Understanding Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Alcohol is an intoxicating and habit-forming substance that is consumed casually throughout the United States. With more than 85% of people admitting to drinking at some point in their lives, 70% in the past year, and 55% in the last month, alcohol is the most widely abused substance in America.
Since alcohol is a legally controlled substance that anyone over the age of 21 can purchase, many people underestimate the long-term damage that alcohol abuse can cause. Also, because drinking alcohol is such a normal part of American culture, it is often difficult to tell whether a person is enjoying alcohol safely or if they have an alcohol use disorder.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 14.5 million people ages 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder.
Side Effects of Alcohol Intoxication
In low doses, alcohol can have energizing effects that make people feel more talkative, sociable, and outgoing, but in high doses, it produces a range of depressant and inhibitory side effects known as “alcohol intoxication” or “being drunk.”
Shortly after drinking alcohol, people experience:
- Body warmth and increased body temperature
- Slurred speech
- Poor coordination
- Slowed reaction time
- Distorted senses and perception
- Lowered inhibitions
- Problems with memory and decision-making
- Loss of consciousness
The more alcohol a person consumes, the more pronounced these side effects will be.
While many people drink alcohol as a way to unwind after a long day or celebrate successes, others find that alcohol makes them less anxious or more comfortable at social gatherings. Also, people who struggle with anxiety or depression may find that alcohol temporarily soothes some of their symptoms, so they become motivated to drink more.
Drinking to cope with symptoms of discomfort or mental health is a slippery slope that can easily spiral into an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or an alcohol use disorder.
Different Types of Unhealthy Drinking Patterns
Some people can drink alcohol safely in moderation. Moderate drinking is defined as having a maximum of one standard drink a day for women and two standard drinks a day for men. However, people who struggle with alcohol abuse and alcoholism cannot control how much or how often they drink. They may also engage in various types of drinking patterns that are dangerous to their health and increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Examples of unhealthy drinking patterns include:
Binge drinking refers to an unsafe pattern of drinking during which a person drinks so much so quickly that their blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeds .08 g/dl. This usually happens after a woman drinks four or more drinks or a man has five or more drinks in two hours.
Binge drinking is extremely common among young adults and college students, but it can result in life-threatening consequences or the gradual development of an addiction to alcohol. In 2019, the NIAAA found that nearly 26% of people aged 18 and older engaged in binge drinking in the last month.
People who engage in heavy drinking may or may not binge drink, but they do drink so much alcohol that it can begin impacting their health. Heavy drinking is defined in two ways:
- Binge drinking on five or more days in a month
- Consuming more than three drinks on any day or having more than seven drinks per week for women and consuming more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men
The more a person drinks alcohol, the more their body gets used to it. Over time, people can develop a tolerance and physical dependence on alcohol that makes it difficult to stop drinking and encourages more drinking. This is how heavy drinking patterns result in alcoholism.
The NIAAA estimates that 8.3% of men and 4.5% of women aged 18 and older engage in heavy drinking each month.
Some people who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol are actually addicted to the substance, but they don’t appear to be addicted to others around them. These individuals may be able to drink a lot of alcohol without acting intoxicated or getting into any trouble. They may continue showing up to work, caring for their families, or doing well in their classes at school. People who drink heavily or suffer from alcoholism while being able to maintain their daily responsibilities are often referred to as “high functioning alcoholics.”
High-functioning alcoholics are extremely prone to the long list of health effects that can result from alcohol abuse because their drinking may go unchecked for a long time. Friends and family may think that they don’t need treatment because they can still manage their obligations, but this notion is false. High-functioning alcoholics are still alcoholics and they can benefit from treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a health condition that is characterized by 11 criteria. These criteria can be used by behavioral health specialists to determine the severity of a person’s alcohol problem, but they can also be used by average people to determine if they or someone they love is struggling with alcoholism.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Drinking larger amounts or for a longer period of time than was initially intended.
- Having a desire to quit but every attempt to quit drinking proves unsuccessful.
- A lot of time is dedicated to activities involving alcohol, such as obtaining alcohol, drinking alcohol, and recovering from the effects of alcohol.
- Experiencing intense and persistent cravings for alcohol.
- Drinking alcohol has resulted in a failure to tend to major role obligations at work, school, or home.
- Alcohol abuse has led to serious consequences for one’s health or life situation.
- Continuing to drink alcohol despite it causing social, physical, or mental health problems.
- Neglecting certain responsibilities or obligations due to alcohol use.
- Using alcohol in dangerous or risky situations.
- Developing tolerance which is the need to drink increased amounts of alcohol to feel the desired effects.
- Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when alcohol is not consumed
People who experience two or more of the above-listed symptoms in the last 12 months may have an alcohol use disorder. The more symptoms the person experiences, the more severe their drinking problem is.
Long-Term Dangers of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Long-term alcohol abuse can have detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health. For example, it can increase the risk of developing an addiction to alcohol or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. It can also increase the risk of various health-related conditions such as liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, digestive problems, brain and nerve damage, and diabetes.
The NIAAA estimates that 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The leading causes of alcohol-related deaths include:
- Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD)
- Heart disease and stroke
- Liver cirrhosis
- Aerodigestive tract cancers
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Supraventricular cardiac dysrhythmia
How to Safely Detox From Alcohol
Because alcohol is so socially acceptable in society, many people fail to realize that it is actually one of the most dangerous substances to detox from. The most extreme cases of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can result in delirium treatments (DTs) which is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. DTs can be life-threatening without prompt medical intervention and monitoring.
Even in circumstances where withdrawal is not expected to be severe, there is always a risk of tremors, seizures, disorientation, and relapse, so it is always best to detox at a licensed medical facility under 24-hour care. At a detox center, medications, such as long-acting benzodiazepines, can be administered to reduce seizure risk and alleviate other symptoms of withdrawal. Nurses can also monitor each patient’s vitals to ensure their safety and medical stability.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can last for 7-14 days. During this time, a residential detox and treatment program can help individuals stay sober, comfortable, and safe.
Find Detox and Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today
Detox is only the first step involved in overcoming alcoholism. Long-term recovery typically involves detox, residential treatment, outpatient care, and aftercare in the form of support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
At Sheer Recovery, our comprehensive alcohol rehab program consists of detox, treatment, and aftercare–each of which is driven by evidence-based practices that are proven effective at treating alcoholism. If you or a loved one are addicted to alcohol, please reach out to one of our qualified admissions coordinators to learn about your treatment options.