Understanding Alcoholism
and Alcohol Use Disorder

A 2019 Guide To Alcoholism
and Alcohol Use Disorder

Introduction

More than 15 million adults ages 18 and up suffer from alcohol addiction in the United States. 1 The rate of alcoholism, medically referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is on the rise in America, with about one in eight adults meeting the criteria for this diagnosis. 2 That figure equals to approximately 12% of the U.S. population suffering from a form of alcohol use disorder.

Risks Associated With Alcohol Addiction

Someone with an addiction to alcohol struggles to manage drinking habits. There are mild, moderate and severe forms of alcohol use disorder.

AUD is a chronic disease that affects brain functioning. It can be genetically passed down or may be environmentally or psychologically based. 4 When you feel that you cannot function without drinking alcohol on a regular basis, it’s likely that you are suffering from an alcohol abuse issue.

Alcohol addiction is the third leading, preventable cause of death in the United States. 3 Its effects can negatively intrude on nearly every aspect of a person’s life, including:

  • Physical and mental health
  • Social, employment and family relationships
  • Causing or becoming victim to unintentional injuries and accidents

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

The number of symptoms displayed can help determine whether there is a mild, moderate or severe form of AUD. Some of the main signs of alcohol addiction are the following:

  1. An uncontrollable urge to drink
  2. Little to no control over how much alcohol is consumed
  3. When not drinking alcohol, thoughts become more negative in nature
  4. Drinking in risky situations, such as driving after drinking
  5. Drinking gets in the way of your family and/or work obligations
  6. Although it causes worsening problems, drinking continues
  7. Avoiding activities once enjoyed in order to drink alcohol
  8. Legal problems as a result of drinking
  9. Drinking to relax or to sleep
  10. Drinking first thing in the morning
  11. Greater amounts of alcohol are needed in order to feel its effects
  12. Symptoms of withdrawal begins when you stop drinking for too long

There are more symptoms and signs associated with AUD. The more of the above issues that relate to you, the greater your severity of alcohol addiction is likely to be.

Alcohol Detox Withdrawal

Withdrawal from alcohol use will elicit a life-changing positive effect in the long run, but there are a variety of symptoms that accompany detox that first must be confronted. Keep in mind that alcohol addiction affects your brain function and disrupts your nerve signaling system.

With AUD, the body has adjusted to having alcohol in the system around the clock. When those alcohol levels drop dramatically, your brain is still working hard to keep the central nervous system functioning as though nothing has changed yet. This causes an agitated state to occur within the body, resulting in withdrawal symptoms.

When detoxing the body of alcohol, the symptoms of withdrawal can vary from mild to serious, depending upon the severity and length of the disease.

Early Withdrawal Signs

Milder signs of withdrawal after six hours of having had a last drink include:

  1. Feelings of anxiety
  2. Shaking hands
  3. Headaches
  4. Nausea and/or vomiting
  5. Experience trouble sleeping
  6. Sweating

Serious Withdrawal Symptoms

Serious symptoms occur within the first two or three days of withdrawing from alcohol, including:

  1. Delirium tremens (the DTs), causing acute hallucinations and delusions
  2. Pounding heartbeat
  3. Confusion
  4. High blood pressure
  5. Fever
  6. Considerable amount of sweating
  7. Hallucinations
  8. Seizures

Long Term Effects of Alcoholism

Being diagnosed with alcohol use disorder or alcoholism means you are at risk for some of the more serious, long-term effects associated with this disease. Drinking excessively over time may eventually lead to chronic medical issues.

Cancer

Some of the physical conditions that can occur as a result of AUD are liver damage, heart disease and the risk of acquiring various forms of cancer.

You are at greater risk for developing a type of cancer if you are a heavy drinker of alcohol.

The most common forms of cancer associated with alcoholism are:

  • Liver and kidney cancer: Alcohol abuse, over time, damages the liver, creating a lot of scar tissue that causes inflammation and risk for cancer. The kidneys have a tough job ridding the body of alcohol, because this liquid also works as a diuretic. This also ups the risk of acquiring cancer in this organ.
  • Throat and larynx cancer: Some people who abuse alcohol are also heavy smokers. Chronic alcohol intake decreases the ability of cells in the throat and larynx to fix any damage done by smoking, leading to increased risk for these types of cancer.
  • Cancer of the esophagus: Again, those who are heavy smokers and drinkers are at greater risk for esophageal cancer than those who abuse just one of these substances.
  • Breast cancer: The risk for breast cancer in women is heightened with alcohol use disorder, even if use is mild to moderate in nature.
  • Colon cancer: Men and women who suffer from alcoholism are at greater risk for developing colon or rectal cancer.

Other forms of cancer associated with AUD include pancreatic and gastrointestinal.

Other Health Effects

The development of an alcohol use disorder causes severe damage to the liver. Not only can liver scarring and inflammation lead to cancer, but it can also cause alcoholic hepatitis or fatty liver disease.

Chronic drinking affects the lining of the stomach. Over the long term, this inflammation increases the risk for developing ulcers, ongoing heartburn and gastritis.

The inability to digest nutrients such as vitamin B12 or thiamine, resulting from alcoholism can lead to malnutrition, brain damage and blood or immune system issues. Heaving drinking also has an especially negative effect on two digestive organs: the pancreas and the liver. Long-term use can cause pancreatitis, diabetes, cirrhosis and other liver problems discussed above.

The lack of vitamin B12 and thiamine retention in the body also affects the brain, leading to symptoms that can mimic dementia. Memory loss, blackouts and difficulty forming new memories can be long-term effects of alcoholism.

Reproductive fertility is also at risk, including the possibility of producing a child that is born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

The loss of nutrients incurred by chronic alcohol intake affects bones and muscles, leading to the possibility of developing osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Your immune system is also weakened, increasing your exposure to catching contagious diseases.

There are also mental health changes that occur with long-term AUD. Chronic and heavy drinking may trigger some mental illnesses due to the brain chemistry changes that occur. Depression and bipolar disorder are just two psychiatric conditions than can coincide with alcoholism.

Myths and Truths About Alcohol Use

There are some common misconceptions about drinking alcohol and the effects that it can have on lives.

Myths and Truths About Alcohol Use

There are some common misconceptions about drinking alcohol and the effects that it can have on lives.

Beer vs. hard liquor: One impression many people have is that beer cannot get you as drunk as hard liquor can. The truth is that beer is just as intoxicating as liquor. It doesn’t matter that much what you drink. What matters is how much you drink. If you suffer from alcohol use disorder, your tendency to overindulge when drinking hard liquor will be just as similar when drinking beer, which has a lower alcohol content, but will still get you drunk.

Developing a high tolerance for alcohol makes you lucky: Yes, over time, chronic drinking leads you to develop a tolerance, meaning you need greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effects you seek. This, however, means your body has been negatively affected by alcohol and is damaging your organs. This is a negative and not a positive development of alcoholism.

Coffee or a cold shower will get you sober quickly: This is not true. Only time will get you sober, because your body must process the alcohol it’s taken in. It takes 60 minutes to process each standard sized drink of beer, wine or liquor you drink.

Eating a big meal will prevent feeling drunk: The effects of drinking alcohol may be delayed by eating a lot of food, but if you drink excessively, you will still get quite drunk. The rate of absorption of the alcohol will be slowed down, but food doesn’t interfere with the effects of alcohol.

Having a nightcap will help with sleep: The reverse is actually true. Alcohol is disruptive to sleep. It decreases the amount of REM time you get, which is necessary for a restful evening’s sleep.

Getting Sober

Going through alcohol withdrawal and detox can be hard work, but the benefits are enormous. Mental and physical health improves, as well as relationships with others. There are a few challenges, however, both during and after gaining sobriety.

Alcohol detox is the first step towards becoming sober. Some people experience much pain during detox while others suffer only the milder symptoms of withdrawal. It takes a week or two or more to flush the system of alcohol toxins, depending upon the severity of the disease.

The detox process causes symptoms that may worsen, especially after the first 24 hours, when you may feel disoriented and have hand tremors in addition to the other symptoms mentioned. These may continue into the next day, with hallucinations and panic attacks.

After the first week of detox, these effects will begin to decrease. They can also be treated with medication and medical supervision, which is an important aspect of any detox program.

Some medications used to combat withdrawal symptoms for alcohol detox include:

  • Benzodiazepines calm the central nervous system and help reduce insomnia, anxiety and muscle spasms. These types of drugs are most often used in inpatient rehab settings.
  • Naltrexone, which reduces the cravings for alcohol
  • Acamprosate, to help with normal brain function and reduce cravings
  • Disulfiram, which produces undesirable side effects if you attempt to drink alcohol. These effects deter you from drinking alcohol and are more likely to be used during post-recovery to prevent relapse.

Becoming sober is a huge achievement, but there are still struggles to deal with afterwards, especially during the first year. You may continue to experience some withdrawal symptoms, bouts of depression, have strong emotions, anxiety, sleep issues and have problems relating to friends and/or family members.

But you will look and feel much better over time, have greater control over your emotions when alcohol is no longer affecting your neurons and your mental health should steadily improve. Continuing on the path to physical sobriety will help you regain the psychological and emotional sobriety.


Resources

  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/11/study-one-in-eight-american-adults-are-alcoholics/?utm_term=.4fa8635495ce
  3. https://www.facingaddiction.org/resources/facts-about-alcohol
  4. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/what-is-alcohol-abuse#1