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Alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and alcohol addiction are common terms for alcohol use disorder (AUD).
The three main signs of alcoholism are:
Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic disease that arises from alcohol misuse. Unless treated, alcohol use disorder will worsen with time. In some cases, it can even be fatal.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of alcoholism can help you get early treatment and prevent complications.
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Once alcoholism sets in, it’s usually hard to ignore. Depending on the signs and symptoms, you may have mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder.
Below are the six definitive signs of alcohol use disorder:
Why it happens: The brain releases dopamine whenever you engage in certain activities, like eating food. The “feel-good” hormone induces pleasure and encourages you to repeat these behaviors.
However, research shows that alcohol affects the brain differently.4
The brain eventually stops releasing the hormone with normal stimuli such as food. As a result, you will no longer feel the same level of satisfaction.
On the other hand, alcohol continues to trigger its release despite repeated consumption. The brain then gets used to dopamine and seeks it out, hence the cravings.
How to recognize it: Alcohol cravings can occur randomly or when triggered by external or internal factors. Some internal triggers are mental disorders such as depression, trauma, and bipolar disorder. External triggers include places that remind you of alcohol.
Why it happens: People who drink heavily for too long become physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol dependence causes physiological changes in the brain. However, these changes only become apparent when you experience withdrawal symptoms.
Unlike alcohol cravings, which occur as a behavioral response, withdrawal is a physical reaction to reduced blood alcohol levels. It's a highly unpleasant reaction associated with a higher risk for relapse in the first month of quitting.5
How to recognize it: Alcohol withdrawal encompasses a range of physical and behavioral signs within the first 6 to 12 hours after the last drink. Withdrawal symptoms can last for 3 to 5 days, depending on the severity of the alcohol addiction.
Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
Why it happens: Problem drinking causes the hippocampus to shrink. The more a person drinks, the greater the shrinkage.6 Research suggests that hippocampal tissue loss causes memory decline, impaired reasoning, and reduced cognitive function.6, 7
Alcohol consumption also increases a person’s risk for impulsive behavior.8 This impulsivity, in combination with reduced cognition, can lead to poor life choices.
How to recognize it: People addicted to alcohol often engage in risky behaviors (e.g., unprotected sex, drunk driving, and/or getting involved in legal problems) and usually have impaired judgment from alcohol use.
Why it happens: Alcoholics can’t choose when they can and can’t drink. This inability to control one’s drinking is a symptom of exposure to unhealthy drinking patterns.
How to recognize it: Drinking more alcohol or drinking for longer periods than intended indicates that a person is struggling to control their drinking habits.
Some chronic alcohol users will openly express previous failed attempts at quitting alcohol.
Why it happens: Alcohol tolerance can happen for different reasons. The most common cause is the repeated consumption of large amounts of alcohol, desensitizing the brain to its intoxicating effects.
Tolerance can also develop if you drink in the same environment or as a metabolic response that speeds up alcohol elimination.
People with functional alcoholism don’t have the classic signs of alcoholism. They develop tolerance by learning to function while intoxicated.9
How to recognize it: A person with alcohol tolerance doesn’t show signs of intoxication after heavy drinking. It usually takes more for them to get drunk. Some of them even complain about it. They will drink increasing amounts of alcohol over time to achieve their desired effects.
Why it happens: Alcoholism is a medical condition that affects your behavior and cognitive abilities. Alcohol cravings, impulsive drinking habits, impaired decision-making, and withdrawal symptoms are enough to keep someone hooked to the substance.
How to recognize it: A person with AUD will spend most of their time drinking. They will also prioritize drinking above anything else.
They might give up activities, interests, and responsibilities to maintain their habit. Despite worsening consequences, they will continue to drink.
Alcohol use disorder causes a range of physical symptoms. These can appear shortly after drinking alcohol or as a result of prolonged alcohol use and alcohol addiction.
Long-term alcohol use has wide-ranging adverse effects on a person's health and mental wellness. These include:
The consequences of alcohol addiction are irreversible, with some leading to death. They leave lasting effects and add to the financial and social burdens of alcoholism.
Alcoholism can be mild, moderate, or severe. Symptoms include:
People with 2 to 3 symptoms suffer from mild alcoholism. If you or someone you know starts showing these signs, you should get immediate help.
Don’t wait until a person has more than six symptoms before seeking treatment. By then, they already have severe alcoholism, which can be more difficult to treat.
Patients can access a variety of treatments for alcoholism. The three basic types of alcohol treatment are:
When exploring these options, remember that there is no single treatment for alcoholism. More often than not, a multidisciplinary approach is needed. What matters is that you can sustain long-term recovery by preventing relapse.
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