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Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, is a chronic relapsing brain disease. It affects your physical and mental health and changes the way your brain works.
Someone with an AUD also experiences physical alcohol dependence. Severe withdrawal symptoms will develop if they suddenly stop drinking. Headaches, anxiety, mild tremors, and insomnia are common symptoms.
In severe cases, delirium tremens (DTs) occur. This happens because the brain is unable to rebalance, causing confusion in the brain that can result in normal body function regulation.
This can also affect your heart rate and blood pressure, which increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
You have a higher risk of developing alcoholism if you:
The symptoms of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), vary widely. There are physical symptoms and psychological symptoms.
An important part of recovery is understanding the different signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction.
Not all symptoms of alcohol addiction are physical, and many alcoholics become good at hiding alcoholism-related symptoms.
The DSM-5 (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders—the gold standard for mental health disorders in the United States) defines AUDs as substance use disorders where an individual displays two of the following 11 symptoms in a year:
Physical symptoms associated with AUD occur due to the effects of alcohol on the body and brain.
When you drink, you may experience slower reaction times, blackouts, a lack of coordination, impaired judgment, memory loss, and slurred speech. This can impair daily activities, such as working or driving.
Heavy drinking can wreak havoc on the body, resulting in a wide array of physical symptoms. These can include:
In cases where someone consumes an excessive amount of alcohol at one time, a loss of consciousness, coma, and even death is possible.
Alcoholics may experience intense cravings for alcohol, as well as a strong compulsion to continually drink. As the body develops a tolerance for alcohol, more alcohol is necessary to achieve the desired levels of intoxication and its perceived benefits.
Behavioral symptoms are often what cause people to recognize that their friend or family member has an AUD. These include, but are not limited to:
When alcohol is not available, alcoholics may experience withdrawal symptoms.
With regular, excessive drinking, the brain adjusts its chemistry to try and balance out the depressant effects of alcohol by increasing the production of stimulating chemicals.
When alcohol is not available, these increased chemical levels essentially overstimulate the brain, resulting in withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, insomnia, and anxiety.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the level of addiction.
Mild withdrawal symptoms include:
More severe withdrawal symptoms include:
Withdrawal occurs during detox, which is the first step of virtually all alcohol treatment programs.
If you suspect someone you know has an alcohol problem, there are four stages of alcoholism to be aware of. Each stage has its own set of symptoms:
During the pre-alcoholic stage, a person will begin drinking in social settings. As they continue to drink, they may also start using alcohol for stress relief.
During the early stage of alcoholism, the person is becoming more clearly dependent on alcohol. They tend to think a lot about drinking and often bring up alcohol during conversations.
Rather than just drinking in social settings, these people may drink alone or have trouble deciding not to drink.
The physical symptoms of alcoholism develop during this stage. They are typically obvious to others around them. The signs include:
End-stage alcoholics have been drinking heavily for many years and typically experience serious health problems. Drunk driving, memory loss, and frequent trips to the hospital often occur during end-stage alcoholism.
Many people with alcohol problems, especially functional alcoholics, do not notice symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD) until it is too late. Often, medical complications from alcohol are the first signs that something is wrong.
Excessive alcohol use comes with many risk factors such as the liver, heart, and digestive system. When alcohol damages these organs, a variety of different medical conditions and symptoms can occur, including:
Excessive drinking on a regular basis can lead to a variety of different medical conditions involving the liver.
Fatty liver disease, or hepatic steatosis, occurs when alcohol damages the cells within the liver, resulting in a buildup of fat in the liver.
This is often the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease and can progress to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
Cirrhosis is the late stage of liver disease where the liver becomes scarred, impairing liver function. Symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease include:
Alcohol is very caustic to the stomach and digestive system.
In other words, excessive drinking can lead to a variety of digestive issues. This includes gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), stomach and esophageal ulcers, and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
In addition, regular alcohol use can affect the absorption of vitamins and nutrients necessary for normal body function. Symptoms of digestive issues can include:
Alcohol is a human carcinogen and is linked to certain cancers, including:
Alcohol negatively affects your heart rate and blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. Alcohol addiction also leads to a condition known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
This condition occurs when long-term alcohol abuse weakens and thins the heart muscle and affects its ability to pump blood.
Untreated, this can lead to congestive heart failure. Symptoms of alcoholic-related heart complications include:
Excessive, long-term alcohol use can also lead to the following health problems:
There are many treatment options available for alcoholism, including:
Inpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center. These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care. You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to medical monitoring.
Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOP).
Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient and partial hospitalization programs. These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.
Medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment. Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal.
Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery are open to anyone with a substance abuse problem.
They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. They can also be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.
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