Alcoholism: Symptoms, Effects, and Treatment

Alcoholism is when an individual cannot control their consumption of alcohol.1 It is a disease that frequently reoccurs and is a long-term battle.2 Fortunately, this war can be won.

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complex disease with many different components. Some researchers have found that individuals with AUD may be more susceptible to engaging in unhealthy alcohol use because of low levels of dopamine in their brains.3

How Addictive is Alcohol?

Approximately one-third of Americans will have a problem with alcohol at some time in their life.4 Alcohol remains the most commonly misused drug in the United States. Part of the problem occurs because alcohol affects your brain and can become addictive over time.

Who is at Risk for Alcohol Addiction?

Multiple factors may influence the development of alcoholism, such as:5

  • Biological considerations: A relationship has been shown to exist between alcoholism and genetic factors.
  • Early drinking: People who begin drinking at an early age are more likely to develop AUD.
  • Cultural and environmental factors: Drinking is influenced by parents, friends, and other relatives.
  • Mental health disorders: Depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems frequently coexist with alcoholism. Sometimes, it is difficult to determine which disorder came first.
  • Gender: Men are more predisposed to alcoholism than women.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

The signs of alcoholism or AUD are mild, moderate, or severe, so the picture can vary from person to person.

You may be experiencing AUD if you exhibit the following:6

  • An inability to control how much alcohol you consume
  • An inability to control cravings for alcohol
  • Alcohol consumption that affects work or school
  • Drinking that adversely affects your relationships
  • Frequent mood changes or loss of temper
  • Unsuccessful attempts at sobriety
  • Drinking in unsafe situations such as before driving or operating dangerous equipment
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when you’re not drinking

Stages of Alcoholism

AUD has been classified into various stages, so this may help you recognize the severity of the disorder you are experiencing. Some overlap may occur in these stages since the experience does not always follow textbook definitions.

These are the general stages of alcoholism:7

  1. Occasional misuse and binge drinking: In this phase, new drinkers experiment with alcohol and sometimes exceed their limits.
  2. Increased drinking: Alcohol use becomes more frequent and occurs at more places and events.
  3. Problem drinking: Now, the effect of too much alcohol begins to become evident. Depression may develop along with social problems and relationship issues.
  4. Alcohol dependence: At this stage, it is no longer possible to control the drinking, and alcohol can take over your life. It’s evident what alcohol is doing, but you may find it difficult to stop this runaway train. Tolerance has developed, and larger amounts of alcohol are needed to get drunk. Withdrawal symptoms can become more frequent with their uncomfortable effects.
  5. Addiction: Now, you may experience a powerful craving that is both physical and emotional. Drinking is not for enjoyment, but it is something that is controlling. It is not a want but a need.

Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism

Alcohol is a drug, and excessive use of this substance can damage one’s body. A slight amount of alcohol may stimulate the nervous system, but a larger amount or continued use will depress the central nervous system. That is why you may notice slurred speech, confusion, abnormal muscle coordination, and visual abnormalities. You can experience both long-term and short-term side effects of using alcohol.

Long-term use or binging on alcohol can cause:8

  • Liver disease: Although the liver can sometimes heal itself, long-term alcohol use will scar this internal organ and permanently damage it. Some organs are duplicated, like kidneys and lungs. However, the body has only one liver.
  • Problems with sugar: Alcohol affects sugar metabolism, and glucose can elevate too much or drop to dangerous levels.9
  • Pregnancy abnormalities: Women who misuse alcohol may have miscarriages or give birth to a child with developmental problems.
  • Heart disease: Heavy drinking can cause heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias.10
  • Digestive diseases: Excessive drinking can contribute to ulcers, bleeding, pancreatitis, and esophageal abnormalities.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Too much drinking can cause erectile dysfunction.
  • Bone abnormalities: Alcohol can contribute to osteoporosis and, thus, fragile or broken bones.11
  • Nerve problems: Neuropathies can occur, which can cause decreased sensation in your feet.
  • Cancer: Chronic alcoholism may increase the incidence of mouth, liver, throat, esophagus, and breast cancer.12

Treatment for Alcoholism

Some general principles are relevant to treating alcoholism. This disease requires a comprehensive, individualized, multifaceted approach because of its complexity. Professional help from an experienced team is required. One of the initial treatments for alcoholism is detoxification.

Detoxification

The body must be cleared of alcohol so the other phases of healing can take place. Detoxification is usually done on an inpatient basis as it is safer for medical specialists to monitor patients as alcohol is eliminated from the system. In an inpatient setting, a problem such as withdrawal can be addressed quickly and resolved in a timely fashion. Detoxification performed at home without medical assistance is both unpleasant and unsafe.

With alcohol detoxification, you’ll need to abstain from consuming alcohol. Because there is usually a dependence on alcohol, medication is often provided to control the effects that would usually happen from withdrawal. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) is a commonly used drug in this situation. When the patient is stabilized, Librium is then slowly tapered down.

Alcohol Rehab

Rehab is usually the next step in treating alcoholism and can either be done in an inpatient or outpatient setting. It has many aspects and treats the varied problems you or a loved one may have. Some of the basics of rehab are:

  • Group and individual counseling: Talking with someone who is trained to solve problems or speaking with a group of like-minded people can be very rewarding. A group session is usually very supportive with individuals helping each other through difficult times. A trained counselor can use various methods to explore possible thoughts and feelings that have played a part in developing alcoholism. Learning skills and behavioral techniques can be used to change unwanted behavior. Strategies can be formulated for coping with risky situations that could sabotage success.
  • Medication: Non-habit-forming prescription medicines can aid recovery. Disulfiram (Antabuse) is a medicine that may be taken daily in an attempt to decrease alcoholic intake. If you drink alcohol while on Antabuse, you will feel extremely ill. It is a deterrent to drinking. Acamprosate (Campral) can help with cravings, while naltrexone (Revia) can block the high you get from drinking.
  • The 12-step program: This program was created by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in an attempt to foster support and encouragement to individuals with alcoholism. It also has a helpful mentoring aspect.13
  • Lifestyle changes: Having a healthy and balanced diet can be beneficial to your general well-being. It will be helpful to exercise regularly, have a structured schedule, avoid stressful situations, and stay away from bad influences.
  • Nontraditional therapies: Art therapy, spiritual awakening, meditation,14 music therapy, acupuncture, and vitamins may be useful as part of a comprehensive plan to improve your quality of life.15
  • Aftercare: Because alcoholism is a chronic, long-term problem, this journey requires follow-up. When you leave rehab, the process of recovery continues. Relapses can happen, and having a support system is an important aspect of recovery. Friends and family can help in this process. Counseling is very important, and both individual and group sessions are available.

You may prefer talking to a specialist one-on-one, or you may feel more comfortable in a group of your peers. You may also choose different types of talk therapy. Any co-occurring illness such as depression or anxiety may also need treatment.

Because alcoholism can affect so many parts of your body, a general medical checkup may find abnormalities that have been overlooked or masked by alcoholism. As you begin to feel better, success should build on success both physically and emotionally. Hopefully, you will find that your life is spiraling upward instead of downward.

Speaking with a treatment specialist can be the first step in dealing with your problem. To find more information on rehab options call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to a specialist.

References

  1. Jellinek E.M. (1942). Alcohol addiction and Chronic Alcoholism. Yale University Press.
  2. Emanuele Nicholas et al. (1998). Consequences of Alcohol Use in Diabetics. Alcohol Health and Research World. 22(3).
  3. Goding Sauer, A., Stacey, A. Fedewa, Bandi, P., Adair, K. M., Stoklosa, M., Drope, J., Gapstur, S. M., Jemal, A.,  Islami, F. (2021). Proportion of cancer cases and deaths attributed to alcohol consumption by US state, 2013-2016. Cancer Epidemiology. 71(101893).
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.) Alcohol facts and statistics. Retrieved February 12, 2021.
  5. Schoanthaler S.J., et al. (2015). NIDA-Drug Addiction Treatment Outcome Study (DATOS) relapse as a function of spirituality/religiosity. Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome. 1(36).
  6. WebMD. (n.d.). What are the treatments for alcohol use disorder. Retrieved February 2021.
  7. Alcoholics Anonymous. (n.d.). What is A.A.? Retrieved 2021.
  8. Goding Sauer, A., Stacey, A. Fedewa, Bandi, P., Adair, K. M., Stoklosa, M., Drope, J., Gapstur, S. M., Jemal, A.,  Islami, F. (2021). Proportion of cancer cases and deaths attributed to alcohol consumption by US state, 2013-2016. Cancer Epidemiology. 71(101893).
  9. National Institutes of Health News in Health. (2015). Biology of Addiction. Retrieved 2021.
  10. Voskoboinik, A. et al. (2016). Alcohol and atrial fibrillation: A sobering review. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 68(2567).
  11. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (2018). What People Recovering From Alcoholism Need To Know About Osteoporosis. Retrieved 2021.
  12. Mayo Clinic. (n.d.) Alcohol use disorder. Retrieved February 2021.
  13. National Institutes of Health. (2007). Researchers Identify Alcoholics Subtypes. Retrieved 2021.
  14. National Institutes of Health News in Health. (2015). Biology of Addiction. Retrieved 2021.
  15. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM-IV and DSM-5. Retrieved 2021.

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