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What is Alcohol Addiction (Alcohol Use Disorder)?

Alcohol addiction occurs when a person is unable to quit drinking despite the problems it causes. The technical term for alcohol addiction is alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Someone with an AUD also experiences physical alcohol dependence. Withdrawal symptoms will develop if they suddenly stop drinking. These can include nausea, shaking, anxiety, and seizures, among others.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

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:

  1. Drinking more or for longer than intended
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop alcohol use
  3. Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol consumption
  4. Cravings for alcohol
  5. Failure to fulfill important responsibilities due to drinking alcohol
  6. Continuing to drink despite having the problems it causes
  7. Important social, work, or recreational activities are stopped or reduced because of alcohol use
  8. Drinking in physically dangerous situations
  9. Continuing to drink even though it is known to have negative effects on your health.
  10. Developing a tolerance
  11. Having withdrawal symptoms
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Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder

The most common causes of AUD include:

Biological Causes

Genetics and family history can contribute to your risk of developing an AUD.

However, there isn't just one "alcoholic gene" that increases a person's risk of developing alcoholism.

Two genes that have the strongest known link to alcoholism include:

  • ADH1B — People with this gene metabolize alcohol slower, so they experience fewer adverse side effects.
  • GABRB1 — This gene is associated with the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Consuming alcohol alters the amount of GABA available to the brain, causing relaxation and anxiety relief. This is known as “self-medicating."

Psychological Causes

A person’s poor coping skills regarding stress, negative feelings, and boredom can make them vulnerable to alcohol addiction. If they are unable to handle stressors, alcohol can make coping easier for them.

AUD often co-occurs with a mental health disorder (dual diagnosis).

Common mental health issues associated with AUD include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

People who have received a dual diagnosis often drink alcohol to relieve unpleasant symptoms. This is known as self-medication.

Social and Environmental Causes

While drinking in college may seem ordinary, it can lead to alcoholism down the road.

Nine percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.10 This is due to the popularity of binge drinking. This type of drinking can continue even after someone leaves college, potentially leading to an AUD.

When is it Time for Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

If you identify with any of the symptoms listed above, it may be time for alcohol addiction treatment. Drinking alone is another early sign. The earlier you seek treatment, the better chance you have of a successful, long-term recovery.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a disease. It's difficult and dangerous to try to overcome on it your own. This is because withdrawal symptoms can be potentially deadly, so professional support is essential.

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Treatment Options, Groups, and Resources

If you or a loved one struggles with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), there is help available.

Here are some treatment options to get you started:

Groups and Other Resources

Addiction groups:

Updated on May 19, 2022
11 sources cited
  1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 6 Dec. 2019.
  2. Augier, Eric, et al. “A Molecular Mechanism for Choosing Alcohol over an Alternative Reward.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 22 June 2018.
  3. Edenberg, Howard J, and Tatiana Foroud. “Genetics and Alcoholism.” Nature Reviews. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2013.
  4. Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 21 Sept. 2018.
  5. Hussong, A. M., Huang, W., Curran, P. J., Chassin, L., & Zucker, R. A. . "Parent alcoholism impacts the severity and timing of children's externalizing symptoms." Journal of abnormal child psychology, 38, 367–380.
  6. Morozova, Tatiana V., et al. “Genetics and Genomics of Alcohol Sensitivity.” Molecular Genetics and Genomics, vol. 289, no. 3, 2014, pp. 253–269.
  7. Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Nih.Gov, 2017.
  8. Morozova, Tatiana V., et al. “Genetics and Genomics of Alcohol Sensitivity.” Molecular Genetics and Genomics, vol. 289, no. 3, 2014, pp. 253–269.
  9. Family Alcoholism Statistics - Alcoholism Statistics.” Alcoholism-Statistics.Com, 2013.
  10. Coping With an Alcoholic Parent.” Coping With an Alcoholic Parent - Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
  11. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “College Drinking.www.niaaa.nih.gov.

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