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Alcohol Use Disorder: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment

Drinking is a normal social pastime yet some people develop bad drinking habits. According to a 2019 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 14.5 million Americans age 12 and over have alcohol use disorder. How do people know when they’ve crossed the line?

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How Does Alcohol Abuse Start?

When a person drinks beyond the normal limit, the body develops a tolerance for alcohol. In short order, this leads to alcohol dependence. It generally starts at the following levels of excess:

  • Men – More than two daily drinks or 14 weekly drinks.
  • Women – More than one daily drink or seven weekly drinks.
  • Senior males (65+) – More than one daily drink or seven weekly drinks.

It must be noted that women have a lower threshold for alcohol than men because of their smaller bodies, which have more fat tissue and less water content than men. Likewise, older men have lower thresholds than their younger counterparts.

Heavy Drinking vs. Binge Drinking

People who drink heavily on a regular basis generally have an alcohol dependency. Others drink too much on select occasions but not on a regular basis. This is known as binge drinking, defined as follows:

  • Men – Five or more drinks in two hours.
  • Women and senior males – Four or more drinks in two hours.

Heavy drinking refers to daily alcohol abuse, whereas binge drinking refers to excessive drinking on select occasions. However, recurrent binge drinking can lead to regular alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Short-term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

An alcohol use disorder develops in stages. The early effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism include:

  • Physical danger – People don’t know their limits or sense boundaries while intoxicated. This leads to unsafe, impaired driving and dangerous stunts. Drunken individuals risk paralyzing falls and costly (possibly fatal) vehicle accidents when intoxicated.
  • Alcohol poisoning – This might occur when a person engages in excessive drinking (more than seven drinks in an evening). Illicit drug abuse may compound the problem.
  • Agitation – Drinking heavily brings out the raw side in individuals. People who are angry on the inside may become outwardly hostile, belligerent and even violent when drunk. These traits could manifest regularly when alcoholism takes hold.
  • Fetal problems – Women who abuse alcohol while pregnant increase the possibility of miscarriage, stillbirth and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in their offspring.
  • Risky sexual behavior – People’s inhibitions are lowered when under the influence. This can lead to random, unprotected hookups with strangers that result in STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

Alcohol consumption must be done in moderation. While it’s normal to drink alcohol as an adult, no one should have more than one drink within an hour or two in the course of a night. This should only be on select nights. People who can’t self-regulate should get treatment and refrain from alcohol.

Long-term Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol use disorder has many long-term damaging effects, some of them irreversible. Excessive drinkers risk financial collapse, physical illness and mental disorders. The worst symptoms include:

  • Organ damage – Alcohol dependency is a leading cause of liver damage, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke and stomach problems.
  • Diminished immunity – An alcohol use disorder can weaken a person’s immune system and render the body vulnerable to infectious diseases.
  • Social isolation – People who give in to alcohol abuse and alcoholism alienate family members, work colleagues and employers. Many people with excessive alcohol use disorders end up jobless, broke and destitute.
  • Mental health problems – Continued alcohol abuse can lead to mental health disorders like paranoia, anxiety and brain damage.
  • Cognitive impairment – Excessive alcohol consumption can diminish brain function and inhibit a person’s memory and learning skills.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can also cause cancer in various parts of the body, including the mouth, throat, esophagus, breasts and colon.

Warning Signs of Alcohol Addiction

When social drinking gives way to problematic drinking, the warning signs manifest in unhealthy behaviors, including:

  • Alcohol cravings – People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) want to consume alcohol throughout the day, not just on social occasions.
  • Secret drinking – AUD causes people to drink secretly, knowing that others might disapprove or show concern.
  • Diminished interest in regular activities – AUS sufferers often show diminished job performance and decreased engagement in work and hobbies. People with extreme drinking problems lose interest in the things they once cared about.
  • Extreme mood swings – People get volatile and quickly go from friendly to hostile during drunken episodes. This becomes the norm as AUD takes hold. The change is most noticeable in once-good-natured individuals.
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms – When removed from alcohol, the AUD sufferer could experience numerous symptoms, such as cravings, anxiety, sweats, physical stress, leg cramps, headaches and insomnia.
  • Drinking alcohol for breakfast – Heavy drinking individuals often have their first drink each day in the morning instead of coffee.

A person with an advanced drinking problem will prioritize alcohol over basic responsibilities. He/she won’t have any control over the problem, despite the guilt, family concerns, financial problems and sickness.

Different Types of Alcoholics

There are various types of people who engage in excessive alcohol consumption, starting from young early-stage individuals to chronic, severe cases.

  • Young functional alcoholics – College-age people who binge drink at parties and drink regularly throughout the week but still attend class and family functions.
  • Young antisocial alcoholics – Socially isolated teenagers and young adults who withdraw from peers and parents. Many come from households where the parents abuse alcohol. These people often have mental health issues.
  • Professional functional alcoholics – Adult professionals who maintain their work and social lives but drink heavily during happy hours and evenings.
  • Intermediate alcoholics – People with mounting life problems (layoffs, divorce, lost custody, financial hardship, health problems) that are often exacerbated by excessive drinking.
  • Chronic severe alcoholics – People with advanced alcohol use disorder and related consequences: mental illness, organ damage, severed relations, homelessness, etc.

Alcoholism tends to pass down generations. People with alcoholic parents are far likelier to over-drink themselves.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

People with problematic drinking habits and substance abuse issues need help. Fortunately, treatment programs are available throughout the US that offer:

  • Detox – When people first quit drinking, they need anti-addiction medicine to avoid withdrawal symptoms. In rehab treatment programs, patients get medical detox and 24-hour supervision. This helps patients avoid relapse and achieve sobriety.
  • Inpatient treatment – After detox, patients spend 30-90 days at a treatment facility, where they take time to fully recover from alcohol and drug addiction. Inpatient rehab includes private counseling, support groups, wellness activities, healthy meals and educational speeches on addiction.
  • Outpatient treatment – An alternative to inpatient treatment for people with less severe cases of alcohol addiction. Outpatient programs follow the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and include support groups, activities, family therapy and private counseling for personal issues (cravings, mental health problems, bipolar disorder, etc).
  • Aftercare – Recovering patients of the chronic severe subtype often need further help once they exit the inpatient programs. Some treatment centers offer ongoing emotional support and link people with job-placement agencies and sober-housing opportunities.

People with severe drinking problems should undergo a minimum of 90 days of inpatient treatment. Those with less severe alcohol dependency who also maintain work and social lives may opt for outpatient care.

Find Treatment for Substance Abuse and Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

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Don't go through the process of recovery alone. There are people who can help you with the struggle you're facing. Get in touch with one today.

Make a Call

If a person won’t stop drinking despite a major decline in mental and physical health, help is vital. American treatment centers offer a range of programs and therapeutic options for people struggling with drug addiction, alcohol dependence and co-occurring major depression issues.

If someone you know needs addiction treatment, call the rehab centers in your area and ask about their programs. Your call could make all the difference in someone’s life.

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