Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Alcohol addiction, also called alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic relapsing brain disease that occurs when a person becomes dependent on alcohol. Learn the causes, risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options available for AUD.
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What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol addiction, also called alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disease that occurs when a person abuses alcohol or their body becomes dependent on alcohol. Despite the negative effects of drinking too much alcohol, someone with alcohol use disorder continues to drink.

According to the CDC, there are three traits of alcohol use disorder:

  • Compulsive alcohol use
  • Loss of control over alcohol intake
  • Negative emotional state when not using
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What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

There is no known cause of alcohol addiction. Although, it tends to run in families and some people face a higher risk for developing alcohol use disorder than others. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Overdrinking (12 to 15 or more drinks per week) or binge drinking (more than five drinks per day once a week or more)
  • Dealing with a mental health issue, such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia
  • Facing peer pressure during adolescence or early adulthood
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Having a relative or a close relationship with someone with alcohol use disorder

Alcohol use disorder tends to develop over time, often starting as occasional binge drinking that develops into overdrinking and eventually, an alcohol addiction.

People with alcohol use disorder have abused alcohol so much that a chemical change has occurred in their brain. This temporarily increases the pleasure they experience when drinking. Because of this, they are driven to drink more often, even if it causes problems in their lives. Eventually, the pleasure fades and they must continue to drink to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

The CDC reports that approximately 16 million people in the United States have alcohol use disorder.

Centers For Disease Control (CDC)
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Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Drinking too much or too often are the most obvious signs of alcohol use disorder. Additionally, there might be other indications that a problem with alcohol is developing. For instance, if a person engages in any of the following behaviors, it could be a symptom of an alcohol use disorder:

  • Inability to limit drinking
  • Drinking alone
  • Developing a high tolerance that requires more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect
  • Responding violently or in anger to drinking-related comments or concerns
  • Neglecting self-care, including hygiene, nutrition, and other things
  • Lying or making excuses related to drinking
  • Neglecting obligations, responsibilities, and recreation including work, school, family, hobbies, and more
  • Continuing to consume alcohol despite social, legal, or financial issues

There might also be physical symptoms that occur when a person has developed alcohol use disorder, including:

  • Cravings
  • Lapses in memory
  • Tremors after drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, shaking, and vomiting
  • Alcoholic ketoacidosis

Alcohol abuse causes long-term liver damage. This is because the liver is responsible for filtering toxins, including alcohol, out of the blood. The more a person drinks, the harder the liver must work. Over time, this can lead to liver disease and other complications.

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Do You or a Loved One Struggle With Alcohol Addiction?

If you believe you or a loved one might have developed an alcohol addiction, ask the following:

In the past 12 months, have you or a loved one…

  • Consumed more alcohol or drank for longer than intended?
  • Intended to reduce or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Invested a lot of time drinking or dealing with the aftermath of drinking?
  • Experienced a strong need or craving to drink?
  • Experienced home, family, or job troubles because of drinking or being sick from drinking?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with loved ones?
  • Neglected once-loved activities to drink?
  • Dealt with dangerous situations while or after drinking on more than one occasion?
  • Didn’t stop drinking even though it led to depression or feeling anxious?
  • Continued to drink after experiencing a blackout or other negative health consequences?
  • Increased alcohol intake to experience the same intoxicated feeling?
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms after the effects of alcohol wore off, including sleeping difficulties, staking, irritability, depression, anxiety, restlessness, sweating, or nausea?

To receive an official diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder, a person must meet any two of the above 11 criteria during a one-year period. The number of criteria met determines if the case is mild, moderate, or severe. Not everyone who drinks excessively has an alcohol addiction, but it is possible to develop an alcohol addiction over time from excessive drinking.

About 90 percent of heavy or binge drinkers do not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of alcohol addiction.

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Risks & Complications of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder can lead to a variety of secondary health problems, including:

  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Brain damage
  • GI tract cancer
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer
  • Nerve damage
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is a brain disease that causes confusion, vision changes, or memory loss
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Treatment for AUD

Several treatments are available for treating alcohol addiction. The goal of treatment is to help a person achieve abstinence and no longer drink. Treatment options are usually used in conjunction with one another and include:

  • Detox or withdrawal to remove alcohol from the body
  • Rehabilitation where new coping skills and a new way of life are taught
  • Counseling for understanding emotional issues and triggers
  • Support groups
  • Medical treatment
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment which might include Naltrexone for reducing alcohol cravings, Acamprosate for repairing the brain, and Disulfiram, for triggering negative physical reactions to alcohol

Medication combined with therapy and other treatments offers the best long-term result.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment are available and should continue on an outpatient basis after release from inpatient care. Inpatient care is appropriate when a person’s addiction to alcohol is severe and he or she needs 24-hour supervision during withdrawal and the early part of the recovery phase.

It is possible to recover from alcohol addiction, but it’s challenging and requires professional guidance and a strong support system. Successful recovery also depends on a person’s overall health, whether or not they used alcohol to self-medicate mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, and whether they are ready to be in recovery.


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Resources

“Alcoholism: Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms.” Healthline, 2012, www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/basics

“CDC - Frequently Asked Questions - Alcohol.” CDC.Gov, 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#alcoholismAbuse. Accessed 7 Jan. 2020.

“Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Nih.Gov, 2017, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

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Updated on: July 17, 2020
Author
Addiction Group Staff
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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