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Updated on October 18, 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.

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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.

The CDC reports that 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

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days, however they may be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of an inpatient program you will live on site in a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Many of these treatment programs will assist you with an aftercare program afterwards.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Partial hospitalization programs provide comparable services to inpatient programs. These may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that in a partial hospitalization program, you return home and sleep at your house. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. PHPs are ideal for new patients, as well as patients who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They are best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety and have responsibilities at work, home, or school. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success. They may also be a part of aftercare programs once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detoxification and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. 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 a first step towards sobriety or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.

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Resources

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“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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