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Alcohol Addiction and Abuse

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Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and binge drinking are problems for many Americans. From a 2020 national survey, some 50% of the American population ages 12 and older were current drinkers (in other words, drank alcohol within the month before the survey).1 According to the same survey, 61.6 million Americans aged 12 or older reported binge drinking within the last month.1 More than a quarter of those who binge drink are also heavy drinkers.1 Moreover, nearly 28.3 million Americans aged 12 or older had an alcohol use disorder within the last year.1

Though rates of binge drinking and alcohol addiction in Nevada are lower than the national average, they are still problematic, with nearly a quarter of the Nevadan population reporting binge drinking within the past month in recent years. 2,3 Nevadans between the ages of 18 and 24 and over age 55 are most likely to binge drink.3 Just over 6% of people in Nevada had an AUD in the last year.2

Alcohol Addiction and Abuse

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a health condition characterized by a pattern of drinking alcohol that interferes with an individual’s physical or mental health, or the ability to perform regular activities.11 It’s considered a chronic, relapsing disease and is estimated to affect up to 28 million people older than 12 in the United States alone.12,13

Symptoms of AUD include difficulty controlling the amount of alcohol consumed, feelings of guilt or regret after drinking, and frequent issues and debates with friends or family members regarding consumption. Those suffering from AUD may also experience poor overall health, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, and impaired social functioning.11

The most important step in managing AUD is recognition. Recognizing that an individual has an issue with alcohol abuse is essential in seeking out the right treatment options for recovery. If you have concerns about your own or someone else’s drinking habits, talking to your primary care provider can be a great first step toward getting help.11

What Is Alcohol Addiction?  

AUD occurs when an individual develops a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol. This can cause them to drink large amounts of alcohol in order to maintain their feelings of euphoria, despite the fact that it poses serious health risks.11

Individuals suffering from alcohol addiction often have difficulty controlling their drinking habits, leading to issues such as lost job opportunities, relationship problems, financial insecurity and legal issues. Alcoholism is influenced by various factors including genetics, environment, mental health status and access to resources.11

Those with a family history of substance abuse or mental illness are at an increased risk of developing alcohol addiction. Additionally, people experiencing high levels of stress and trauma may be more likely to turn to excessive drinking as a coping strategy. Easy access to alcohol can also influence the development of addiction – when individuals are surrounded by peers who drink heavily, they may be more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.11

In addition to being influenced by external factors, biological changes take place within individuals’ bodies when alcohol abuse becomes an addiction. Drinking too much can significantly increase dopamine levels in the brain which can lead to addiction over time – essentially making the individual dependent on this ‘feel good’ sensation that comes from drinking large amounts of alcohol.14

This can lead individuals down a path where they struggle with controlling their urges and craving more frequent and larger doses of alcohol in order to maintain the same level of pleasure they had initially experienced when they first started drinking.14

What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?

At first, drinking alcohol has what many view as desired or positive effects, such as making people feel more outgoing, improving mood, and easing stress.4 But alcohol use also has negative effects, especially when used in larger amounts.4 The negative short-term effects of alcohol include:4,5,6

  • Slurred speech.
  • Changes in mood.
  • Trouble staying alert and awake.
  • Being less able to focus or think clearly.
  • Increase in risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving or unprotected sex.
  • Loss of coordination and slower reaction time, which can lead to accidents, falls, or other injuries.
  • Hangovers after the alcohol wears off.

If you drink too much alcohol, more serious effects can happen, including alcohol poisoning, blackouts and memory loss, slowed breathing and heart rate, loss of consciousness (passing out), coma, or death.4,5

When alcohol is consumed, it begins to impact the body as soon as it passes through the digestive system and enters the bloodstream. This process generally takes around 30 minutes, but it depends on several factors such as the amount that was consumed, whether any food was eaten before or after drinking, and individual physiology.15

The ethanol (alcohol) is broken down into smaller molecules which then travel throughout the body via the bloodstream. This causes a number of physiological changes including increased heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, increased blood pressure, and an overall effect of intoxication.15,16

Most of the ethanol in the body is broken down in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which transforms ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. The presence of this substance can also lead to inflammation and cytotoxicity in the cells.15,16

The molecules bind to receptors in the brain that control mood and behavior resulting in altered states of consciousness. Depending on how much is consumed, side effects can range from impaired coordination and judgment to disturbances in vision and hearing. As more molecules travel through the body, they accumulate in fatty tissues like muscles and organs such as the liver where they are metabolized into carbon dioxide and water which are eventually expelled through urine.15,16

Alcohol also interferes with normal metabolic processes like digestion, causing complications like gastric distress or nausea when too much is ingested at once. As it continues to spread through the body, it affects multiple systems slowing down reflexes by dulling nerve responses, while also impacting mental clarity or cognitive functions due to its depressant properties.15,16

In addition to these temporary effects, excessive consumption over long periods of time can lead to severe long-term health conditions like liver damage due to cirrhosis or cancer caused by acetaldehyde.15,16

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

In order to effectively treat the condition and help individuals struggling with AUD return to a healthy life, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms that are associated with alcohol addiction.11

Physical signs and symptoms:11

  • Facial flushing
  • Impaired coordination
  • Tremors
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Blackouts
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Malnutrition
  • Liver damage or cirrhosis of the liver

Psychological signs and symptoms:11

  • Mood swings
  • Depression or anxiety disorders
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Engaging in risky behaviors such as driving while intoxicated
  • Neglecting responsibilities at home or work

Long-Term Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Over time, alcohol abuse can have harmful effects on your physical and mental health, as well as other areas of your life.4–7 The long-term effects of alcohol on the body can include:4–7

  • Alcohol has been linked to increased risk of many types of cancer, including breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, and head and neck cancers.
  • Chronic inflammation (swelling) and damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Alcohol can cause GI bleeding, stomach ulcers, heartburn, and appetite loss.
  • Decreasing how effective your immune system is, making you more susceptible to illness.
  • Liver scarring and inflammation and eventual liver failure, which may be life-threatening.
  • Issues with the nervous system, including harmful changes in the brain, memory issues, nerve damage in the legs and arms, and muscle weakness.
  • Heart problems, including abnormal heart rhythms, heart disease, high blood pressure, and increased risk of stroke.

Chronic alcohol use can also affect your mental health.4,5 These long-term effects include an increased risk of:4–7,10  

  • Anxiety.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Depression.
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD), a chronic disease where you can’t stop drinking no matter the harms it causes you. Alcohol addiction, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism are all terms that have historically been used interchangeably to talk about AUD.

Alcohol abuse can also cause problems at home, school, or work, leading to poor attendance, work that doesn’t meet standards, and interpersonal conflicts.5

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol is a physically addictive substance, especially when used in large amounts over an extended period of time.4 Frequent drinking can lead to the development of physical dependence, which is when your brain and body get so used to a substance that if you suddenly stop using it, you will have withdrawal symptoms.9 Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:4,8

  • Fast heart rate.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Feeling agitated, anxious, or irritable.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Hand tremors (shakiness).
  • Insomnia (problems falling or staying asleep).
  • Sweating.
  • Memory or concentration problems.
  • Being more sensitive to light, sound, and touch.
  • Having delusions, especially feeling paranoid or persecuted.
  • Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there).
  • Seizures.

Seizures and delirium tremens (sudden, severe confusion, sometimes with hallucinations) are potentially life-threatening complications of severe alcohol withdrawal. Seizures and alcohol delirium need prompt medical attention.4

What are the Risk Factors for Developing AUD?

Risk factors for developing AUD can be divided into environmental and biological. Environmental risk factors are those experienced by an individual due to their living environment, exploration of novel situations, and other life circumstances that can increase their likelihood of engaging in alcohol use. Examples of such risk factors include:11

  • Early exposure to drinking
  • Easy access to alcohol
  • Family history of AUD 
  • Having a peer group that engages in alcohol abuse
  • Experiencing stressful life events
  • Suffering from a mental illness

Biological risk factors for AUD refer to genetic influence and physiological characteristics that make an individual more predisposed to developing the disorder. For instance, some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol due to the way their body metabolizes it; others have genes that put them at higher risk for addiction compared to the general population.17,15 Additionally, certain hormones like testosterone have been linked with increased levels of impulsivity and aggression which can lead to increased use and misuse of substances.18

Furthermore, individuals suffering from a mental illness such as depression may have a higher probability of developing AUD than those who don’t suffer from mental health issues. All these genetic and physiological conditions may make an individual more prone to developing alcohol addiction.19

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

Successful AUD treatment should be tailored to your unique recovery needs.9 There isn’t one specific type of treatment that works well for everyone, so it is important to know about the different treatment settings and therapeutic offerings.8,9 Common treatment settings include:

If you’re not sure which setting is right for you, talk do your doctor. They can help assess your overall health and suggest good treatment options to fit your recovery needs.

Where can I Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

At American Addiction Centers (AAC), there’s a wide range of alcoholism treatment options to help struggling individuals with their recovery journey. Detoxification is supervised by highly qualified professionals and tailored to the individual in order to ensure a safe withdrawal experience. There’s also a range of payment options, including private insurance, cash, and Medicaid. The staff at AAC is knowledgeable in recognizing the signs of AUD and can provide a diagnosis as part of a comprehensive intake assessment. Furthermore, there are 24/7 hotlines available for those struggling with addiction who need immediate help. Reach out and get help for yourself or your loved one.

Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse

American Addiction Centers is one of the leading providers of alcohol detox and rehab services in Nevada and across the country. Our treatment centers offer a full range of evidence-based care, from medically supervised detox to inpatient and outpatient care. If you think you may have drinking problem and want to learn more about getting help, reach out to our confidential helpline any time day or night at . Our admissions navigators are standing by to hear your story without judgment and help you start treatment.

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