Alcohol is the most heavily abused drug in America. National research from 2016 found that roughly 15.1 million Americans aged 12 or older, or one out of every 18 people at these ages, had an alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol abuse can deeply change the way a person’s physical and mental states function, in addition to negatively impacting their behaviors and social lives. In the short term, alcohol abuse can be witnessed by slurred words, poor coordination, impaired thinking and slowed reflexes.
Alcohol abuse and addiction can cause instability in almost every aspect of a person’s life. As alcohol abuse becomes more commonplace, a person’s health, relationships, career and other important responsibilities or goals can all become compromised.
What Is Alcohol Abuse?
Though drinking can be part of a balanced life for some individuals, many people struggle to control their consumption of this highly addictive substance. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following amounts are considered to be low risk for developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD):
- For women, no more than 3 drinks on any one day, totaling no more than 7 drinks a week.
- For men, no more than 4 drinks on any one day, totaling no more than 14 drinks per week.
At these amounts, NIAAA reports that roughly two out of every 100 people struggle with an AUD.
Excessive drinking includes a range of behaviors and severity of abuse but does include patterns of both binge and heavy drinking, in addition to drinking by pregnant women and underage alcohol consumption.
Binge drinking is defined as:
- For women, drinking four or more drinks in roughly two hours.
- For men, drinking five or more drinks in roughly two hours.
Heavy drinking is defined as binge drinking on five or more days in a single month, or:
- For women, consuming eight or more drinks in one week.
- For men, consuming 15 or more drinks in one week.
While binge drinking doesn’t necessarily mean a person is addicted to alcohol, it’s still very dangerous. Binge drinking can cause cardiac complications and liver problems, among other serious problems. If a person isn’t careful, binge drinking can quickly turn into compulsive patterns of heavy drinking.
Choosing an individualized alcohol addiction treatment program can help a person to heal their body and mind after chronic alcohol abuse so that they’re better equipped to live a more fulfilling, sober life.
Signs Of An Alcohol Use Disorder
Previously, diagnostic criteria referred to drinking problems as either alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. Even now, these terms are still widely used to describe problematic patterns of alcohol use, both by professionals and by families facing these struggles. However, the most recent criteria for diagnosing drinking problems integrates both disorders into one, an alcohol use disorder.
An alcohol use disorder encompasses a range of behaviors and can be mild, moderate or severe. The severity of symptoms can influence the measure of care that a person needs when they seek alcohol addiction treatment programs.
A person may have an alcohol use disorder if they answer yes to two or more of the following.
In the past year has a person:
- Drank more or for longer than they intended?
- Wanted to stop drinking or reduce the amount they consumed, but been unable to do so?
- Gave up a significant amount of time to drinking or to being sick from its effects?
- Been overcome by thoughts of drinking, to the point they couldn’t think of anything else (cravings)?
- Experienced harm to their family, home, work or school life due to alcohol or sickness caused by it?
- Drank even after it caused relationship problems?
- Gave up important activities or hobbies to make room for drinking?
- Engaged in activities that endangered their health or safety while drinking (e.g. driving a car or walking in a dangerous location)?
- Drank even when it caused depression, anxiety or worsened another health problem? Or after it caused a memory blackout?
- Needed to drink more to create the desired effect or found that what they’re used to drinking doesn’t create the intended effect anymore (a tolerance)?
- Become sick and experienced withdrawal or experienced things that weren’t there when they suddenly stopped or reduced the amount they were drinking?
While the person struggling with alcohol abuse may be aware of these issues, as well as those around them, a trained professional is best equipped to offer insight and guidance into the treatment planning process.
As soon as alcohol hits a person’s system it goes to work changing the way a person’s body, mind, and behaviors function. Being aware of these changes can help close loved ones spot a problem before it spirals further out of control. It can also help them to better support a person as they make one of the biggest and most important decisions of their life, seeking help.
Mental Signs Of Alcohol Abuse
Even small amounts of alcohol can begin to cloud a person’s thoughts, creating subtle mental and emotional changes, such as increased sociability and excitement. But as a person consumes more, either in one sitting or over time, the psychological effects of alcohol abuse increase.
In the short-term, alcohol abuse can cause a host of mental changes that can harm a person and create long-term repercussions. Alcohol causes a person’s inhibitions to drop, leading many people to act in uncharacteristic ways. It can also impair a person’s judgment and make it difficult for them to make sound decisions. In combination, these cognitive changes can lead a person to risky behaviors, such as unsafe sex or driving while under the influence.
Alcohol can make a person feel relaxed and more upbeat, but as a person’s blood alcohol content rises, alcohol can have an intensely sedative effect that impacts the brain. When this occurs, a person can become confused and suffer memory loss.
Additional short-term effects of alcohol use include:
- Mood shifts
- Panic attacks
- Poor concentration
- Violent behavior
Chronic, long-term alcohol abuse is a serious threat that can result in brain damage, decreased cognitive abilities and an increased risk of certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Alcoholism can cause severe brain and memory disorders, such as alcoholic dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or “web brain.” This latter is a potentially debilitating condition can cause mental confusion, amnesia, learning and memory problems, and coma.
Physical Signs Of Alcohol Abuse
The exact amount of alcohol needed to change a person’s physical states varies per person. But generally, even in the short-term, alcohol use can cause a person to have:
- Blurry or double vision
- Intense relaxation
- Irregular appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed reaction time and reflexes
- Slurred speech
- Stumbling, swaying or trouble walking
- Trouble sleeping
When a person consumes alcohol it works as a depressant. This means that it begins to slow down important, life-sustaining systems within the body, such as those that oversee blood pressure, breathing, heart and temperature rates. When alcohol is used in moderation, typically these effects do not become severe, however, when alcohol is used to excess, even in the short term, these effects can be dangerous.
Short-term alcohol abuse can become very dangerous, very quickly. Overdosing on alcohol, or alcohol poisoning occurs when the amount of alcohol in a person’s body becomes toxic.
In the most severe cases, an alcohol overdose can cause coma and death. Signs of alcohol poisoning include both physical and mental changes, such as abdominal pain, confusion, disorientation, slowed breathing, stupor, vomiting, and unconsciousness.
Chronic alcohol abuse can cause a variety of serious, adverse physical health problems, including bone damage and osteoporosis, cancer, heart problems, liver problems, stroke and birth defects (fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.)
Behavioral Signs Of Abuse
Alcohol can change a person’s behaviors, even with just one or two drinks. To the casual observer, these initial signs of abuse may seem entertaining or engaging, but in the context of alcohol abuse, they’re often followed by more problematic behaviors.
When a person begins to drink they might begin to laugh, become more outgoing or talkative. Some people talk more loudly and interrupt those around them. While many people who drink socially are accustomed to these effects, for a person with an alcohol use disorder, they may mask an underlying problem.
Oftentimes, a person with an alcohol use disorder will try to hide their driving problem, yet if a person looks closely, there are certain behavioral cues that can point to alcohol abuse or addiction, including if a person:
- Becomes drunk after only one drink (can point to a person having drunk in private before an event).
- Drinks a significant amount of alcohol without exhibiting much, if any, effect (a tolerance).
- Consumes large amounts of alcohol in a small period of time (binge drinking).
- Drinks even after those around them have stopped.
- Continues to drink even when they’re clearly intoxicated.
- Gets intoxicated or drunk on a repeated basis.
- Drinks to overcome the symptoms of a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.
- Drinks to cope with negative emotions, such as grief, loneliness or anger.
- Claims that they feel more like themselves or more comfortable when they’re drinking, versus when they’re sober.
- Acts unlike themselves while under the influence.
- Lies about alcohol use and becomes defensive when asked about their drinking habits.
- Makes excuses for their drinking.
Has more and more problems in their life because of drinking, such as those related to their health, home, family, work or school life
In addition to these states, friends, family, co-workers or other close loved ones often become concerned about a person’s drinking habits.
Signs Of Alcohol Withdrawal
In addition to the short-term effects of drinking, chronic drinking can cause withdrawal symptoms, which can be a tell-tale sign of a drinking problem.
When abuse becomes chronic, a person’s body gradually begins to adapt to larger and/or more frequent amounts of alcohol. At these amounts, alcohol can significantly alter the way the brain functions, specifically by changing important brain chemicals or neurotransmitters.
Eventually, the body’s chemistry becomes dependent on alcohol to function properly, and without it, the body malfunctions. This reaction is termed withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal can become very painful and uncomfortable, and unlike many other types of drug dependencies, alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. Professional detoxification services can help a person to safely and more comfortably withdrawal from alcohol.
Signs of alcohol withdrawal include:
- A headache
- Mood swings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- Shakiness or tremors
Heavy drinkers who have drunk for extended periods of time are at a greater risk of delirium tremens, commonly referred to as DTs. Signs of DTs include agitation, delirium, hallucinations, extreme confusion, fever, and seizures. Delirium tremens is a medical emergency. Prompt medical help could save a life.
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Getting Help For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
The best treatments for alcohol addiction are individualized, meaning they seek to address each underlying issue that contributed to the addiction. Tailoring treatments to each person’s unique needs and lifestyle helps them to be better prepared when they return to the demands of their daily lives.
To do this, a team of highly trained addiction specialists, including therapists and counselors, teach clients sober living principles, such as coping, relapse prevention, and stress-reduction skills. Programs may be 12-step or non-12-step and use a variety of therapies and treatments to achieve these goals, such as:
- Behavioral therapies
- Dual diagnosis treatment
- Family therapy and support
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Mindfulness and stress management practices
- Peer support groups
Many people who face addiction are severely dependent on alcohol. Medical detox programs provide around-the-clock observation and medical treatments while a person’s body cleanses itself. Medications are commonly used to help reduce or alleviate withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Once a person has stabilized and regained more normal functioning, rehabilitation for the physiological effects of addiction can begin. The best inpatient drug rehab programs form a therapeutic community where a person can focus on their recovery while renewing body, mind, and spirit.
Contact Vertava Health for more info on alcohol abuse, addiction and treatment options.