Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Drinking excessively can cause many serious health issues and dangerous situations. Here are the common patterns of alcohol misuse and the risks associated with them.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism is a treatable chronic brain condition characterized by an individual’s compulsive seeking and consumption of alcohol despite negative consequences that range from mild to fatally destructive.2
An individual is diagnosed with an AUD when they meet the criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) (DSM-5) . Some of the behaviors mentioned in the AUD are:3
- Drinking more alcohol or for a longer period of time than intended.
- Spending lots of time drinking or recovering from drinking.
- Trying and failing to reduce or quit drinking.
- Craving alcohol so badly that it becomes hard to focus on other things.
- Alcohol use interfering with important obligations at home, school, or work.
- Alcohol use interfering with hobbies and recreational activities.
- Continued drinking even after it causes interpersonal relationship problems.
- Continued drinking despite negative effects on mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.).
- Engaging in dangerous behavior while drinking (e.g., driving, unprotected sex, etc.).
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol (i.e., needing to drink more and more often to feel effects).
- Developing a physical dependency to alcohol (i.e., experiencing withdrawal when abstaining or drinking less).
According to the DSM-5, exhibiting 2 of the 11 criteria listed above indicates a mild AUD.3 AUDs can also be characterized as moderate or severe.
In 2019, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated that 14.5 million Americans over 12 years old suffered from AUD within the past year.4
What Causes a Person to be an Alcoholic?
A number of factors may contribute to someone developing AUD. These include:2
- Genes and family history play a role in a person’s risk for developing AUD.
- Psychiatric disorders like depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and PTSD.
- A history of childhood trauma.
- Drinking alcohol during childhood.
Problematic drinking patterns also frequently coincide with alcohol use disorder and carry significant risks of their own.
Is a Binge Drinker the Same as an Alcoholic?
People who suffer from AUD often engage in binge drinking. However, not all people with AUD are binge drinkers and not all people that binge drink on occasion have AUD. Nevertheless, binge drinking carries many serious health risks and often leads to someone developing alcoholism.5
What is Bing Drinking?
Binge drinking means consuming enough alcohol to raise one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .08% or higher. For most women, this occurs after consuming 4 drinks within 2 hours. For the average man, binge drinking means consuming 5 drinks within the same time frame.5
Binge drinking can:5,6
- Cause alcohol poisoning/overdose. Signs of alcohol overdose include:
- Clammy skin.
- Low body temperature.
- Slowed breathing and heart rate.
- Diminished involuntary responses, such as a gag reflex, which prevents choking when vomiting.
- Increase the possibility of committing or being the victim of a violent crime.
- Result in injury due to reduced inhibitions and cognition caused by drunkenness.
- Make someone more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, increasing the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
Despite the health and safety risks, binge drinking is common, especially with young adults between 18 and 34 years old. About 1 in 6 Americans binge drink 4 times per month.5
Heavy Drinking vs Binge Drinking
Heavy drinking—like binge drinking—does not necessarily mean someone has an alcohol use disorder, though it is often an indicator and may contribute to the development of AUD.2 The CDC defines heavy drinking for men as consuming 15 drinks per week and 8 drinks per week for women.7
Heavy drinking may lead to many of the same health problems found with binge drinking. Additionally, heavy drinking is associated with increased rates of anxiety and depression when compared with people that drink in moderation or abstain completely.7
An estimated 5.8% of American adults aged 12 or older admitted to heavy drinking within the past year, according to data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2019.8
Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse
Excessive alcohol use can cause several serious and even potentially fatal health problems.
The health risks of excessive alcohol use include:4,7
- Depression and anxiety.
- Developing alcohol use disorder.
- Accidents that result in injury, such as car crashes or falls.
- Sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies due to reduced inhibitions.
- Negative pregnancy outcomes, including stillbirth, miscarriage, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and sudden infant death syndrome.
- Higher likelihood of committing or being the victim of a violent crime.
- Problems with cognition and memory.
- Liver and heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast cancer.
Abstaining from alcohol use may help a person recover from some of the health effects brought on by chronic alcohol abuse. However, quitting alcohol abruptly after long-term chronic use may require medical supervision to avoid potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.10
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms and Timeline
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range from unpleasant to potentially fatal. The seriousness of the symptoms may vary greatly according to the patient’s general health and severity of alcohol misuse.10
Alcohol withdrawal typically begins between 6 and 24 hours after someone who chronically drinks to excess stops or significantly reduces their drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:10
- Restlessness and irritability.
- Decreased appetite.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Insomnia or bad dreams.
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering things.
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Withdrawal symptoms typically ease within 5 days, though in rare cases patients may experience withdrawal syndrome lasting for several weeks.11
Because some of these symptoms are dangerous, people expected to experience severe withdrawal symptoms may benefit from medical detoxification.
Medical Detox from Alcohol
Detoxifying safely from alcohol after prolonged misuse may require medical supervision to avoid severe and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.10
Patients are evaluated when they first enter medical detox. Staff will learn about the patient’s general mental and physical health, substance use history, history regarding mental illness, and administer a drug and alcohol test to analyze the concentration of substances still in the patient’s body.10
Afterward, staff will monitor the patient as they withdraw from alcohol and other substances and administer treatment to provide comfort and ease unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Medication may be necessary if the patient is experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. It is common, for example, for benzodiazepines to be prescribed if doctors are concerned about a risk of seizure.10
The final important aspect of medical detox is to facilitate the patient’s transition to a rehabilitation program. While detoxification is a vital process of addiction treatment, it is only the beginning; with continued treatment, patients have a better chance at achieving long-term abstinence from alcohol. Recovery is a lifelong process supported by coping techniques learned during rehab and other evidence-based therapies as well as a supportive social network.10
Rehabilitation for Alcohol Addiction
Since alcohol use disorder is a chronic medical illness, recovery involves active engagement, social support and individual vigilance. Fortunately, even in severe cases, alcohol use disorder is treatable.2 Rehabilitation centers like River Oaks give patients the skills and resources to succeed during and after treatment.
Treatment consists of evidence-based therapy and, in some cases, medication-assisted treatment. Research shows that rehabilitation is most effective when it is tailored to a patient’s individual needs. Effective treatment facilities evaluate each new patient and outline an individual path to recovery. It may be necessary for the plan to be adjusted throughout treatment or following a relapse.13
If a patient suffers from co-occurring mental health disorders or comorbid physical health conditions this may be factored into the program; rehabilitation for co-occurring mental health disorders is generally most effective through an integrated approach where addiction and co-occurring psychiatric disorders are treated simultaneously.14
Alcohol Treatment Medications
There are also several approved medications used to ease alcohol cravings and discourage use. These include:15
- Naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia), which works by blocking certain opioid receptors associated with rewarding effects of alcohol and craving for alcohol.
- Acamprosate (Campral), which eases some of the negative symptoms associated with protracted alcohol withdrawal, such as insomnia, anxiety, and restlessness.
- Disulfiram (Antabuse), which causes an unpleasant reaction when a patient drinks alcohol, such as nausea, flushing of skin, and palpitations.
Aftercare Substance Abuse Programs
Once a patient has completed formal treatment, they are encouraged to engage in aftercare. Many choose to join a mutual help or peer support group, such as SMART recovery or alcoholics anonymous or other 12-step programs. River Oaks Treatment Center facilitates an alumni program and gives former patients access to the Alumni App, which tracks recovery progress and enables them to easily stay connected to their peers.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use disorder, consider reaching out to an admissions navigator at . They can provide information about River Oaks Treatment Center’s levels of care and answer questions about American Addiction Centers’ facilities.