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Alcohol Addiction

Alcoholic beverages are everywhere from the smallest pub to gas stations, and now even some movie theaters. More than half of American adults partake in alcoholic drinks, whether it be Happy Hour after work or a New Year’s glass of champagne or shots “because you lost a bet”. Because alcohol use is so commonplace and accepted in American culture as a normal activity, especially when compared to substances like meth or heroin, it can be difficult to perceive the shift from alcohol use to abuse to full-blown addiction.

Just because it can be difficult does not mean that it has to be. By understanding the causes behind alcoholism, it can become easier to avoid alcohol addiction and help yourself or someone you know. In addiction treatment, early detection is arguably one of the most important factors in determining whether or not the addiction treatment process is successful. The more time you wait before taking action, the harder it will be to perceive, and therefore treat, cases of alcoholism and alcohol addiction.

Alcohol Addiction: Symptoms and when to Seek Treatment

Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, with nearly 15 million people struggling with alcohol dependence or abuse. The medical term for alcoholism is Alcohol Use Disorder, which is described as a chronic brain disease distinguished by compulsive alcohol use, a negative mental and emotional state when not using, and a lack of control over alcohol intake. What is the difference between addiction and just common use, then?

A number of factors are in play when it comes to determining what can cause alcoholism in any one person, including environmental, physical, psychological, social, and genetic. However, some of these factors can have a more significant impact than the others. For example, someone’s risk of potentially becoming an alcoholic is as much as three to four times greater if their parent is an alcoholic.

How Addiction Develops

The roots of addiction are commonly traced back to childhood and exposure to alcohol at an early age. Children who start drinking before the age of 15 are six times more likely to later develop a dependence on alcohol than those who don’t drink until the age of 21, which is especially troubling when taking into account that more than 40 percent of all tenth graders drink alcohol. Children and young adults who otherwise wouldn’t intend to start drinking are often introduced to it via peer pressure, causing use to potentially escalate to abuse.

College is also the starting point for substance use, with some students unable to appropriately handle their newfound freedom. In fact, freshman students showed some of the highest rates of student substance use on college campuses. And while many may think of alcoholism as a “middle-aged” disease, the “Young Adult” subtype is actually the largest subtype of alcoholics in the United States, accounting for 32 percent of alcoholics.   

Woman in psychosis from alcohol addiction

Mental illness is also a common impetus for alcohol dependence and abuse, as many people suffering from conditions like depression or anxiety might use alcohol to self-medicate. At the start, it can feel like alcohol dulls the symptoms associated with these illnesses, but over time, will only serve to make them worse and more difficult to cope with.

Finally, while scientists have yet to identify an “alcoholism gene,” there are genes we do know that can reduce the impact of a hangover as well as boost the power of alcohol. The combination of getting a more intense buzz from drinking without having to feel as much of the effects of heavy drinking puts them at a much higher risk of developing alcoholism.

What Are the Signs of Alcohol Addiction?

The shift from alcohol use to dependency and abuse to full-blown addiction generally follows a regular pattern as the user loses control of their consumption and alcohol becomes the force that drives the majority of their behaviors. 

The CAGE Questionnaire to diagnose alcoholic symptoms

  1. Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (an Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

Answering “yes” to at least two is a sure sign of a growing dependency. 

Beyond this, there are many signs of alcohol abuse, including some that, isolated from the rest, can be easy to miss. However, as these troubling behaviors begin to pile up, things become clearer:

  • A tolerance that requires more drinking to achieve the same effects
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Drinking alcohol throughout the day
  • A willingness to drink and drive
  • Feeling the need to drink every single day
  • Wanting to stop drinking but being unable to follow through on it
  • Prioritizing alcohol over hobbies, work, friends, or family

Signs of a fully-fledged addiction are typically far more serious and harder to ignore, such as:

  • Domestic disputes
  • Accidents
  • Arrests
  • Hospitalization
  • Job loss
  • Concerns for child welfare

It is essential and potentially life-saving that professional help and treatment are sought out before these last signs, and the serious repercussions that go along with them, manifest.

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Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcoholism is dangerous, there is no doubt about it. Unfortunately, many people realize that they or someone they know suffers from addiction, but less than 10 percent of people that are addicted seek treatment. This leaves the roughly 90 percent of the others to either continue abusing alcohol, or in some cases, they try to quit cold turkey.

Deppressed young man experiencing withdrawal

Quitting something “cold turkey” refers to the act of suddenly stopping all intake of a certain substance in an attempt to treat their addiction. Quitting cold turkey leads to serious side effects, and should almost never be used to treat addiction. Instead, seek professional help in order to treat yourself in the safest, most comfortable way.

Alcohol has a depressive effect on your brain, slowing its function and the way information is communicated throughout the body. Continuous drug abuse forces your central nervous system to practically reprogram itself. Because of the constant depressive effects, your body works harder to stay awake and keep your nerves communicating. Once your alcohol level drops to zero, your body needs time to readjust from working overtime to complete sobriety. Quitting cold turkey gives your body no time to readjust, which in turn causes withdrawal symptoms. Because of this, it is always advised to seek alcoholism treatment to avoid dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from moderate to extremely severe. Depending on the intensity of the alcohol abuse, symptoms can include:

  • Shaky hands
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Although these are the most common symptoms, there are more rare, serious, and severe problems such as hallucinations and seizures. Delirium tremens, known commonly as DTs, are very rare, and only happen in around five percent of people suffering from alcohol withdrawal. These are more severe symptoms like intense hallucinations and delusions. Other side effects of DTs are:

  • Confusion
  • Fast heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Excessive sweating

What Is Involved in Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

There are many different factors involved with treating alcohol addiction, such as whether it is done through a residential or outpatient program. Determining which one is the best option depends on the patient and which environment is best suited to his recovery. However, if a medical detox is necessary, then that needs to be done at an inpatient center. If alcohol withdrawal is not handled by a trained medical professional, the results can be fatal.

About 10 percent of alcoholics will experience a life-threatening withdrawal, so we recommend a carefully monitored detox.

Treatment begins with a patient evaluation that helps to determine the most effective treatment plan, which will typically involve a mix of some or all of the following addiction therapies:

Therapy Types

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Nutrition guidance
  • Exercise therapy
  • Relapse prevention plans
  • Support group work

The amount of time a person needs to be in treatment will vary depending on circumstances such as the severity of the addiction. It is; however, important to keep in mind that alcoholism is a chronic condition that will require lifelong management.

Relapse rates tend to fall within the range of 40-60 percent, but it is equally important to remember that a relapse is not a failure but a chance to refine treatment and management plans to make them more effective and avoid a future relapse.

How Dangerous is Untreated Alcoholism?

Despite the skewed cultural perspective on alcohol, the danger of alcohol abuse is very real and often fatal: Alcoholism is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., contributing to roughly 88,000 deaths every year, more than half of which are due to binge drinking. Prolonged excessive alcohol use can negatively affect your body in a number of ways, including:

  • Disruptions in the brain’s communication pathways, which can affect mood, behavior, and impair clear thinking and coordination
  • Serious heart problems such as arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Major liver damage such as cirrhosis, fibrosis, and alcoholic hepatitis
  • A weakened immune system that is more likely to contract infections as well as diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis
  • An increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, breast, and esophageal cancers
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol-related neuro-developmental disorders, and alcohol-related birth defects, which can occur when a woman drinks while pregnant

These are just a few of the most prominent dangers of alcohol abuse, not even mentioning the dangerous situations people can find themselves in when their cognitive functions have been compromised by excessive alcohol, such as driving drunk, acting aggressively, or even causing harm to loved ones.  

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

  • As many as 40 percent of hospital beds in the country are currently occupied by those with health conditions related to excessive alcohol consumption.
  • In 2010 alone, alcohol misuse cost the United States nearly 250 billion dollars due to a combination of healthcare and criminal justice expenses, motor vehicle crash costs, and property damage.
  • Roughly one in seven teens binge drink, yet only 1 in 100 parents believe their teen binge drinks.
  • Nearly 30 people a day in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve a drunk driver. That’s one death every 51 minutes.
  • Over seven million children currently live in a household where at least one parent is abusing alcohol.


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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Results From the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. (2015). Retrieved from

Fight Back Against Misinformation. Get the Facts. (2018). from

Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Healthcare. CAGE Substance Abuse Screening Tool. Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1999) Relapse Prevention. Larimer, M. PhD., Palmer, R., Marlatt, G., Ph.D. Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Statistics and Facts. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) Alcohol and Public Health. Data on Excessive Drinking. Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol's Effects on Health. Alcohol's Effects on the Body. Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol's Effects on Health. Fetal Alcohol Exposure. Retrieved from

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excessive Drinking is Draining the U.S. Economy. from

SAMHSA. Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. from

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