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Updated on December 10, 2022
5 min read

Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Health Effects & What to Do

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the DSM-5’s official term for alcohol addiction. AUD also encompasses alcohol dependence, which was previously referred to as a separate condition from alcohol addiction.

The DSM-5 stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition. They are a primary resource for diagnosing alcohol and other substance addiction.

What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is a chronic progressive condition. People with AUD struggle to control or stop drinking and may continue to drink despite its negative impact.1

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Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

There are 12 signs set by DSM-IV and DSM-5 to tell if you have AUD.4 You might have AUD if you struggle with at least 2 of the following criteria:

  1. Drinking larger amounts or for longer periods than intended
  2. Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or quit
  3. Excessive time spent obtaining, drinking, and recovering from the effects
  4. Intense cravings and urges to drink
  5. Failure to fulfill major obligations
  6. Continued use despite social/interpersonal problems
  7. Activities/hobbies reduced or given up
  8. Recurrent use in physically hazardous situations (drunk driving)
  9. Gotten arrested or experienced legal problems due to drinking
  10. Recurrent use despite physical or psychological problems
  11. High tolerance to alcohol
  12. Experiencing alcohol withdrawal syndrome after quitting

Alcohol Abuse or Dependence?

Alcohol abuse is often described as drinking too much. It is a pattern of drinking that leads to dangerous situations and failure to meet social obligations.

On the other hand, alcohol dependence is an inability to quit drinking. Those who have become dependent lose control and continue to drink despite the consequences.

AUD encompasses alcohol abuse and dependence. If you meet at least one of the criteria above, you may struggle with alcohol abuse. Meeting at least three of the criteria indicates alcohol dependence.

Your level of AUD will also be classified based on the number of met criteria:

  • Mild: Two to three criteria met
  • Moderate: Four to five criteria met
  • Severe: Six or more criteria met

Risk Factors of Alcohol Addiction

The exact cause of alcohol use disorder is unknown. However, there are certain factors that may increase your risk of developing this disease.

Known risk factors include:

  • Drinking 15 or more drinks per week if you’re male
  • Drinking 12 or more  drinks per week if you’re female
  • Drinking more than 5 drinks per day at least once a week 
  • A family history of alcoholism
  • Mental health problems (anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc.)

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Health Consequences of Alcohol Addiction

Too much alcohol can lead to several consequences. These consequences to your physical, mental, and social health include:6,5

  • Inappropriate actions or activities 
  • Development of chronic diseases 
  • Acute alcohol poisoning
  • Overdose 
  • Coma 
  • Death
  • Motor accidents 
  • Falls and injuries 
  • Homicide
  • Suicide

Beyond these potential issues, there are also short and long-term effects. People who quit will most likely experience withdrawal symptoms.

Short-Term Effects

Alcohol can increase the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream, causing intoxication. Symptoms include:6

  • Unstable moods
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired attention or memory
  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor coordination
  • Blackouts
  • Displaying inappropriate behavior

Long-Term Effects

Long-term alcohol use can lead to chronic diseases and other severe problems like:5, 6

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, and/or stroke
  • Liver damage
  • Digestive problems
  • Cancer (including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Mental health problems (including depression and anxiety)
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) in babies of mothers who drink during pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (including HIV and hepatitis C) due to risky sexual behaviors

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Chronic drinkers who suddenly stopped drinking may experience alcohol withdrawal. The symptoms may happen within several hours to a few days after the last drink. They include:6

  • Problems sleeping
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Hand tremors
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Treatment Options

No matter how severe the drinking problem is, treatment can help people with AUD quit alcohol and recover. For treatment to be successful, the person has to want to recover. It’s almost impossible if they want to keep drinking.

Everyone responds differently to treatments. Consult a health professional to determine the most suitable one for your needs.

Some treatment methods for AUD include:

Outlook for Alcohol Addiction

Your outlook depends on many factors. Those who have milder cases can recover much faster. People with severe cases often have a lifelong struggle.

Talk to your healthcare provider as soon as you notice a problem. Your chances of recovery are better if the addiction is addressed sooner.

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What to Do If You’re Addicted to Alcohol

If you think you have AUD, see a medical professional for diagnosis. These doctors can help: 

  • Design a treatment plan
  • Prescribe medications
  • Give referrals (if necessary)

You can also talk to a mental health professional or seek help from a support group.

Avoid suddenly quitting, as you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal is potentially life-threatening. A doctor can prescribe medications to make detox safer and more comfortable. 

What to Do If Someone You Care About is Addicted to Alcohol

Many people struggling with AUD avoid getting treatment. This is mainly because they don't recognize the problem. 

If you spot symptoms of AUD in a loved one or think someone drinks too much, seek advice from an addiction professional. You can become part of an intervention to help these people recognize and accept that they need professional help. 

Remember: a person with AUD must admit they have a problem. They have to commit to recovery fully. Forcing someone into treatment rarely results in a successful recovery.

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Updated on December 10, 2022
11 sources cited
Updated on December 10, 2022
  1. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2020.
  2. Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2021.
  3. Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.” American Psychological Association (APA), 2018.
  4. Hasin, et al. “DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorders: recommendations and rationale.” The American journal of psychiatry, 2013.
  5. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).” MedlinePlus, 2019.
  6. Alcohol Use and Your Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2022.
  7. Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 
  8. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).” American Psychiatric Association. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.
  9. Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 2018. 
  10. Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

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