related personal issues, such as mental health disorder or problems with interpersonal relationships.
  • A network for local chapters of self-help peer groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

You can find a rehabilitation center or local AA chapter with the help of the Better Addiction Care information service. We provide resources, such as listings for accredited rehab centers, that will help you or a loved one overcome the struggle with alcohol use disorder. Call (800) 429-7690 today to get started.

When You Should Seek Medical or Emergency Help

There are three indicators that you should seek primary medical care for someone experiencing alcohol use disorder. They are the following:

  • If the person has not been able to stop drinking alcohol without withdrawal symptoms.
  • If the person continues to drink alcohol despite the harm it is causing.
  • If drinking excessive amounts of alcohol has led to increasingly risky and unsafe behavior, such as taking drugs or engaging in unprotected sex.

In these cases, a doctor who is familiar with addiction medicine will be of great help to you. But on the other hand, the following are signs that you should call an ambulance or get the individual straight to the emergency room:

  • The person is comatose from excessive drinking.
  • The person has trouble breathing.
  • The person is having convulsions or seizures.
  • The person is exhibiting signs of heart problems or a stroke.

Tips for Preventing Alcohol Addiction

The most reliable approach to combating alcohol use disorder is prevention. You can keep the dangers of alcoholism at bay by doing the following:

  • Acknowledge your limits and help people keep to their own. Don’t be a bystander when it seems that someone is consuming more alcohol than they should. Please encourage them to stick to their limits, and be a good influence by keeping to your own.
  • Get help early. Don’t give a mild case of alcohol use disorder the chance to become a serious, full-blown case of alcoholism. As soon as you see the early warning signs, move to get help and turn the situation around.
  • Reach out to the people you love from a place of care and understanding. It’s not easy at all for anyone to acknowledge that they have problems with their alcohol consumption. But it will be easier for them to act on the issue if they know they have people supporting them. Let your loved one know that this isn’t the end, and that doing something about the problem will lead them to a better life.

At Better Addiction Care, we want to provide you with essential resources to aid your recovery journey. 


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