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Updated on December 3, 2021

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

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, is a chronic relapsing brain disease. It occurs when a person abuses alcohol or their body becomes dependent on alcohol. Someone with AUD continues to drink despite the negative effects.

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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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.

Addiction specialists use the DSM-5 to diagnose AUD. The following questions can be used to diagnose AUD.

In the past 12 months have you:

  • 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?

If you answer yes to at least two of these symptoms, you may be diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

The severity of the AUD is defined as:

Mild: two to three symptoms are present
Moderate: four to five symptoms are present
Severe: six or more symptoms are present

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.

What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

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

  • Over drinking (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, it starts as occasional binge drinking that turns into over drinking. Eventually, this develops an alcohol addiction.

People with alcohol use disorder experience a chemical change in their brains. 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.

Approximately 16 million people in the United States have alcohol use disorder.

Centers For Disease Control (CDC)

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

It is possible to recover from alcohol addiction. It is challenging and requires professional guidance and a strong support system. Successful recovery also depends on a person’s overall health, mental health, and whether they are ready to be in recovery.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Here are some of the best treatments for AUD:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days. They may be longer in some cases.

Throughout an inpatient program, you'll live on-site in a safe, substance-free environment. You'll go through medically supervised detox first, then behavioral therapy. Other services may be added to your regimen.

Many of these treatment programs assist you with an aftercare program afterward.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They're sometimes called intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). PHPs provide comparable services to inpatient programs.

These services may include:

  • Detox
  • Medical services
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Support groups
  • Other holistic or custom treatments

The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that you return home and sleep at your house during a partial hospitalization program.

Some PHPs provide food and transportation. This varies by program.

PHPs are ideal for new patients and those who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They're best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Patients usually have responsibilities at work, home, or school.

These programs customize your treatment sessions around your schedule.

Outpatient programs may be part of aftercare once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detox and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions.

The most common medications used to treat AUD are:

  • Disulfiram (Antabuse)
  • Acamprosate (Campral)
  • Naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol)

MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery if combined with other therapies.

Support Groups

Support groups are peer-led organizations made of people dedicated to helping each other stay sober. They can be the first step towards sobriety or part of an aftercare plan.

Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.

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Resources

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  1. “Alcoholism: Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms.” Healthline, 2012, www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/basics
  2. “CDC - Frequently Asked Questions - Alcohol.” CDC.Gov, 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#alcoholismAbuse. Accessed 7 Jan. 2020.
  3. “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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