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Alcohol Addiction and Treatment

Alcohol use disorder can harm your mind and body and create long-term consequences in many aspects of your life, including your relationships and career. Long-term alcohol use or misuse can lead to alcohol addiction or dependence. In this article, you’ll learn more about the risks of drinking and how to get help for yourself or a loved one.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the clinical term used to describe a chronic health disease marked by not being able to stop drinking despite negative outcomes to your health, work, and relationships.1 Alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, and the outdated term “alcoholism” are all common terms often used to refer to alcohol use disorder. 1

Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder

AUD risk factors include: 1,2

  • Genetics.
  • Past trauma
  • Drinking at an early age
  • Underlying mental health disorders.
  • Binge drinking or heavy drinking.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Only a doctor or qualified addiction specialist can diagnose you with an alcohol use disorder. But there are some signs and symptoms that might mean alcohol use is becoming a problem. These can include:14

  • Using alcohol in higher amounts or more often than intended.
  • Continuing to drink alcohol despite the negative impact it has on your life.
  • Alcohol cravings.
  • Drinking even though it harms your ability to fulfill your work, home, or school responsibilities, causes problems with your interpersonal relationships, or despite causing or worsening health problems.

What Is the Difference Between Binge Drinking and Heavy Drinking?

Binge drinking is defined as having a certain number of standard drinks in about 2 hours:10

  • For women, 4 or more drinks.
  • For men, 5 or more drinks.

Heavy drinking means having:10

  • For women, 3 or more drinks in one day or more than 7 drinks in one week.
  • For men, 4 or more drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks in one week.

A standard drink is 1.5 ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine, 8 ounces of malt liquor, or 12 ounces of beer.6

greyscale image shows standard drink sizes; 12 oz of beer, 8 oz of malt liquor, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of liquor

Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?

Drinking alcohol in moderation may make you feel relaxed but drinking too much alcohol at once may also harm your health.3

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

Some common short-term effects of alcohol include:4,6

  • Injuries such as falls and car crashes.
  • Memory problems.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Slow reflexes.
  • Poor vision.

Drinking too much alcohol in a short time period can lead to an alcohol overdose.5 Alcohol overdose happens when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream, that it affects areas in the brain that control basic life support functions such as breathing, heart rate and body temperature.5 This can lead to permanent brain damage and even death.5 Your risk of overdose depends on many factors such as age,  gender, medicines you’re taking, how much food you’ve eaten, and the rate and type of alcohol you had.5

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Heavy drinking can also damage your health over time. Some of the health effects of long-term alcohol use include:3,4,6

  • Alcoholic hepatitis and other liver diseases.
  • Heart problems such as cardiomyopathy (stretched, sagging heart muscle), high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
  • Cancers of the throat, liver, breast cancer, and colon.
  • Weakened immune system, which increases your risk of infections and autoimmune disorders.

Effects of Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).11 FASDs can cause lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual problems for your baby.11 Drinking during pregnancy also increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDs).13 Because of these risks, the U.S. Surgeon General advises against drinking any alcohol if you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant.12

Alcohol Withdrawal

Long-term alcohol use can lead to alcohol dependence. Alcohol dependence is when the brain gets used to alcohol over time and as a result, the brain and body need alcohol to function.8 If you’re physically dependent on alcohol and suddenly cut back on or quit drinking, you may have withdrawal symptoms.8

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include: 8,9

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia).
  • Anxiety.
  • Confusion.
  • Fast heart rate.
  • Sweating.
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).

Withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on how long you’ve been drinking, how much you drink, and other factors.8 Without treatment, alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures and even death.8 It’s important to talk to a doctor if you’re ready to quit drinking, as they can help you find treatment that will fit your needs while keeping you as safe as possible from harmful withdrawal symptoms.8

How to Safely Detox from Alcohol

Alcohol withdrawal can be uncomfortable and may have some serious health risks, but you don’t have to go through it alone. Medical detox can help ease your withdrawal symptoms and keep you safe.9 The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) advises inpatient detox or some other form of 24-hour medical care to ensure your safety while you detox from alcohol.9

Other Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

While detox can help you safely rid your body of alcohol, it doesn’t address the underlying causes that led to addiction in the first place.9 To do this, many people continue treatment after detox. Some common treatment settings include:1,15

No matter which treatment setting you choose, your treatment will likely include some combination of behavioral therapy, peer support groups, and prescription treatment medicines.

How to Find Alcohol Rehab or Detox Near Me

If you or someone you love is dealing with the discomfort of alcohol withdrawal, treatment can help. American Addiction Centers (AAC)  has treatment centers across the country that offer medical detox and withdrawal management. Call our 24/7 alcohol detox hotline at or text our team for more information about our treatment centers. For more information about treatment in your local area, browse our directory to find a detox center near you.

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