For many people, moderate alcohol use is probably not harmful. However, about 18 million Americans (18 or older) suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This means their drinking causes them distress and harm and may range from alcoholism to alcohol abuse.
When someone abuses alcohol, they are not physically dependent on the substance, but they may still have a serious problem. Problems at home, work or school may occur as a result of abusing alcohol. Alcohol abuse may even cause an individual to put themselves in dangerous situations or lead to other legal or social issues.
Another common problem when people abuse alcohol is binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as someone drinking five or more drinks within a two-hour window. For women, binge drinking is considered four or more drinks in a two-hour window, because their bodies process alcohol differently than men.
Excessive amounts of alcohol can be very dangerous. Once someone has gotten into the habit of abusing alcohol or binge drinking, they increase the risks of becoming physically dependent, tolerant and, eventually, addicted to alcohol.
Signs Of Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
Alcohol abuse and addiction can sometimes be difficult to recognize because it is usually socially acceptable to consume alcohol. It is possible that a person may have an alcohol use disorder if they can answer “yes” to two or more of the following questions:
In the past year, has the person:
- Ended up drinking more and for a longer amount of time than planned?
- Wanted to cut back or stop drinking but been unable to?
- Spent a majority of their time drinking or recovering from drinking?
- Felt a strong urge to drink?
- Noticed that drinking, or recovering from drinking, interfered with family life, work or school?
- Continued to drink, even though it was causing trouble with family and friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities they used to enjoy to drink instead?
- Put themselves in dangerous situations during or after drinking?
- Kept drinking even though it made them feel depressed or anxious?
- Had to continue to drink to feel the effects of alcohol?
- Complained about withdrawal symptoms when alcohol was wearing off, including trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, fever and other flu-like symptoms.
Other possible signs of alcohol abuse include:
- slurred speech
- bloodshot eyes
- lack of coordination
- rambling or repetitive statements
- trouble walking or standing
- feelings of disorientation
- agitation or anxiety
- glassy or blank stares
If a person has experienced any of these symptoms, their drinking habits may be cause for concern. The more factors of an alcohol use disorder a person has, the more severe the problem. If a person has an alcohol use disorder, it may be time to consider an addiction evaluation at a formal treatment facility.
Effects Of Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
Alcohol abuse and addiction can negatively affect someone’s overall health. Heavy, chronic drinking can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. It can also cause damage to internal organs, like the liver, brain, and heart.
The effects of alcohol can be seen in many forms across the U.S. Although many people report drinking in order to feel a buzz, socialize and to relax, the consequences of alcohol abuse can last long past the initial period of intoxication.
Short-term effects of alcohol abuse include:
- trouble breathing
- impaired judgment
- distortions in vision and hearing
When someone continues to abuse alcohol over a long period of time, it can result in more serious, and possibly irreversible damage.
Long-term effects of chronic alcohol abuse include:
- depressive state
- brain damage
- anxiety disorders
- neurological impairment
- cirrhosis (scarring) to the liver
- chronic pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas)
- tremors and shaking
- weakened overall immune system
Over time, drinking more than two standard drinks a day can negatively impact a person’s health. Drinking too much can affect various parts of the brain that control concentration, judgment, mood, and memory. It also increases the risk of having a stroke and developing brain diseases, such as dementia.
Alcohol can cause damage to the brain in many ways, the most notable of which may be Korsakoff’s syndrome. Individuals who develop this syndrome report not being able to remember recent events or being unable to learn and retain any new information.
Heavy drinking increases blood pressure and, over extended periods of time, can cause heart damage and increase the risk of heart attack. Consuming three to four standard drinks a day increases risks of developing liver cancer. Long-term, excessive drinking also increases the risk of liver cirrhosis.
Consuming even one to two standard drinks a day increases the risks of stomach and bowel cancers, as well as stomach ulcers. Regular, heavy drinking has also been linked to fertility issues in both men and women. Heavy drinking can reduce levels of testosterone in men and can affect a woman’s menstruation pattern.
Studies have also shown that those who misuse alcohol while in their teens are five times more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol, compared to those who began drinking at age 21. Abusing alcohol as a teen can also cause significant issues with normal brain development.
Polydrug Abuse And Alcohol
Warning signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse and addiction may not occur on their own. In fact, a number of people purposefully mix alcohol with other substances to increase the desired effects of both substances.
Consuming alcohol with other substances can be dangerous and potentially fatal. Alcohol works as a central nervous system depressant, so when combined with other depressants such as opioids or heroin the results can be lethal. When alcohol is combined with another CNS depressant it can dangerously decrease breathing rates and potentially lead to cardiovascular failure and death.
When alcohol is mixed with stimulants, it can produce deadly effects. For example, if alcohol is mixed with a stimulant, like cocaine, the body breaks it down and forms a completely new chemical compound, called cocaethylene.
Cocaethylene is even more toxic than cocaine, and because the stimulant effects can potentially mask the effects of alcohol, it can be difficult to tell when a person has had too much to drink. This can potentially lead to overdosing on alcohol (alcohol poisoning).
Alcohol Abuse, Addiction And Co-Occurring Disorders
It is also common for individuals who struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction to be suffering from a possibly undiagnosed, co-occurring disorder. These disorders can range from other substance use disorders to mental health disorders, including psychiatric disorders, antisocial personality disorder, and major depressive disorder.
Treatment Options For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
There are many different treatment options for alcohol abuse and addiction available today. Alcoholism can be very dangerous, but, with proper treatment, it can be manageable. When someone detoxes from alcohol, they may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that can make them want to start drinking again.
In order to avoid relapse, an inpatient treatment option may be beneficial. Inpatient drug rehab centers can provide the much-needed support and medically-assisted detox resources that can make breaking an addiction to alcohol more tolerable. Some medications used to assist in treating alcohol addiction include naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram.
To learn more about alcohol abuse, addiction, and treatment options, contact us today.
Center for Disease Control (CDC)—Alcohol and Public Health, Frequently Asked Questions
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—Alcoholism and Co-occurring Disorders, Gender Differences in Moderate Drinking Effects
U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus—Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse