Alcohol use disorder (so-called alcoholism) is a pattern of heavy drinking that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, drinking alcohol regardless of the problems it causes, drinking more to get the same effect, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop drinking.
If you consume alcohol in an unhealthy way, or if you have other alcohol-related health issues, it is considered unhealthy drinking. In addition, binge drinking is classified as consuming at least five drinks in two hours for men and four drinks for women. The risks associated with binge drinking are substantial.
Alcohol use disorder is likely if your pattern of drinking causes significant distress and interferes with daily functioning. The severity of the disease can vary depending on its severity. It is important to treat even mild disorders early because even mild problems can worsen.
The condition of alcoholism occurs after drinking so much that you become physically dependent or addicted to alcohol. You become obsessed with alcohol when this occurs.
Drinking causes negative results, such as losing a job or ruining relationships with people they love, even when people with alcohol use disorder continue to drink. Many people realize the negative effects of alcohol, but it’s not enough to make them stop drinking.
Even if they drink alcohol heavily, some people aren’t physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol abuse used to be called this.
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What causes it?
It is still unknown why people suffer from alcohol use disorders. When you drink alcohol in large quantities, you cause chemical changes to your brain, leading to alcohol use disorder. When you drink alcohol, these changes increase your pleasure. Drinking often makes you feel better, even if there are adverse effects.
In the end, alcohol use disorders lead to withdrawal symptoms due to the absence of pleasurable feelings associated with alcohol consumption. There can be unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, as well as dangers associated with them.
A drinking problem develops slowly over time. There is also a family history of the disorder.
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What are the risk factors?
Alcohol use disorder has no known cause; however, certain factors can increase the likelihood of developing it.
You are at risk if you:
- You drink at least 15 drinks a week if you are male
- If you are a female, you consume more than 12 drinks per week
- One drink per day more than five times a week (binge drinking)
- An alcoholic parent
- Depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia are mental health problems
Alcohol use disorders may also be more likely to develop if you:
- Peer pressure is a problem for young adults
- Feel low about themselves
- Stress levels are high
- Being around alcohol-using families or cultures
- An alcohol use disorder runs in your family
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What are the symptoms?
When people are addicted to alcohol, they exhibit behavioral and physical symptoms that are indicative of alcohol use disorder.
Following are some behaviors that may be associated with alcohol use disorders:
- Drinking alone
- Tolerating alcohol well (having a high tolerance for alcohol)
- Questioning their drinking habits in a violent or angry manner
- Eating poorly or not at all
- Putting their health at risk
- Missing school or work because of drinking
- Alcohol consumption that cannot be controlled
- Excusing oneself from drinking
- If there are legal, economic, or social problems, you continue to drink
- Due to excessive drinking, you have to miss important work, social, and recreational activities
Physical symptoms of alcoholism include:
- Cravings for alcohol
- Shaking and nausea are common withdrawal symptoms when one does not drink
- After drinking, tremors (involuntary shaking)
- Drinking leads to memory lapses (blacking out)
- Alcoholic ketoacidosis (including symptoms of dehydration) or cirrhosis affecting health
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Do I abuse alcohol?
Alcohol misuse and safe alcohol consumption can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. The Mayo Clinic suggests that if you answer “yes” to certain questions, you may misuse alcohol.
- What is the minimum amount of alcohol you should consume to feel its effects?
- Are you guilty of drinking?
- What do you do when you’re drunk? Do you get irritable or violent?
- Does drinking affect your schoolwork or work?
- What are your thoughts on reducing your drinking?
More detailed self-tests are available from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and AlcoholScreening.org. You can use these tests to determine whether you misuse alcohol.
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You can receive a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder from your physician. You’ll be asked questions about your drinking habits and a physical exam will be performed.
You may be asked by your doctor if you:
- Driving after drinking
- When you drink, you miss work or lose your job
- Feeling drunk when you drink more alcohol
- Drinking has caused you to have blackouts
- Your drinking hasn’t gone down despite your efforts
- Taking a questionnaire on alcohol use disorder can also help diagnose your condition.
Other types of diagnostic tests aren’t typically necessary for the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. When you exhibit signs and symptoms of liver disease, your doctor may order blood work.
You can suffer severe liver damage if you use alcohol excessively. Toxins are removed from your blood by your liver. Alcohol and other toxins are harder to filter from the bloodstream when you drink too much. Complications such as liver disease can result.
How is it treated?
There are different treatments for alcohol use disorder, but the end goal is to stop drinking altogether. This is called abstinence. There are several stages to treatment, including:
- Getting rid of alcohol through detoxification or withdrawal
- Learning new coping skills and behaviors during rehabilitation
- An emotional problem that causes drinking may be addressed through counseling
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one of many 12-step programs that provide support
- There is a medical treatment for alcohol-related health problems
- Controlling addiction through medication
To treat alcohol use disorder, several medications may be helpful:
- Alcohol withdrawal is the only time when naltrexone (ReVia) is used. A person may use this drug in combination with counseling to reduce their craving for alcohol due to blocking certain brain receptors related to the alcoholic “high.”
- Alcohol dependence can be treated using an anti-alcoholic medication called acamprosate. Taking this drug as part of a treatment regimen is also recommended.
- Antabuse (disulfiram) causes physical discomfort when consumed with alcohol (such as nausea, vomiting, and headaches).
When alcohol abuse is severe, you might need inpatient treatment. In these facilities, you can recover from alcohol dependency and withdraw from alcoholism on a 24-hour basis. You will need to continue receiving outpatient treatment after you are well enough to leave.
Outlook of alcohol use disorder
Recovering from alcoholism can be challenging. If you can stop drinking, your outlook will improve. Treatment often helps people overcome their addictions. Making a full recovery requires a strong support system.
As a result of your drinking, you may have also developed health complications. You can severely damage your liver if you have an alcohol use disorder. Further complications can include:
- Bleeding in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
- Brain damage
- Cancer in the GI tract
- High blood pressure
- Pancreatitis (pancreatic inflammation)
- Nerve damage
The symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (a disease of the brain that causes symptoms such as confusion, vision changes, and memory loss) include changes in mental status.
Can alcohol use disorder be prevented?
Alcohol use disorder can be prevented by limiting alcohol consumption. Men and women should limit their daily alcohol consumption to one and two drinks, respectively, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
You should visit your doctor if you think that you may have a problem with alcohol or if you show signs of alcohol use disorder. A self-help program such as Women for Sobriety or an AA meeting may also be of help to you.