Alcohol use disorder (AUD), more commonly known as alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disease. It develops with continued alcohol abuse or dependency on alcohol.
Alcoholics battle an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol intake. This is because alcoholics may struggle when they’re not drinking.
You may be at a higher risk of developing alcohol addiction if:
- You have a history of alcoholism or substance abuse in your family
- You battle depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions
Do I Have A Drinking Problem? Self-Assessment Questionnaire
If you’re asking yourself, am I an alcoholic, this self-assessment questionnaire may be helpful for you.
- Have I wanted to cut back on drinking or quit but cannot?
- Have I been drinking more or more often than I’d planned to drink?
- Do I keep drinking more and more to feel the effects of alcohol?
- Do I find that drinking interferes with aspects of my life, such as my job, family, or self-care?
- Do I spend a lot of time drinking alone?
- Do I spend a lot of time seeking out opportunities to drink or recovering from drinking, including blackouts?
- Am I experiencing alcohol-induced health complications?
- Do I continue drinking despite health, social, financial, or legal issues?
- Do I have severe cravings for alcohol?
- Do I experience withdrawal symptoms when I’m not drinking alcohol, such as nausea, irritability, or tremors?
Signs of Alcoholism (Alcohol Use Disorder)
The 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists 11 symptoms that can be used to determine whether someone has an AUD.
- You continue to consume more and more alcohol (more significant amounts or over a more extended period).
- You find it difficult to limit your excessive drinking.
- You spend a lot of time obtaining, drinking, or recovering from alcohol.
- You feel cravings or intense urges to drink.
- You find yourself letting your obligations and responsibilities like work, school, and relationships with friends and family fall by the wayside.
- You continue to consume alcohol despite alcohol-induced social or interpersonal issues caused by alcohol.
- You stop or slow down attending important social, work, or recreational activities due to alcohol use.
- You continue to use alcohol in situations that can cause you physical harm.
- You continue to use alcohol despite knowing it harms you physically, psychologically, or socially.
- You've developed a high tolerance for alcohol that requires you to drink more and more to achieve the same effect.
- You've experienced any alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, irritability, or tremors (delirium tremens)
The DSM-5 states that when a person is diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, the severity of their condition depends on the number of symptoms they have:
- 2 to 3 symptoms are considered mild
- 4 to 5 symptoms is considered moderate
- 6 or more symptoms are considered severe
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol addiction changes the way your mind and body work. A physical dependence causes you to experience withdrawal when you stop drinking.
Mild and moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically show up six to eight hours after your last drink. However, they may spike 24 to 72 hours after your last drink.
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Extreme fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping
- Inability to think clearly
- Rapid heart rate
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Binge Drinking vs. Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism
Binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism are alcohol use disorders (AUD). That said, binge drinking can lead to alcohol abuse, ultimately leading to alcoholism.
If you’re wondering, am I an alcoholic, you’re not alone. An estimated 15 million people cope with alcoholism in the United States. But, to tell if you’re an alcoholic, it’s essential to understand the difference between binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism.NIAAA
The NIAAA defines binge drinking as a drinking pattern that elevates one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08 g/dL. One’s BAC level differs depending on various factors—from food intake and weight to medications (or lack thereof). But it typically reaches .08 g/dL after four drinks for women and five drinks for men in about two hours.
Someone who binge drinks now and then isn’t necessarily an alcohol abuser. Alcohol abusers continue to drink alcohol despite:
- Recurrent, alcohol-induced health problems
- Social consequences
- Occupational consequences
- Legal consequences
Nearly one-third of American adults are deemed excessive drinkers, but only 10 percent of them are considered alcoholics. CDC
Alcohol abusers may have an easier time breaking their heavy drinking habits. On the other hand, alcoholics will likely experience dependency-induced consequences.
Alcoholism is characterized by an addiction to alcohol. Alcoholics may suffer withdrawal while not drinking, complicating their already-impaired ability to quit. The addiction causes a chemical change in one’s brain, which drives them to drink more and more often—first for pleasure, then to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Types of Alcoholics
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) divides alcoholics into five different subtypes:10
Young Adult Alcoholics
- 32 percent of all alcoholics fall in this category (primarily due to high binge drinking levels in college)
- The average age in this group is 24 years old
- Less than 22 percent have a family history of alcoholism
- Low incidence of mental health disorders
- Only 9 percent seek help for alcohol (most often from 12-step groups)
Young Antisocial Alcoholics
- 21 percent of alcoholics
- The average age of 26 years old
- Characterized by an antisocial personality disorder
- 37 percent suffer from major depression, 14 percent from social phobias, 33 percent from bipolar disorder, and 19 percent from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- On average, this group drinks 201 days a year and usually consumes five or more drinks at a time
- About 53 percent have multiple generations of alcohol dependency,
- High occurrence of smoking and drug abuse; 66 percent abuse cannabis, 8 percent abuse amphetamines, 29 percent have a high probability for cocaine abuse, and 22 percent abuse opioids.
- Approximately one-third of young antisocial alcoholics seek treatment for their alcohol dependence from self-help groups, specialty treatment programs, detox programs, and private health care providers.
Intermediate Familial Alcoholics
- 19 percent of all alcoholics
- The average age of 38 years old
- Genetics is a big factor in this subtype
- Drinking usually begins around the age 17
- 47 percent have a family member with an alcohol dependency
- 47 percent suffer from major depression, 22 percent from bipolar disorder, 19 percent from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 15 percent from a generalized anxiety disorder
- 27 percent seek help for their drinking, usually via self-help groups, specialty treatment programs, detox programs, and private healthcare providers
- 19.4 percent of all alcoholics
- Functional alcoholics can balance their drinking with their personal and professional life
- Many people do not expect functional alcoholics to have a problem
- People in this subtype tend to be in their early 40s
- On average, this group drinks every other day, averaging 181 days a year
- Almost 50 percent are married, 62 percent work full-time, and 26 percent have a college degree or higher
- 31 percent have a family member with alcohol dependence
- 24 percent have major depression
- 17 percent in this group seek help for their drinking from 12-step programs or private health care professionals
Chronic Severe Alcoholics
- 9 percent of alcoholics
- Most at-risk groups of alcoholics
- Heavy drinking is a near-daily recurrence, averaging 247 days out of the year
- 77 percent have a family member with alcohol dependency
- Higher probabilities for other substance abuse, including cigarettes, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids
- Lowest education levels and rate of employment of any other subtype
- 66 percent seek treatment and have the highest attendance in self-help groups, specialty treatment programs, detox programs, and inpatient programs
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Risks of Alcoholism
Alcoholism can lead to different risks, both short-term and long-term.
Short-term risks of alcoholism include:
- Poor decision-making skills, such as drunk driving or engaging in risky sexual behavior
- Memory loss or lapses
- Pregnancy complications
Long-term risks of alcoholism include:
- Increased risk for heart diseases
- Liver disease
- Cancer of the breast, colon, throat, mouth, and rectum
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders
- Unemployment and financial problems
- Strained relationships with friends and family
It's best to seek help to avoid these alcoholism-related problems.
Are the Effects of Alcoholism Reversible?
Excessive alcohol consumption can heighten the risk of health issues. Despite the harm linked with alcohol consumption, the effects are reversible in most cases.
Identifying and understanding problematic drinking early and receiving treatment can reverse many mental, emotional, and physical side effects of drinking. However, the damage from heavy alcohol use may be too severe at a certain point. For example, liver failure and cirrhosis are permanent complications of excessive alcohol use.
Permanent health damage shouldn’t stop a person from seeking treatment, as it can still significantly improve an individual’s quality of life.
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Treatment & Support Groups for Alcoholism
There are different addiction treatment options for those facing alcohol problems. These include support groups, therapies, medical treatments, and more typically used in conjunction with detox and withdrawal.
Here are some options to get you started:
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is arguably the most well-known support group for alcoholics. It’s a global, community-driven program that involves regular accountability meetings and group discussions surrounding addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous also uses a 12-step approach to overcoming an addiction to alcohol. Members can revisit these steps at any time. These steps include:
- Admitting to addiction
- Making conscious choices to change
- Using prayer and meditation to overcome the addiction
Addiction Rehab Options
Treatment centers can help you to develop new coping skills, get medical support from trusted healthcare professionals, and hold yourself accountable.
Inpatient care is ideal for anyone with a severe addiction to alcohol who needs constant supervision during the withdrawal and recovery phases.
On the other hand, outpatient care may be appropriate for someone with a less severe addiction to alcohol but still needs professional help.
Counseling can help you discover any mental or emotional baggage that can trigger your alcohol addiction. Identifying the causes of your alcohol addiction can help you healthily overcome your addiction.
Medication for alcoholism is usually used in combination with other methods of treatment. Medication might include:
- Naltrexone to reduce alcohol cravings
- Acamprosate to help repair the brain
- Disulfiram triggers a negative physical reaction to alcohol to help prevent you from drinking it
Alcoholism is a serious condition that requires immediate attention. It can lead to different physical, social, and mental problems. If you suspect that you or someone else has alcoholism, seek help immediately.