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What is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence refers to a need for alcohol. If you crave alcoholic drinks and are unable to control your binge drinking behavior or stop drinking, you may have alcohol dependence.6

Alcohol dependence is also called alcoholism, which is a chronic disease. A person with alcoholism has an alcohol addiction and needs to drink more and more alcohol to feel the same effects. They may also experience health problems and withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit drinking.4

Alcohol dependence can affect both your physical and mental health. It can also cause trouble with your social life, financial situation, professional career, family obligations, and other aspects of your life.

The effects of alcohol misuse vary depending on how much you and how often you drink. They also depend on other factors like your weight, age, and gender. 

Excessive alcohol consumption has physical consequences that include, but aren’t limited to, the following:3

  • Unhealthy weight gain or loss
  • Sleep trouble
  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Liver damage
  • High blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low sex drive
  • Weakened immune system
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Central nervous system issues
  • Accidents due to impaired judgment

Excessive alcohol consumption can also take a toll on your mental health. Consequences include, but aren’t limited to, the following:3

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Confusion
  • Personality changes
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of motivation

And, last but not least, alcohol dependence can also lead to social consequences that include, but aren’t limited to, the following:3

  • Detachment from family and other loved ones
  • Tendency to skip school, work, and other professional obligations
  • Tendency to drop hobbies that were once enjoyable

You are not alone if you are dealing with an alcohol problem. In fact, almost one-third of United States adults drink excessively, and 10 percent of them are addicted to alcohol. Meanwhile, an estimated 15 million people are considered alcoholics. Excessive alcohol use accounts for 88,000 deaths across the country every single year.5

How to Tell if You’re Alcohol Dependent (5 Signs)

Here are five signs to tell you, or a loved one, are alcohol dependent:

1. You Have a Tolerance to Alcohol

If you notice that you have a tolerance when drinking alcohol, it could be a sign of alcohol dependence. Heavy drinking and other unhealthy drinking habits can build up your tolerance to alcohol. The more you up your alcohol consumption, the more alcohol intake you need to feel the same effects of alcohol.1

2. You Develop Withdrawal Symptoms 

If you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit alcohol or even cut back on excessive alcohol use, it could be a red flag that you have developed a dependence on alcohol.1 

While not everyone who is dependent on alcohol will suffer from alcohol withdrawal, it is not uncommon. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be very dangerous, which is why it’s always important to quit or cut back on drinking with professional help. You should never try to stop drinking alone if you have a problem.

3. You Drink to Avoid or Relieve Withdrawal Symptoms

If you notice that you are drinking to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms, this could be a sign that you have a drinking problem.1 Again, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be serious and even deadly. It is important to reach out for professional help. 

4. You are Drinking More and More Alcohol to Feel Effects

People with alcohol problems tend to drink more and more in order to raise their blood alcohol level. This is because, the more (and the more often) you drink, the more you build up a tolerance to alcohol.1

5. You Crave Alcohol Throughout the Day 

If you find yourself thinking about alcohol and wanting it throughout the day, this could be a red flag. Alcohol and substance use often starts with intrusive thoughts and relentless cravings.1

Maybe you are having a rough day, and you think that a glass of wine or cocktail later will make you feel better. Or maybe you are having a great day, and you want to enjoy some alcohol. Perhaps there is nothing different or special about your day, but you still find yourself constantly thinking about alcohol. 

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Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal 

Cutting back on alcohol or quitting altogether can do wonders for your health. These health benefits include the following:

  • Improved heart and liver health
  • Better brain function
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Healthy weight loss or gain
  • Boosted energy
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increased sex drive
  • More satisfying sleep
  • Improved immune system function
  • Lower risk of certain cancers
  • Improved digestive system

It can be dangerous to cut yourself off from alcohol cold turkey. The detoxification process can be tricky. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable to severe. Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can lead to life-threatening health conditions and even death.

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include the following:7

  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium tremens (shaking, confusion, high blood pressure, fever, and hallucinations are some symptoms)
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure
  • Intense cravings
  • Depression

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can come on quickly. In fact, they can start as soon as just a few hours after you have had your last alcoholic drink. Likewise, you may have seizures as early as about six hours after the last drink. And hallucinations can also happen within the same day.

It is very important to talk to your healthcare provider about alcohol addiction treatment options. Working with a trusted treatment program for help battling alcohol misuse or a drug addiction can help you navigate the road to recovery over a slow, steady, and safe period.

Best Treatment Options for Withdrawal Symptoms

You should never try to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms on your own. Doing so can kill you. And, if it doesn’t kill you, it can still be incredibly difficult. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can significantly hurt your physical and mental health.

The best way to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms is to reach out for professional help immediately. A trusted medical professional will be best able to assess your situation and prescribe the correct course of treatment.

Alcohol Dependence vs. Alcohol Use 

Someone who is dependent on alcohol relies on it because they are addicted. Someone who misuses alcohol may binge drink to a point that it causes problems, but they are not addicted to alcohol.3

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Alcohol Dependence vs. Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism)

Alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism, are often used interchangeably. But not all heavy drinkers who are dependent on alcohol are considered alcoholics. 

Risk Factors for Alcohol Dependence

Anyone can become dependent on alcohol. That said, people with a family history of alcohol use disorder or a personal history of depression and/or mental health issues are at a higher risk of developing alcohol dependence. Likewise, people who start drinking at an early age are also at a higher risk.2

How to Reduce the Risk of Developing Alcohol Dependence

If you are someone who is at risk of developing alcohol dependence, be mindful of your drinking habits. If you notice that you are drinking often or a lot or drinking to cope with mental illness, seek professional help before it becomes a real problem.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Dependence 

Fortunately, if you or someone you know has a drinking problem, help is available. There are support groups, cognitive therapists, both inpatient and outpatient alcohol rehab centers, and other options out there for you to explore.

You may decide to try several different options or combine two or a few of them. There is no one right way to recover from alcohol dependence. Find what works for you and stick to it. The road to recovery may take some time, but it’s better to seek professional treatment than to completely cut yourself off from alcohol right off the bat.

Tips for Preventing Relapse

The best way to prevent relapse is by working with medical professionals on your recovery journey. It’s also important to distance yourself from people who are bad influences and remove yourself from situations that involve alcohol.

If you live with a partner, family, or friends, you should talk to them about removing alcohol from your home. The more accessible alcohol is to you, the easier it is to relapse.

Resources

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(1) “Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 May 2021, medlineplus.gov/alcoholusedisorderaud.html.

(2) “Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

(3) Alcoholism. Healthline, www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/basics

(4) Becker, Howard C. “Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, and Relapse.” Alcohol Research & Health : the Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860472/

(5) “Most People Who Drink Excessively Are Not Alcohol Dependent.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p1120-excessive-driniking.html

(6) “NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms.” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/alcohol-dependence

(7) Publishing, Harvard Health. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/alcohol-withdrawal-a-to-z.

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