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Alcohol addiction, also referred to as alcoholism, is a widespread disease that impacts people of all walks of life.

Alcohol is one of the oldest mood-altering substances known to society. It is also extremely addictive. Alcohol is socially acceptable and readily available, making it extremely difficult to recognize as a problem for some individuals.

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older (5.8 percent of this age group) had Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). This includes 9.2 million men (7.6 percent of men in this age group) and 5.3 million women (4.1 percent of women in this age group).

The use of alcohol is appealing because of the effect it has on the brain. While consuming alcohol, endorphins are released, creating the sensation of pleasure. It can, however, be an addiction and contributes to short and long-term health and lifestyle problems.

Types of Alcohol

The scientific term for the form of alcohol that people drink is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. It is produced by fermenting grains, fruits, or vegetables. Ethanol depresses the nervous system leading to a buzzed or drunk feeling. A blood alcohol content of below .1% can cause intoxication, while a percentage above .4% can be fatal.

Other alcohol types include isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) or methyl alcohol (used in industrial solvents), which should never be ingested.

Alcoholism is one disease which must be self-diagnosed, meaning the individual needs to recognize drinking as a problem or source of problems in their lives. Because alcohol is legal and readily available, it may take some time before a person views it as an addiction.

Figuring out whether or not someone has an alcohol abuse problem can be challenging. Asking a few questions can help pinpoint the answer:

  • Have you tried to cut back on drinking but are unable to?
  • Does drinking interfere with your daily life personally and professionally?
  • Do you need to consume more and more alcohol to achieve the same effects?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you do not have alcohol in your system?
  • Are you consuming alcohol at the expense of a specific health problem?
  • Do you have hangovers often?
  • Do you get defensive if someone insinuates that you drink too much?
  • Do you frequently drink more than you originally intended?

Alcohol Dependence

As tolerance increases, a physical dependence on alcohol can develop. More alcohol becomes necessary to achieve the same “drunk” feeling and without alcohol in the body, withdrawal symptoms occur, such as nausea or sweating.

Dependence can not only be physical, but can also be mental and psychological. All types of dependencies combined can lead to extreme alcohol addiction.

However, it is important to note that there is a distinction between dependence and addiction. As the National Institute of Drug Abuse states, dependence exists when alcohol is necessary for the brain to function regularly. Addiction is defined as a chronic medical disease characterized by compulsive behaviors despite negative consequences.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and Alcoholism

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) can be defined as compulsive behaviors associated with alcohol use characterized by lack of control of alcohol intake, interference in one’s daily life, strong susceptibility for relapsing use and detrimental effects on the body physically and mentally when alcohol is not present.

The most extreme level of AUD is alcoholism. AUD behaviors and symptoms might include:

  • Inability to limit drinking
  • Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Continued alcohol abuse despite health concerns
  • Large amounts of alcohol consumption in shorter periods of time called “binge drinking”
  • Spending a majority of time consuming alcohol, nursing hangovers or withdrawal symptoms
  • Consistently shirking work and personal responsibilities

Complicating matters, there are risk factors, both genetic and environmental, that make some individuals more likely to become addicted. According to the DSM-5, alcoholism is believed to have a strong heritable component, with between 40–60% of the variance of risk being attributable to genetic factors.

While this does not guarantee that a family history of alcoholism leads to subsequent alcoholism in offspring, biologically it does create a stronger predisposition to encounter it as an issue.

Social Drinking and Alcohol Addiction

A social drinker consumes alcohol casually, in many cases in the presence of friends or co-workers at bars and restaurants. It can be common for individuals to have a couple of drinks together after a long day of work and this behavior has become completely socially acceptable. Alcohol can be used as an outlet for relaxation for some.

However, it is important to diagnose whether alcohol consumption by someone has become out of their control. Continuing to quantify how much alcohol an individual is consuming on a daily or weekly basis will help determine if there is a problem present. Heavy drinking is defined as four or more alcoholic beverages a day for men and three for women on five or more days in a month.

It might be challenging to determine if someone is just a social drinker versus an alcoholic. If the consumption of alcohol is not interfering in someone’s personal or professional life and they have no health problems associated with alcohol use, it might be safe to say they are only a social drinker. However, habits can easily intensify.

High functioning alcoholics, who might be even more difficult to pinpoint, engage in the compulsive, unhealthy behaviors but do not let their habits appear to interfere with their daily life. Encouraging someone like this to get help can be extremely challenging, as they likely believe they can “do it all” and have their life under control.

Side Effects of Alcohol Addiction

Short-term and long-term effects of consistent alcohol use might include:

  • Heart problems
  • Liver disease (such as cirrhosis)
  • Pancreatic problems
  • Certain types of cancer
  • A weakened immune system

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is a real disease. If you or a loved one believe an alcohol addiction is present, treatment is likely necessary. Don’t wait to get help. You are not alone. We are here for you and we are here to help.