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What is Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism)?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a health condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol consumption. This is often despite negative social, occupational, or health consequences.
AUD is sometimes referred to as:
- Alcohol abuse
- Alcohol dependence
- Alcohol addiction
The condition is considered a brain disorder. AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Lasting adjustments in the brain resulting from alcohol consumption can lead to AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse.
In 2019, 14.1 million adults aged 18 and older suffered from AUD. Approximately 414,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 also had AUD during this period.
Who is at Risk of Alcohol Addiction?
An individual’s risk for developing alcohol addiction partly depends on how much, how often, and how quickly they drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol excessively, which includes binge drinking and heavy alcohol use, increases the risk of AUD over time.
Other factors that lead to AUD include:
- Drinking at an early age
- Family history
- Mental health conditions
- A history of trauma
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9 Signs You Might be Drinking Too Much
If you feel concerned about your drinking habits, here is a list of signs to watch out for:
- People make comments about how much you drink
- You set yourself limits on alcohol consumption that you always pass
- You crave alcohol often
- You become defensive when confronted about your drinking
- Drinking is taking a toll on your well-being and health
- You use drinking as a coping mechanism
- Alcohol has become the center of your social life
- You are experiencing familial, legal, or work-related issues due to drinking
- You are worried about your drinking
Moderate Drinking vs. Heavy Alcohol Consumption
Moderate drinking is consuming up to one beverage per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Heavy alcohol use is defined as more than three drinks per day for women and more than four drinks per day for men.
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True Alcoholics vs. “Almost Alcoholics”
Nearly one-third of American adults are defined as excessive drinkers. However, only ten percent of them have an AUD. SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.
These results show that most people who drink excessively are not alcohol dependent. This group of people can be considered as ‘almost alcoholics.’
True alcoholics experience intense cravings for alcohol. They typically cannot control their drinking and display withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop. They usually continue drinking despite health or other alcohol-related issues.
However, while only ten percent of heavy drinkers are alcoholics, it does not mean that the other 90 percent do not have drinking problems. Excessive drinking negatively affects up to one-third of drinkers who are not defined as having AUD.
Many ‘almost alcoholics’ experience alcohol-related issues with their health, relationships, and work. However, while these individuals do not qualify as having AUD, they may need to look at how drinking affects their lives.
The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT)
The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) was created by the World Health Organization in 1982. It was developed as a simple way to screen and identify individuals at higher risk of developing alcohol issues.
The AUDIT test helps identify the first signs of excessive drinking and mild dependence. It is used to detect alcohol issues experienced within the last year.
The AUDIT is currently one of the most accurate alcohol screening tests available. It is rated 92 percent successful in detecting excessive or harmful drinking. Unlike some alcohol screening tests, AUDIT is typically accurate across gender and ethnic groups too.
The AUDIT test contains ten multiple-choice questions. These questions ask about:
- The quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption
- Drinking behavior
- Alcohol-related issues or reactions
The answers are noted on a point system. A score of more than eight suggests an alcohol problem.
Symptoms & Effects of Alcohol Addiction
A few mild symptoms and side effects can signal the beginning of an alcohol substance abuse problem. It helps to know the signs, so you make adjustments early on. If excessive drinking continues over time, the number and severity of symptoms can increase and lead to AUD.
If you have experienced more than two of the following symptoms in the past 12 months, this indicates AUD:
- Have ended up drinking more or longer than intended
- Have wanted to cut down or quit drinking on more than one occasion but was unable to
- You spend a lot of time drinking or becoming sick following an event of drinking
- Desired a drink so badly you could not think of anything else
- Found that drinking, or being sick from it, often interferes with looking after your home or family or causes school or job issues
- Continued to drink even though it led to problems with your family and friends
- Gave up or cut back on activities that you once enjoyed to drink
- Gotten into situations during or after drinking that have increased your chances of becoming hurt, such as driving, swimming, or engaging in unsafe sex
- Continued to drink even though it made you anxious, depressed, or contributed to another health issue
- Had to consume more alcohol to reach the desired effects or found that your usual number of alcoholic beverages had much less of an impact than before
- Experienced withdrawal symptoms once the alcohol wore off, including trouble sleeping, shakiness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure
There are various short-term and long-term effects of alcohol addiction. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can result in the development of chronic diseases and other severe problems. By limiting the amount you drink, you can reduce the risk of these effects.
Short-term effects include:
- Injuries, including motor vehicle crashes, falls, burns, and drownings
- Violence, including sexual assault, suicide, intimate partner violence, and homicide
- Alcohol poisoning
- Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with various partners. These behaviors can lead to unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women
These short-term effects are often the result of binge drinking. They can also increase the risk of many long-term health conditions.
Long-term effects include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Digestive health problems
- Cancer of the breast, throat, mouth, liver, esophagus, and colon
- A weakening of the immune system, increasing the likelihood of becoming sick
- Learning and memory issues, including dementia and poor school performance
- Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety
- Social problems, including lost productivity, family issues, and unemployment
How to Help a Loved One Stop Drinking
There are several ways you can help a loved one stop drinking.
Speak with Them
Confronting your loved ones about their drinking problem can be difficult. Try to approach them in a non-accusatory way and plan what you will say ahead of time. Ensure that your loved one is sober and relatively emotionally stable.
Ensure that you are also feeling calm as your friend or family member must not feel attacked. Avoid accusatory language, like ‘You had better seek help or else.’
Host an Intervention
Approaching someone to discuss your worries about their drinking problem is different from an intervention. An intervention involves more planning. During an intervention, you typically share your feelings, give consequences, and present treatment options.
An intervention may be the best course of action if your loved one is resisting help. During the intervention process, friends, family members, and co-workers typically gather together to confront the individual to urge them to receive treatment.
Usually, interventions are held with the help of a professional therapist or counselor. A professional therapist or counselor can help guide the intervention and provide medical advice.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Most people suffering from AUD can benefit from addiction treatment. Medical treatments include medications and behavioral therapies. For many individuals, using both types offers the best results.
People seeking treatment for AUD may also benefit from attending support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA.) If you suffer from AUD and a co-occurring mental illness, it is essential to seek treatment for both.
Some people may require intensive treatment for AUD. They may need to attend a residential treatment center for rehabilitation.
At rehab, treatment is highly structured. It typically involves various types of behavioral therapies. Rehab may also include receiving medicines for detox to assist with alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Benefits of Stopping Alcohol Use
When you stop drinking after years of alcohol misuse, your body will begin to reverse the effects of heavy drinking. In time, you will notice the financial, relationship, and health benefits of stopping alcohol use.
One of AUD symptoms is giving up the social activities and hobbies you once loved to focus on drinking. However, when you become sober, you will have more time to rediscover yourself and your passions.