In This Article
Overview: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcohol addiction or alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disease that occurs when a person abuses alcohol despite the negative effects because it affects the way the brain operates, causing symptoms such as compulsive behavior and intense cravings.
People with alcohol addiction struggle to control their drinking and are preoccupied with alcohol. Over time, they must increase the amount they drink to achieve the same effect or they experience withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
The symptoms of alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe. In general, alcohol use becomes unhealthy when your health or safety is at risk. This not only includes physical health and safety, but also emotional safety, well-being, and relationships with other people.
One of the ways to identify a problem with alcohol is to determine what symptoms of alcohol addiction are present. Alcohol use disorder symptoms and signs include:
- Inability to limit alcohol consumption
- Failed attempts to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption
- Spending a significant time drinking or recovering from drinking
- Experiencing cravings to drink
- Neglecting responsibilities and obligations
- Continuing use of alcohol despite physical, emotional, or social harm
- Using alcohol in unsafe situations, such as when driving
- Neglecting social activities and hobbies
- Developing a tolerance
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, or shaking
Someone with alcohol use disorder experiences an ongoing cycle of intoxication followed by withdrawal. Intoxication occurs when there is alcohol in the bloodstream.
The higher the concentration of alcohol, the greater the impairment. This can lead to mood instability, impaired judgment, slurred speech, poor coordination, and more. Severe cases of intoxication can result in blacking out, coma, or death.
Withdrawal occurs after a person has a prolonged period of heavy intoxication. It can happen within a few hours of stopping drinking or could take a few days.
Symptoms of withdrawal include rapid heartbeat, sweating, hand tremors, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, insomnia, and anxiety.
Some people experience hallucinations or seizures during withdrawal. Symptoms can be severe enough to impair the ability to function at work or in social situations.
Risks & Health Complications of AUD
Alcohol is a drug that depresses the central nervous system. Despite an initial stimulating reaction, drinking alcohol sedates you, and too much can slow your speech and inhibit muscle coordination. Alcohol’s effects are even greater when combined with certain prescription drugs.
People sometimes feel out-of-sorts and down for days after drinking, especially when consuming large amounts of alcohol. The risk for addiction increases when a person continues to seek that initial stimulating effect of drinking alcohol to avoid the depression that soon follows.
Should You See a Doctor for Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?
If you are concerned about your health or your loved one’s health because of drinking alcohol, seeing a doctor, mental health professional, or attending a support group can help. In severe cases, you might need to seek emergency medical attention. Doctors can evaluate your immediate physical risks and direct you to resources that will help you cope with drinking.
It can be difficult for someone, including yourself, to recognize the symptoms of an alcohol problem. Sometimes people know they drink more than they should, but they fail to realize the impact it has on their lives and on their loved ones.
If you or someone you care about are experiencing symptoms of alcohol addiction, it’s a good idea to speak to a professional. Even a mild problem could indicate a need for help and it’s better to get it sooner rather than waiting.
Why Do People Develop Alcohol Use Disorder?
Despite the negative effects of alcoholism symptoms, people with AUD continue to drink. If you or someone you love is at risk for developing an alcohol addiction, it can help to make changes to prevent a serious addiction from developing.
The risk of developing an alcohol use disorder is higher when a person:
- Drinks too much regularly (binge drinking)
- Begins drinking at a young age
- Has a family history of problems with alcohol
- Is dealing with mental health challenges, including depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, especially if these are left untreated
- There is a history of trauma
- Has close friends or a partner who drinks regularly
Excessive drinking can have an impact on your safety and the safety of those you encounter. One of the main symptoms of alcohol addiction – overindulging in alcohol - tends to lower inhibitions and leads to poor judgment.
People who have alcohol addiction are more likely to:
- Drive while intoxicated
- Have relationship problems
- Perform poorly at work or school
- Act violently and/or commit crimes
- Experiment with other drugs, including illegal ones
- Have legal and/or financial problems
- Engage in risky behavior, including unprotected sex
- Be victimized
Suicide is a leading cause of death among people who abuse alcohol and drugs. Acute alcohol intoxication is present in about 30 to 40 percent of suicide attempts and suicides.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to many serious health problems. People who have spent years in the intoxication-withdrawal cycle are more likely to develop:
- Liver disease
- Digestive problems
- Heart problems
- Sexual complications
- Vision problems
- Bone damage
- Neurological complications
- Weakened immune systems
There’s also a greater likelihood that someone with AUD will experience a dangerous reaction from mixing alcohol and medications.
Symptoms of alcohol use disorder are more easily treatable in the earlier stages of the disorder. Early intervention also reduces the impact of excessive alcohol use on the body.
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.