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Alcohol & Health
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Updated on November 15, 2023
10 min read

What is Alcohol Addiction?

Understanding Alcohol Addiction and Recovery

Alcohol addiction can be a devastating problem for people from all walks of life. Its far-reaching effects have many physical, psychological, and social consequences. 

But what exactly is alcohol addiction? This blog post delves into the complex world of alcohol addiction to help identify it and understand its signs and symptoms better. It also discusses ways you can seek out support for your recovery journey.


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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

AUD, or alcohol addiction, is a medical condition characterized by the inability to control or stop drinking. It occurs due to regular excessive alcohol consumption. 

Those with AUD face both psychological and physical dependence on alcohol. Moreover, abrupt cessation of alcohol consumption can result in severe withdrawal symptoms

Despite all the adverse effects, alcohol can still have some benefits. One advantage is the presence of antioxidants in red wine, which can diminish the risk of heart disease and lower bad cholesterol. 

However, while small amounts of alcohol may have certain health advantages, too much alcohol can negate these effects. 

How Common Is AUD?

According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 28.6 million adults aged 18 and older experienced AUD in 2020. This number accounts for 11.3% of this age group. 

The figure includes 16.3 million men (13.2% of men in this age group) and 12.4 million women (9.5% of women in this age group).5

Moderate Alcohol Consumption vs. Alcohol Addiction

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established clear guidelines for moderate drinking:

  • Women should have no more than one drink per day
  • Men should have no more than two drinks per day

Drinking moderately can reduce the likelihood of developing AUD. It also decreases the risk of short and long-term side effects.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Alcoholism?

Healthcare professionals use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to determine if you have AUD. They can also use this to determine the severity of your AUD depending on the number of symptoms you may have. 

Signs and symptoms of alcoholism can include any of the following:

  • Inability to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Inability to cut down on how much you drink
  • Binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks for females)
  • Spending more time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Drinking alone
  • Experiencing regular cravings for alcohol
  • Becoming preoccupied with alcohol and looking for your next drink
  • Continuing to drink, even when it causes physical, emotional, or social problems
  • Developing an alcohol tolerance and requiring more to achieve the desired effects
  • Drinking in unsafe situations, such as while driving
  • Allowing alcohol to affect personal and professional relationships
  • Losing interest in hobbies or activities you used to enjoy
  • Suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you are unable to drink

Some people with AUD may not perceive any negative consequences. These functional alcoholics are skilled at concealing alcohol consumption and maintaining a normal daily routine. 

However, this doesn’t mean they don’t have a drinking problem. They’ll continue this pattern of alcohol use until it eventually leads to serious health complications.

Who Are Functioning Alcoholics?

The term "functioning alcoholic" refers to those addicted to alcohol but can still effectively manage their daily life and social interactions. 

Others refer to them as high-functioning alcoholics or functional alcoholics. This pattern of drinking falls under one of the five subtypes of alcoholism. 

Recognizing someone as an alcoholic can be difficult when they seem to perform well and fulfill their obligations. However, with time, their alcohol dependence becomes evident to others. 

Functional alcoholism may include people who seem the most normal, such as someone who:

  • Is middle-aged (around 41 years old) 
  • Has healthy relationships
  • Has a steady job
  • Has no family history of alcoholism

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What Are the Risk Factors of Alcohol Addiction?

Research shows that different genes affect how your body and alcohol work together. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, genes account for up to 50% of a person’s risk of alcohol addiction.5

However, different factors contribute to your risk for AUD. These include the following:

1. Drinking at an Early Age

People who start drinking at a young age are susceptible to developing an addiction. The risk increases for people who engage in recurring excessive drinking episodes (binge drinking).

For young people, even the occasional episode of drinking beyond recommended limits can lead to a dependence on alcohol. This outlook brings a greater likelihood of becoming addicted. It’s also more difficult to manage drinking habits at a young age.

2. Mental Health Disorders

People with mental disorders are more susceptible to developing an addiction. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their symptoms (self-medication).

These mental health disorders may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Traumatic experiences like sexual abuse or war can also increase the likelihood of developing an addiction. Furthermore, limited access to proper healthcare services and treatments contributes to their reliance on self-medication. 

Additionally, people undergoing treatment for mental health conditions may encounter adverse side effects from their medications. This prompts them to explore alternative options, often involving substance abuse or misuse.

3. High Stress Levels

High-stress roles can lead professionals to recreational use of alcohol to alleviate stress. Pressure from various sources can trigger and increase the frequency of a person’s alcohol consumption.

Some examples of high-stress situations include:

  • Problems at work or school
  • Financial or legal problems
  • Social or relationship problems
  • Homelessness

4. Social Pressure

People tend to long for acceptance among their circles despite feeling uneasy with the inner dissonance unhealthy alcohol use causes. As a result, struggling people often yield to these demands to avoid alienation from their social groups. 

It's common for peers to exert pressure when voicing expectations related to alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, relenting from peer pressure puts them at increased risk for AUD.


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Why Do People Drink Alcohol?

There are a few reasons why people drink alcohol. Whether they do so moderately or excessively, drinking always comes with risks.

The most common reasons why people drink include:

  1. To cope with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
  2. To relieve stress caused by work, relationships, or daily responsibilities
  3. Social and peer pressure, such as in college or at work
  4. Pressure from the media (because alcohol use is seen as "normal")
  5. Exposure to alcohol due to their home/social environment or family history 

What Are the Health Complications of Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction can significantly impact your life and lead to serious health issues. Physical damage is often the initial indication of alcohol problems for functioning alcoholics.

Some health complications associated with alcohol addiction include:

Liver Disease

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can result in the buildup of fat in the liver, known as hepatic steatosis or fatty liver disease. Alcohol-induced inflammation of the liver, or alcoholic hepatitis, can also occur. 

The liver may be irreversibly damaged in severe cases, leading to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis increases the risk of developing liver cancer.

Symptoms of liver complications include:

  • Jaundice (yellowish skin)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Discolored stool
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Itchy skin
  • Weakness

Digestive Issues

Heavy drinking can affect the digestive system, causing stomach lining inflammation. It may also contribute to ulcers in the stomach and esophagus.

Common symptoms of digestive issues include:

  • Acid reflux
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite

Loss of Vitamins and Nutrients

Your body needs a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to function properly. In many cases, people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) may consume as much as half of their daily calories from alcohol. 

Even when they ingest sufficient calories, alcohol impairs the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. It also makes it difficult to absorb these vitamins and minerals:

  • Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc

These deficiencies can lead to many health issues. For example, the inability to regulate blood sugar can cause diabetes or diabetic complications.

Heart Disease

Alcohol addiction increases your risk of developing the following conditions:1

  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Heart attack
  • Congestive heart failure

Alcohol abuse contributes to a twofold increase in the risk of atrial fibrillation. Excessive alcohol use amplifies the risk of a heart attack by 1.4 times and congestive heart failure by 2.3 times.1


Alcohol is classified as a carcinogen for humans. It can potentially cause certain forms of cancer.

These types of cancers include:3

  • Head and neck cancer
  • Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal typically happens to people who have been heavily drinking alcohol for an extended period.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Insomnia
  • Mild tremors or shakes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems thinking
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DTs - “shaking frenzy”)

Alcohol withdrawal can have dangerous and fatal symptoms like delirium tremens. If you or someone you know is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

What Are the Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction?

There are many treatment options available for those struggling with alcoholism. The first step usually involves going through a medical detox. This process may involve medications that help reduce withdrawal symptoms. 

Additionally, it teaches you to develop healthy coping mechanisms and strategies for maintaining sobriety in the long-term. After the detox, you’ll enter a treatment program planned by your healthcare provider. 

Common treatment options for AUD include:

Inpatient Treatment Programs

Inpatient treatment is often the most effective approach for those with severe cases of addiction. The treatment involves staying at a professional facility that offers 24-hour care.  It is usually available on a short or long-term basis. 

During an inpatient program, you detoxify and receive close medical supervision throughout your stay. Staying at the facility allows you to remove yourself from triggers and stressors and focus solely on your health and recovery.

You also benefit from a wide range of therapies, including:

  • One-on-one counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Experiential therapies like art therapy or music therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment combines medications, counseling, and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders (SUD). During MAT, healthcare professionals may also address other health conditions.

Medications that are used for treating AUD include:

  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Naltrexone 

Support Groups

Support groups are also an essential part of recovery from alcohol addiction. These groups help those in treatment and those who have already completed a program.

Support groups include 12-step programs, which work to teach members how to stay sober through meetings and mentorship programs. 

The most common support group for alcohol addiction is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA includes:

  • Regular meetings with people going through similar struggles
  • Sponsor programs where members help one another stay sober
  • Step study sessions that focus on a thorough understanding of the 12 steps to recovery
  • Social activities and celebrations for those in recovery

Support groups like AA also offer online meetings and access to resources for specific types of addiction. You can also use free online resources like those the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides.


Alcohol addiction can have devastating consequences on your health. It increases your risk of developing liver disease, digestive issues, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, heart disease, and cancer.

Fortunately, many treatment options are available to those struggling with alcoholism. These include inpatient and outpatient treatment programs and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, reach out for help right away. You can always break the cycle of addiction and start living a healthier life.

Updated on November 15, 2023
9 sources cited
Updated on November 15, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Alcohol Abuse Increases Risk of Heart Conditions as Much as Other Risk Factors.” American College of Cardiology, 2017.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol Questions and Answers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet.” National Cancer Institute, 2021. 
  4. Firth, G. "How Alcohol Affects You." University of California San Diego.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023.
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  7. Edenberg H., and Foroud, T. "Genetics and alcoholism." Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2013.
  8. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. “Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart?” Mayo Clinic, 2023.
  9. Müller et al. "Subtypes of alcohol use disorder in the general population: A latent class analysis." Psychiatry Research, 2020.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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