What is Alcohol Addiction?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes alcohol addiction as “a chronic relapsing disorder associated with compulsive alcohol drinking.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, combines alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence into the single category of alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol dependence develops over time. It may start with an occasional drink, but something happens that causes some people to drink heavily and develop alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol abuse leads to alcohol dependency, in which alcohol becomes a necessity and the individual will do whatever it takes to get it. Alcoholics lose their ability to control drinking, and when they can’t get alcohol, they end up in a destructive and fragile emotional state.

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Alcohol Use Disorder and the Brain

Alcohol addiction develops because of the powerful impact of the substance on the brain. Alcohol can repress negative feelings for a brief period, allowing a person to forget unpleasant experiences. As a result, some people rely on alcohol as a stress reducer. Still, negative emotions become too much between drinking, causing them to get into a cycle of drinking repeatedly to relieve emotional pain.

When an alcoholic attempts to stop alcohol use, they often experience withdrawal symptoms, including agitation, anxiety, headaches, hallucinations, irritability, insomnia, nausea, nervousness and tremors. Drinking takes on a new meaning. It no longer provides the pleasures of getting high; instead, it becomes a means of avoiding the unpleasant mental and physical state that comes with depriving the body and brain of alcohol.

With continued alcohol use, brain function changes, creating a need for more sustained drinking to bring relief. As a result, people become addicted, and trying to quit can lead to a series of relapses.

Who is at Risk of Alcohol Abuse?

People may start drinking at any age, especially when they have easy access to alcohol. Social drinking can lead to alcohol use disorder. Teens might be at risk for alcohol abuse when they binge drink. Environmental factors can foster underage drinking and alcohol use disorder. Young people with families or peers who drink regularly may be at a higher risk for alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Heredity or family history can play a role in susceptibility to alcoholism. Research shows that individuals with family members who struggle with drinking are at higher risk for alcohol misuse. It’s not unusual for people dealing with emotional trauma and mental health issues to become addicted to alcohol because they drink to feel better.

Individuals dealing with alcohol use disorder have an uncontrollable need to drink. The goal is getting alcohol, and once they have it, they can’t control how much they drink. When they’re not drinking, some people who abuse alcohol can function like nondrinkers, which allows them to hide the drinking problem. They may feel confident that their drinking isn’t a problem. Loved ones may not suspect problems since the person who drinks seems in control. Knowing the warning signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse can help individuals and families seek help for loved ones before drinking spirals out of control.

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Early Alcoholism Symptoms

People often binge with the intention of getting drunk. Young people may see binge drinking as harmless fun. They may also drink as a response to peer pressure. For men, having five or more drinks in a row and for women, having four or more drinks in a row at least once over the past two weeks is considered binge drinking. Not everyone who binge drinks develops alcohol use disorder, but it can increase the risk of alcohol abuse.

Headaches, fatigue and nausea after drinking are signs of a hangover. People experiencing hangovers may feel too sick to go to work or school. Excessive alcohol use also leads to poor judgment and behaviors like driving while impaired or fighting. Getting into legal trouble because of drinking is one sign a person is drinking too much.

teens drinking alcohol and are at risk to develop alcohol abuse and alcoholism

Signs That Teens May Be at Risk for Alcohol Addiction

Teens at risk for alcohol addiction may start to find new friends who also drink. Bloodshot eyes, disheveled appearance, extreme mood swings, irritability and difficulty remembering are signs of drinking too much. Young people may also experience problems at school, such as tardiness, absenteeism and failing grades. Alcohol can be a gateway drug to other forms of drug abuse in teens.

When a young person drinks, their grades may start to drop. Young people who don’t get help for problem drinking are at risk for brain damage because teen brains are still developing. There are regions in the brain responsible for specific functions, and heavy alcohol use can interfere with brain function.

Teens who participate in underage drinking often make bad decisions because alcohol affects the part of the brain responsible for judgment and inhibiting impulsive behavior. Drinking reduces the ability to weigh risks. Alcohol use can also affect the brain area that controls memory and learning, resulting in poor retention of new information, which impacts performance in school. Persistent drinking can lead to permanent brain damage.

Alcoholism Symptoms

If you think someone you care about has gone from moderate drinking to drinking too much, the following signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse can confirm that trouble is ahead if drinking continues.

Loss of Control

A person’s inability to control the amount of alcohol they drink is a classic symptom of alcohol abuse. They may try to stop, but the craving is too great. Consequently, the person spends much time drinking and trying to recover, developing a tolerance where they require more alcohol to feel the pleasurable effects. Therefore, they continue to increase their alcohol consumption.

Difficult to Handle Work

The alcoholic finds it difficult to handle work responsibilities or go to school regularly. They may fail to complete work or school projects. Drinking and driving are common among individuals who can’t stop using alcohol. The feeling of invincibility and poor judgment can lead the person to get behind the wheel, thinking they can drive safely.

Excessive Alcohol Use

Excessive alcohol use starts to dominate the individual’s life. They might sever social connections and stop participating in hobbies or activities they once loved. The objective is to satisfy their alcohol cravings, which matters most when alcoholism takes over a person’s life.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When individuals don’t get alcohol, they experience alcohol withdrawal, including nausea, shaking and sweating. As a result, they fall into a vicious cycle of seeking alcohol to relieve the symptoms.

Effects of Alcoholism

Alcohol addiction brings headaches and heartaches to alcoholics and the people around them. Individuals who abuse alcohol face all sorts of problems, including poor health, safety risks, workplace problems and damaged relationships.

woman who wants to stop drinking and reduce unhealthy alcohol intake undergoes treatment

Health Complications From Alcohol Misuse

People who drink too much alcohol are at risk for a long list of health problems. Heavy drinking can cause gastrointestinal problems due to inflammation in the stomach lining. It can also affect liver function and cause cirrhosis, a liver disease with irreversible hardening and liver scarring. Alcoholism can cause high blood pressure and weaken the heart. It can damage arteries, causing them to stiffen or lose elasticity, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Excessive drinking has been linked to various types of cancer, including colon, breast, esophageal, mouth and throat cancer. Alcohol can also damage nerve tissue, leading to neuropathy — numbness, pain and tingling in the extremities.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. This condition leads to birth defects and ongoing developmental issues for children.

Chronic drinking wreaks havoc on the immune system. Weak immunity increases the risk of developing diseases and makes it difficult to fight infections.

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Safety Risks of Alcoholism

People who drink too much tend to be a danger to themselves and others. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 28 people in the U.S. die in drunk driving crashes every day, and one person dies in a driving incident every 52 minutes.

Alcohol use disorder puts individuals at risk for sexual assaults and unprotected sex. Drinking lowers inhibitions, meaning individuals may not fear for their safety and leave a potentially dangerous situation. Being unable to resist physically or verbally due to intoxication makes a person vulnerable to sexual assault. The shame and trauma the individual may feel once they’re sober can prevent them from reporting the incident and lead to more drinking to cope with psychological pain.

Drinking before going to work or during work puts employees at risk for injury. In a work environment where an alcohol-addicted person operates machinery or heavy equipment, they risk injuring themselves or others. An alcoholic working in a pharmacy could give a customer the wrong medication. Poor decision-making and the inability to get along with coworkers are problems that create a dangerous work environment and decrease productivity. When the job requires attention to detail, failing to complete tasks correctly can lead to lost revenue for a company or injury to the alcoholic and others.

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Alcohol Misuse Damages Families

Alcoholism is a family disease, since prolonged alcohol use can have devastating effects on families. Heavy drinkers are more likely to become violent when irritated. Living with an alcoholic can be overwhelming as the sober partner tries to deal with the situation.

A partner or spouse may try to cover up the problem to keep others from finding out and blame themselves for the addicted person’s drinking. They may endure verbal and physical abuse. Being on an emotional roller coaster where the alcoholic apologizes, makes empty promises to stop drinking and commits violent acts often becomes too much for partners to handle.

a child developing mental health problems due to her parents having alcohol abuse

Alcohol Use Disorder Impacts Children in the Home

Children who live with alcoholics are especially vulnerable. Children of alcoholics can be at risk for abuse and neglect, with young children often left alone while the alcoholic is away from home or passed out due to heavy drinking. When adults allow people to come to their homes to “party,” children can be at risk for exposure to toxic behavior and sexual abuse. Watching an adult go through alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be frightening for children.

A harmful environment where verbal insults and physical violence are the norms can lead to depression, self-blame and suicidal thoughts in children. Children may start abusing alcohol at a young age, act out in school and have difficulty forming trusting relationships with others.

man developing alcohol abuse and affecting his finances

Alcohol Misuse Puts a Strain on Finances

A household’s finances can suffer greatly when a family member is an alcoholic. People who drink alcohol excessively spend a lot of money to feed their drinking habits. Acquaintances may take advantage of an alcoholic’s “generosity,” allowing them to buy rounds of drinks for the group. People who consume alcohol heavily are also vulnerable to robbery.

Being absent from work due to drinking means losing wages. Alcoholics who get into legal trouble often use the family’s financial resources to hire a lawyer and pay court costs. When an alcoholic gets caught driving while impaired, jail time means the home has one less wage earner.

Getting driving privileges restored after a drunk driving arrest can cost thousands of dollars and result in skyrocketing auto insurance premiums. Injuring other passengers and being subject to lawsuits can deplete a family’s assets.

Alcohol Detox and Treatment Can Help

Individuals who struggle with substance abuse need help to get off the path that destroys lives. Most find it difficult to quit without intervention due to the relapsing nature of alcoholism. Families of alcoholics beaten down by years of pleading with the alcoholic to stop drinking, as well as physical and emotional abuse, also need help healing from alcohol-related problems. Alcohol treatment centers help individuals recover from excessive drinking.

Alcohol treatment options that focus on individual accountability for the alcoholic, counseling, medication, therapy and support groups for all affected persons can help alcoholics and those who care about them. These options are aligned with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse’s recommendations. If they also have mental health disorders, individuals with severe alcohol use disorder can benefit from working with a mental health professional as well.

Individuals Who Receive Treatment Need Ongoing Support

Going through a substance abuse recovery program is only the beginning. Alcoholism is a disease for which there is no cure, and the possibility of relapse is real. Once the alcoholic and their loved ones go through the process that can lead to sobriety, the work must continue. Following through with aftercare recommendations and taking advantage of community support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are keys to staying on the path to recovery.

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Medically reviewed by:

Dr. K. Dodge, PhD, MSPH, MSW

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