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Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a brain disease that involves frequent and heavy alcohol consumption. Thankfully, recovery is possible and often begins with learning more about the disease, symptoms, risk factors, causes, complications, and treatment options.

What Is Alcoholism?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines alcohol use disorder (AUD), also referred to as alcoholism, as a medical condition characterized by a “problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.” In other words, having an AUD means continuing to drink despite experiencing negative consequences personally, professionally, or socially.

A person with an AUD may feel a lack of control over their alcohol use, be in a negative emotional state, and have obsessive thoughts about drinking. Alcohol becomes a priority over more important aspects of life.

Diagnostic Criteria Of Alcoholism

The DSM-5 lists specific criteria that indicate an AUD. At least two of the following symptoms must be present within a 12-month period:

  • Drinking more or for more extended periods than intended
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop drinking
  • Spending a disproportionate amount of time seeking, drinking, or recovering from the effects of alcohol
  • Experiencing cravings or intense urges to drink
  • Continuing to drink despite negative impacts on personal relationships
  • Avoiding other activities to drink
  • Continuing to drink even though it prevents fulfilling family, work, or school obligations
  • Continuing to drink even though doing so is a physical risk or hazard
  • Continuing to drink despite knowing it could worsen physical or mental health conditions
  • Having developed tolerance, including drinking more to achieve the same effects or having diminished effects when drinking the same amount of alcohol
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal syndrome or drinking alcohol to relieve withdrawal symptoms

AUD can vary in intensity depending on the number of symptoms present. Three symptoms or less represent mild AUD, four to six symptoms are moderate AUD, and six or more symptoms are severe.

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Risk Factors Of Alcoholism

Risk factors are events, characteristics, or circumstances that make it more likely to develop an AUD. The following are common risk factors of someone living an alcoholic lifestyle:

  • Drinking alcohol at a young age – Those who start drinking before the age of 15 are more likely to have an AUD in adulthood.
  • Having a family history of addiction – A person may inherit addiction genetics. However, genes alone do not guarantee an alcohol use disorder.
  • Having mental health conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
  • Living with environmental stressors, such as financial problems, living in an abusive home, and growing up with parents who encouraged drinking.
  • Drinking patterns, like how often, how much, and how quickly a person consumes alcohol, directly affect their risk of developing an AUD.

A person can develop a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol, but this does not always mean they have an alcohol use disorder. Dependence means the body has become used to functioning with alcohol in its system and, for some, will accompany AUD.

A person’s drinking patterns can also contribute to the development of an AUD. Some of those patterns include:

Binge Drinking

Someone who binge drinks consumes alcohol quickly, raising their blood alcohol content (BAC) within two hours. For men, binge drinking is consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in two hours, and four or more drinks for women.

Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking occurs when people consume large amounts of alcohol consistently. For men, heavy drinking is having fifteen or more drinks in a week or five or more on any day of the week. For women, it is having eight or more drinks weekly or four or more drinks each day they consume alcohol. It can also mean binge drinking at least five times a month.

Causes Of Alcoholism

The exact cause of alcohol addiction is the source of many debates. Because it is a brain disorder, alcoholism develops due to the changes that occur in the brain from beginning use to recovery. The brain has plasticity, adapting to a person’s behaviors and habits.

When someone starts drinking, alcohol triggers the pleasure and reward center in the brain. The brain encourages a person to continue drinking. It wants to feel more pleasure. The more someone consumes alcohol, the opposite occurs, though, with the body’s tolerance for it increasing.

Consequently, a person may develop alcohol dependence. The brain thinks it needs alcohol for survival, and this motivates a person to continue drinking. Withdrawal is one example of motivation. When a person stops drinking alcohol, painful withdrawal symptoms appear and may include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Tremors
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Stomach pains or cramps
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleep disturbances

Complications Of Alcoholism

Alcohol addiction puts a person at risk for health, employment, and relationship problems.

Health Complications

Alcohol damages the body, sending millions to the emergency room each year. Long-term health complications caused by alcohol include:

  • A weakened immune system
  • An increase in cardiovascular problems, including blood pressure changes, arrhythmias, and strokes
  • The development of cancer, including those that affect the breast, colon, and liver
  • Injury to the liver and liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding and inflammation
  • The development of respiratory disorders
  • Damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems

Professional And Academic Complications

Having an AUD makes it challenging to keep up with responsibilities. Those who have an AUD typically find themselves missing project deadlines, being tardy or absent, or struggling to build healthy relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and teachers.

Personal And Social Complications

Alcohol misuse creates barriers in relationships. Some prefer to isolate and withdraw from family and friends and avoid social activities altogether so they can drink. Others become argumentative, defensive, aggressive, and abusive.

Some miss important events and gatherings. Some change their core friend groups and start hanging out with others who also struggle with addiction.

How To Prevent Alcoholism

Preventing alcohol addiction involves replacing risk factors with protective factors. One of the most effective protective factors is seeking treatment with licensed professionals and facilities. In treatment, someone can receive the necessary support to gain protective factors.

Protective factors include:

  • Building a healthy support system
  • Making new friends
  • Rebuilding relationships
  • Finding success at work or school
  • Escaping an unhealthy living environment
  • Getting treatment for mental health issues

Treatment Options For Alcoholism

Numerous treatment options for alcoholism exist today. They include:

Inpatient detoxification programs – This is the most restrictive and intensive treatment option and is utilized when a person needs medical supervision and monitoring around the clock. They often need medication assistance for withdrawal symptoms.

Inpatient rehabilitation programs – This restrictive option offers access to medical staff and therapists in stand-alone facilities as well as hospital settings. Someone leaving inpatient detox can continue medication management while also receiving individual and group therapies.

Partial hospitalization – This restrictive outpatient option is for those with healthy home environments who can dedicate five or more hours to treatment daily. Despite the limitations, partial hospitalization allows participants to stay at home and work jobs outside of their treatment program. The length of stay will vary but may involve up to 16 weeks of individual and group therapies. Some may choose outpatient detox with medication assistance at this level of care.

Intensive outpatient programs – This option is similar to partial hospitalization but is less restrictive. An intensive outpatient program typically requires participants to meet for several hours for individual and group therapies three days a week. Medication management is available at this level of care.

Individual counseling – This is the least restrictive level of care and requires meeting once or twice with a therapist. Some start the recovery process here and move into a higher level of care when ready.

Treatment plans are unique for everyone and may include holistic and alternative therapies, 12-step groups, peer support groups, dual diagnosis therapies, and family therapy.

Get Help For Alcoholism Today

Don’t wait to seek help for yourself or someone you know with an alcohol addiction. Treatment is available for people in every stage of an AUD.

Contact a treatment provider today to explore your treatment options and start your journey toward an addiction-free future.

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