Alcoholism Signs, Dangers And Addiction Treatment Programs

Last Updated: April 20, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Alcoholism is the fourth highest cause of mortality in America. Nearly a tenth of adults in America suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. More than 8 percent of adults in the United States suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). What is alcohol addiction? It is a state where an individual becomes dependent on alcoholic beverages. Is it possible to prevent chronic abuse or get rid of the dangerous habit of drinking addiction? Learn more information about the definition of AUD, how it occurs, and how alcohol treatment can help?

Man sitting with an alcoholic drink.

Recognizing Alcohol Use Disorder

First things first, what is alcohol? It is a beverage that is typically manufactured through a fermentation process. Yeast and bacteria break down the sugars naturally present in the fermenting substance and produce an alcoholic beverage as a result. The longer the period of fermentation, the more the potency of the beverage.

Alcohol affects different people differently. Consuming a glass of wine or beer daily usually does not cause any problems. However, when someone starts drinking more and more and cannot control their urge for alcohol consumption, it can lead to its abuse. When this disorder is left untreated, it can lead to alcoholism which causes various negative impacts on the body and needs professional treatment.

Alcohol use disorder is the severest form of alcohol abuse. By definition, alcoholism is a physical dependence on intoxicating drinks.

Adding to the sheer scale of the problem, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) itself is a complex condition with many genetic, environmental, and social causes that make it challenging to overcome without professional help. Alcohol use disorder is classified as a disorder by DSM-5, where it has described criteria for somebody to be diagnosed with AUD if they meet at least 2 points of this criteria. It is also classified as a disorder by ICD-11.

Individuals with this condition are unable to control or limit their drinking habits. They crave the effects of alcohol and feel compelled to drink. Also, alcoholics drink to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

Alcoholism is an illness in which a person is compelled to go on drinking despite adverse consequences, including chronic illness or death. About 88,000 drinking-related deaths occur every year in the U.S. Those who die from excessive alcohol use have their lives cut short by an average of 30 years. The economic burden of alcoholism was $578 billion in the year 2016.

According to the NIAAA, the Following is Information on Alcohol Abuse in the U.S.:

  • 86% of people aged 18 years and more reported drinking at least once during their lifetime. 71% of people in the same age group reported that they drank during the past year, while 56.9% drank in the past month.
  • 8% of full-time college students aged between 18 and 22 said they consumed alcohol in the past month.
  • 7% of teens aged 15 years reported that they drank at least once during their lifetime.
  • 8% of individuals aged between 12 and 20 years reported drinking in the past month.

Prevalence Of Binge Drinking

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is the most rampant form of excessive alcohol use. Binge drinkers may not drink every day, but they often consume about eight drinks in one sitting, which can be dangerous.

Consider these Binge Drinking Statistics From 2019:

  • 25.8% of people aged 18 years and more reported that they binged on liquor in the past month.
  • 11.1% of people aged between 12 and 20 years reported binging on drinks regularly.
  • 33% of college students reported binge drinking in the past month.

Prevalence Of Heavy Drinking

The statistics on heavy drinking provide clues to how troubling facts about alcoholism are. The following are the alarming facts, as obtained from surveys carried out in 2014:

  • 6.3% of people aged 18 years and older reported drinking heavily at least once in the past month.
  • 2.2% of individuals aged between 12 and 20 years are heavy drinkers.
  • 8.2% of college students reported engaging in heavy drinking in the past month.

Prevalence Of Alcohol Use Disorder

According to U.S. government records for 2019, 5.6% of people aged 18 years and older suffer from an Alcohol Use Disorder, and more commonly, men than women. 1.7% of people aged between 12 and 17 years experience AUD. Alcohol Use Disorder indicates that the person is dependent on drinking and feels compelled to turn to alcohol compulsively.

Alcohol Use Disorder can progress to addiction if it is not treated promptly. According to U.S. government records for 2019, AUD is prevalent among both youths and adults:

  • 5.6% of people aged 18 years and older (14.1 million adults) suffered from AUD. The prevalence is higher among men than women, for in this group were 8.9 million men and 5.2 million women.
  • 1.7% of people aged between 12 and 17 years (414,000 adolescents) suffered from AUD. Females outnumbered males in this group. There were 251,000 females compared to 163,000 males.

Some more facts about AUD:

  • 1 in 9 pregnant women drinks, according to the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) report for 2015-2017.
  • 1 in 33 women binged on drinks during the past month during the period from 2015 to 2017.
  • During 2015-2017, pregnant women reported an average of 4.5 binge-drinking episodes during the past month compared to an average of 3.1 reported by women who are not pregnant.
  • The prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is 0.3 per 1,000 children aged between 7 and 9 years, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by CDC on January 30, 2015. FAS is marked by stunted growth and abnormal functioning of the central nervous system of the fetus resulting from maternal alcohol abuse.
  • According to the National Vital Statistics System – Mortality Data 2019, the number of alcohol-induced liver disease deaths was 24,110, and the number of alcohol-induced deaths excluding accidents and homicides was 39,043.
  • According to the CDC statistics, six people die every day from alcohol poisoning. Over 23% of the admissions to public treatment centers are due to alcoholism.
Girl takes alcoholic drinks in the supermarket.

Warning Signs and Effects of Alcoholism

Sometimes, it is quite hard to draw a fine line between safe alcohol use and alcoholism. Recognizing certain signs and symptoms is very important to ensure that alcoholism can be diagnosed as early as possible so that proper treatment can be started at the earliest.  It is essential to recognize the warning signs of EtOH abuse (ethanol) and seek help before it is too late.

The Warnings Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder can be Categorized Into Three Main Groups, Which are Discussed Below:

Physical Signs

The physical signs which may indicate AUD include the following:

  • Hangover
  • Binge drinking
  • Drinking in dangerous situations
  • Denying drinking
  • Drinking when stressed
  • Inability to cut down on drinking
  • Strong craving to drink
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking
  • Blackouts
  • Increased tolerance to booze
  • Memory loss

Behavioral Signs

Some of the behavioral signs that can be manifested in a person with AUD may include:

  • Lying about drinking habit
  • Alcohol is the focus of life
  • Foregoing favorite activities
  • Loss of control
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Prioritizing drinking
  • Making excuses for drinking
  • Drinking alone
  • Feeling annoyed when people criticize their drinking

Social Signs

The social warning signs of Alcohol Use Disorder include the following:

  • Poor workplace and school performance
  • Negligence to duties and responsibilities
  • Relationship Issues
  • Changing appearances and group of people, they hang out with
  • Becoming isolated and distant from friends and family members

Many people are under the false impression that social drinking cannot lead to addiction or that one has to drink every single day to qualify as having a drinking problem. But the truth is that any consumption of liquor in excess is a dangerous habit, putting the user at risk of becoming an addict.

Some of the Effects of Consuming Excessive Alcohol are Discussed Below:

Binge Drinking

The first and perhaps most crucial step to prevent AUD is to recognize the signs of chronic abuse, the most evident of which is binge drinking. Binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks in two hours for men, or three for women, is a potentially fatal habit, even when practiced infrequently.

The consumption of liquor drinks has a depressant effect on the central nervous system of the human body. It leads to a lowering of the respiratory rate and blood pressure. Some users report feeling drowsy, light-headed, or euphoric after as few as one or two drinks.

Hangover

The day after the liquor is consumed, some people experience what is commonly referred to as a hangover, with associated symptoms such as headaches, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and malaise.

Man suffering from headache or hangover.

Increased Tolerance To Liquor

Chronic drinkers develop a tolerance to alcoholic beverages, meaning they need to drink more and more to achieve the same effects. Over time, this leads to addiction, and the body experiences withdrawal symptoms if intoxicating drinks are not consumed regularly.

Other Negative Health Effects

Excessive consumption of liquor drinks has many negative health effects. Also, it can lead to social, vocational, financial, and mental health problems. Drinkers are not only at risk of addiction but may also suffer from several short-term effects.

Despite their devastating effects, liquor continues to be widely available. Drinking is considered traditional in many cultures, and people perceive it as a way of “fitting in.” In American society, the media portrays the consumption of liquor as a stylish activity. There is a false perception that drinking alcohol is a necessary social tool, a rite of passage, a status symbol, or a coping mechanism.

High-Risk Groups: Is A Loved One At Risk Of AUD?

It is possible for anyone to become addicted to intoxicating beverages. Certain groups, however, are more prone to chronic alcoholism than others. These Individuals Include:

  • Veterans
  • Teenagers
  • College students
  • Professionals
  • Pregnant women
  • Homeless people
  • Individuals who have a close relative with EtOH abuse
  • People who have a mental health disorder

Veterans

Veterans, especially those who have served in a combat zone, are more likely to turn to drink to cope with the difficult emotions related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Active military members are also more likely to drink than the general population and are often diagnosed with chronic Alcohol Use Disorder.

Teenagers and Students

Drinking games and wild parties are synonymous with having a good time and the college experience. This puts teenagers and college students at risk of developing an addiction to drinking even before they graduate. Parties that are unchaperoned by a responsible adult are often where young adults consume liquor and indulge in binge drinking.

It is a misconception that social drinkers cannot develop substance use disorder. When many drinks are consumed over a short period, they can quickly become addictive, even if practiced infrequently.

Working Professionals

For many working professionals in high-stress jobs, happy hour is a social norm and a way to unwind at the end of a busy day. Before they know it, many people find they have an addiction. In the beginning, most people are able to hold down their job and function normally, but eventually, alcohol begins to affect work and family life. High-functioning alcoholics tend to take longer to seek help because they often miss the signs of EtOH abuse or find it difficult to admit they have a drinking problem.

Pregnant Women

Although pregnant women are not likely to drink more than others, consuming liquor can have dangerous consequences for their unborn baby. There is no known safe limit for the consumption of liquor during pregnancy. For this reason, abstinence is ideal when a woman is expecting.

Homeless People

Homeless people are more at risk of developing alcoholism and other drug abuse problems. The difficult conditions of living on the street, struggling to find food and shelter, struggling with health issues, and being away from loved ones often create stressful situations for the homeless who consort to drinking, which can turn into its abuse. According to this study, alcoholism affects 30% to 40% of homeless individuals.

People With A Close Relative Having AUD

People who have a parent or a close relative having alcoholism disorder are more at risk of developing the condition themselves. According to the recent study, approximately 50% of the risk for developing EtOH abuse is genetics.

People With Mental Health Disorders

People with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and others are more at risk to develop AUD as they see drinking as a mechanism to cope with their stress and mental issues.

Adult bearded man treats alcoholism in psychologist's office.

Treating Addiction to Liquor

Fortunately, in every community in America, help is available. For those who are serious about recovering from AUD and getting back to a more healthy and fulfilling lifestyle, many options are available to help them do so. All over the country, there are alcoholism treatment centers and rehabilitation centers for alcoholics that are staffed by medical professionals who specialize in helping people overcome their problems with alcohol. These professionals guide people through every step of the recovery process – from detox to counseling, therapy, and rehabilitation, and finally to a successful, alcohol-free life after rehab has been completed.

Although There is No “right” Time to Begin the Treatment Process, for Alcoholism Treatment to Be Successful, a Person Needs to: 

  1. recognize their condition
  2. have a sincere desire to stop drinking

Alcohol Detox

The initial detox is the most challenging part of alcoholism recovery. An alcoholic typically experiences harsh withdrawal symptoms, which require professional help during the detox stage. Healthcare providers also ensure the person stays on track and the withdrawal symptoms do not lead to further health complications. The most severe symptoms of withdrawal usually occur on the first two days of treatment. The withdrawal period may last for a week or more, so if necessary, the treatment specialists will provide medications to ease pain and help keep the focus on getting better.

Alcohol Treatment Programs

Alcoholism treatment programs vary, depending on many factors. They may be private or government-funded and may offer their services on an outpatient basis (for people who choose to live at home and continue working or studying during treatment) or on an inpatient basis (checking in to a residential treatment facility for a 30- to 90-day period). After detox, ongoing treatment may include counseling sessions and many forms of therapy.

Some Common Types of Therapy Used as Treatments for AUD Include:

  • Alcohol counseling. Individual sessions with a therapist may focus on ways to stop alcohol use and how to more effectively manage essential aspects of life like work and family. Group counseling sessions at alcohol rehab centers can also be an effective form of treatment because of reinforcement from peer discussion and support.
  • Family counseling. Some treatment facilities encourage family counseling sessions because they provide a safe environment where all parties can learn how to deal with the emotional pain and suffering that can result from alcohol abuse.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous. This is a well-known support group that consists of volunteers who are former alcoholics who help others in various ways. The group is non-discriminatory, and anybody can attend to seek help. Moreover, because many people in the A.A. have conquered AUD themselves, they are ideally suited to relate to the issues faced by alcoholics and guide them towards recovery.
  • Live-In Programs. For some people, being away from temptation works. Moving to a residential facility where there is professional help, group therapy sessions, and a home environment proves extremely beneficial to such individuals. In this kind of setup, a variety of strategies are typically employed to help people battling AUD.
  • Rehabilitation Therapies. Alcohol rehab techniques help people control drinking urges and the things that trigger them. They can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to prevent relapse by understanding the factors that trigger alcohol abuse and how to handle those triggers when they arise. Other forms of rehabilitative treatment include contingency management therapy (which encourages alcohol-free behavior by providing positive reinforcement in the form of rewards and privileges) and motivational enhancement therapy (which aims at increasing patients’ self-motivation for positive change and recovery). Studies show that patients do much better with extensive psychosocial treatments when they are added to their medication.
  • Medications to Treat Alcohol Addiction. Medications can be used to control withdrawal symptoms during detox and help patients on an ongoing basis to manage the physical aspects of their addiction. Common drugs used during rehab include:
    • Acamprosate, which reduces alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms,
    • Naltrexone, which reduces alcohol cravings and their effects. Naltrexone has shown consistent effectiveness in reducing heavy drinking for patients of AUD.
    • Disulfiram, which causes severe negative effects when alcohol is consumed.
  • Education. Although the cornerstone of most treatment for alcohol abuse is psychotherapy and counseling, another important part of recovery is understanding the mechanics of AUD and how excessive drinking affects the brain. So there may be educational sessions about the disease of AUD and how to overcome it.
  • Aftercare. One of the most critical aspects of alcoholism treatment is training in managing the transition back into daily life. This type of therapy focuses on putting a support structure into place, including introductions to peer support groups such as 12 Step groups or SMART programs or the creation of personalized plans to prevent relapse.

Although the list of medications used in AUD treatment is easily accessible, it is highly recommended to use them without a doctor’s prescription. Only a qualified medical professional may decide upon the treatment methods. Do not self-medicate with AUD treatment medications as they may cause harm if used not properly.

Self-help is also an option. But beating an addiction without professional help requires a great deal of resilience and self-restraint. It is a more private way of seeking recovery from AUD. There are plenty of online resources and books to help alcoholics and guide them through the alcohol dependence treatment process. Still, managing addiction alone is difficult and even can be dangerous. That’s why it is essential to consult with health specialists.

New member of alcoholics anonymous club.

Issues that May Appear During Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

It is reassuring to know that modern rehab treatments D.O. work. Millions have benefited from these programs, and because of advances in medicine, psychology, and the types of treatments available, success rates for recovery are higher than ever.

However, freedom from alcohol does not happen overnight. It takes a long time to develop an alcohol addiction, and it can take just as long to overcome one. Some medications can help reduce the craving for alcohol, but there is no “magic pill” that makes it go away entirely.

The Path to Recovery is Not Necessarily Going to Be a Straight or Easy One:

  • Treatment programs are demanding. Both inpatient and outpatient treatment are challenging. Success rates at a residential rehabilitation center for alcoholics are the highest. Still, to take advantage of them people have to leave their home and work for the treatment duration and live in a controlled environment. And even with outpatient treatment, all scheduled sessions must be attended, and all facility rules followed.
  • Physical and mental distress during recovery. Yes, medications can help, but experiencing insomnia and other physical discomforts is common during the early recovery stages. Also, because an important part of the rehab process is facing hard truths about addiction, many people have to deal with guilt and shame about past behavior. This is part of the process because overcoming these feelings requires total honesty and learning to forgive oneself.
  • Anger, sadness, depression, and irritability. All of these feelings are common during recovery. To be honest, they have been there all along but have been dulled by alcohol use. But during the recovery process, one has to find some peace with them and rediscover a more balanced approach to life.
  • Boredom and loneliness. Recovery from alcoholism is about restructuring life, not just quitting alcohol. It takes some time to learn how to replace one’s previous “drinking time” and “drinking friends” with healthier alternatives. And speaking of “drinking friends”…
  • Learning how to handle being around those who still drink. This is a BIG issue for almost everyone in recovery from alcohol dependence because many of their friends, family, and co-workers still drink. Patients have to deal with “trigger situations” like attending business meetings at what used to be their favorite bar. This can be a particular problem on holidays and special occasions because friends and family will expect to “celebrate” in ways that patients no longer can.
  • Financial problems. People emerging from a period of inpatient rehab for alcoholics or even periods of outpatient care that weren’t entirely covered by their health insurance can often find themselves worrying about money. Naturally, these worries, or having to return to a high-stress job that contributed to addiction in the first place, can be challenging and a potential trigger for relapse.
  • Marriage, dating, and overcoming codependency. One of the most difficult obstacles that people in recovery from alcohol dependence report is learning how to deal with romantic partners who still drink. Relationships are one of the significant causes of relapse.
  • Making mistakes and relapsing. Both are probably going to happen, so it’s best to prepare for them now. Recovery from EtOH is a lifelong project, so remember that the only thing we can do after falling is to pick ourselves up and try again.

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: April 20th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.