What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical diagnosis for problem drinking that becomes severe. AUD is a chronic relapse brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over how much alcohol is consumed and a negative emotional state when alcohol isn’t available. AUD is defined as mild, moderate or severe.

Alcohol is a legal drug that has been used as a way to relax, socialize and celebrate for as long as it’s been around. For those with an alcohol use disorder, drinking may cause legal trouble, health problems, anxiety, depression or broken relationships.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between alcohol abuse and social drinking. Alcohol affects each person differently. Even though the act of drinking alcohol plays a major part in AUD, there are also environmental, biological and developmental factors to consider with AUD.

There are as many as 16 million people in the United States with an AUD, but not everyone who drinks alcohol will to become addicted to it or even abuse it. Those who practice binge drinking may never build up a tolerance or crave alcohol, but they will be at a greater risk of developing alcohol dependence.

Alcoholism Defined

With alcohol abuse, an individual isn’t dependent on alcohol, yet it still causes serious problems with their health, home life, career or schoolwork. Types of alcohol abuse include binge drinking and heavy alcohol use.

Binge drinking is five drinks for men, and four drinks for women, in a matter of two hours. Heavy alcohol use is defined as binge drinking on at least five days in the past month. Moderate drinking is one drink per day for women, and up to two drinks per day for men.

Alcohol abuse impacts each individual differently and varies greatly based on their:

  • age
  • weight
  • height
  • gender
  • amount consumed
  • length of time drinking

Over time, the calming, euphoric effect of alcohol may become more than a social pastime. Many people abuse alcohol to cope with stress, trauma, grief, social anxiety, mental illness, and even loneliness. When alcohol abuse turns to habit, it can quickly become addiction or dependence.

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Short-Term Effects Of Abuse

The short-term effects of alcohol abuse are the symptoms that may occur on a regular basis. The more alcohol a person drinks, the more severe the short-term effects they will experience.

A low dose of alcohol may cause a relaxing effect, whereas a medium dose may cause slurred speech, and a high dose of alcohol may produce breathing difficulties.

Other short-term effects of alcohol abuse may include:

  • lowered inhibitions
  • poor concentration
  • slower reflexes
  • slower reaction time
  • reduced coordination
  • slurred speech
  • altered emotions
  • poor vision
  • increased urination
  • vomiting
  • uncontrolled urination
  • passing out
  • alcohol poisoning
  • coma
  • overdose and death

Long-Term Health Risks Of Abuse

On any single occasion or over time, alcohol can take a toll on the health. Too much alcohol for any person can damage their organs.

Long-term alcohol abuse may damage the following organs:

  • Brain: interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the physical appearance of the brain and how it functions.
  • Heart: too much alcohol can lead to cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, stroke and high blood pressure.
  • Liver: heavy drinking can lead to fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
  • Pancreas: Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis. Too much alcohol can also decrease the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin, which results in diabetes.

Too much alcohol can also break down a person’s immune system, making the body an easier target for disease and vitamin deficiencies. Chronic drinkers are more likely to develop a thiamine deficiency, which means their body isn’t getting enough vitamin B-1. Vitamin deficiencies from alcohol abuse can make a person feel weak, less coordinated and even lose muscle.

Long-term effects of alcohol may increase the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast. An estimated 40,000 newborns each year are affected by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can be damaging in a number of different ways, often into adulthood.

Signs Of Alcoholism

The signs of alcohol abuse can be blatant or subtle. Many people who abuse alcohol find that when they drink, they consume more than they intended. Alcohol abuse may cause problems with work or family. Yet alcohol abuse is not the same as alcohol addiction.

Alcohol addiction is characterized by an individual’s inability to moderate or quit, even if it causes serious distress. A person suffering from an alcohol addiction or alcohol abuse may lose interest in things they were once passionate about, and take part in risky behaviors that increase the chance of getting hurt.

Signs Of A High Functioning Alcoholic

A “high functioning alcoholic” is a person who, on the surface, does not have an alcohol problem. They may brag about how much they drank the night before, or even have a faint smell of liquor on their breath, any given day of the week.

A person struggling with any kind of alcohol addiction is battling the same obsession, the same powerlessness, and they need the same support. Without some form of treatment, alcoholism, due to the progressive nature of the disease, keeps getting worse over time.

Many people who practice daily drinking eventually become dependent on alcohol. The safest way to drink alcohol is to do so in moderation—which is seven or fewer drinks per week for women, and 14 or fewer per week for men.

Dangers Of the AUD

A person suffering from alcohol addiction (alcoholism) may reach a point in their drinking when they become unable to function normally without alcohol. Yet many people who develop alcoholism didn’t do so overnight. Recurrent alcohol abuse can change how the brain works, causing it to stop producing necessary chemicals that it instead receives from alcohol.

The dangers of alcohol addiction are widespread. Many people with alcohol addiction drink until they pass out. The danger is that the alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate through the body, which raises a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) long after they go to sleep. Unfortunately, many alcohol overdoses occur while the person is sleeping.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol kills 88,000 people each year in the United States, and two and a half million years of potential life is lost to alcohol.

Withdrawal Symptoms

A person who develops alcohol dependence may experience a number of different physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may occur as early as eight hours after an individual’s last drink, and may continue for several weeks.

It’s common for alcohol withdrawal symptoms to peak between 24 and 72 hours, but the severity of symptoms may vary from person to person, and depend widely on how much they drink.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • increased heart rate
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • sweating
  • tremor
  • disorientation
  • hallucination
  • nightmares
  • pupil dilation
  • seizures

Delirium tremens (DT) occurs most often in people who have a history of alcohol withdrawal. Delirium tremens are especially common in people who drink four to five pints of wine, seven to eight pints of beer, or one pint of “hard” alcohol (liquor) every day for several months. Delirium tremens commonly affects people who have regularly abused alcohol for more than 10 years.

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Medically-Supervised Alcohol Detoxification Centers

Many alcohol addiction treatment programs begin with medically-assisted detoxification (medical detox), especially for patients suffering from a physical dependence on alcohol. Medical detox helps patients safely manage withdrawal symptoms, remove unwanted chemicals from their body and overcome the physical addiction to alcohol.

Receiving professional guidance and help with detoxification is the safest way to manage withdrawal symptoms. In many cases, a medical detox is necessary to get fluid, vitamin and nutrition levels back to normal before receiving behavioral treatment.

Because alcohol addiction is a physical, mental and spiritual illness, medically-assisted detoxification is only one part in a comprehensive treatment plan and should be followed with behavioral treatment.

Get Help With Alcohol Treatment

Alcohol may be the most commonly abused drug in the United States, but no two cases of alcohol addiction are exactly the same. It’s for this reason that alcohol addiction should be treated using an individualized approach.

With the help of trusted professionals at Vertava Health (formerly Vertava Health), purpose and balance can be restored. Each campus offers a unique treatment approach tailored to an individual’s needs, and which can help them grow mentally and spiritually. Freedom from addiction is possible, and it all starts with the first step.

Contact Vertava Health to learn more about our alcohol treatment programs.