For most people who drink, alcohol is a harmless part of the evening — a beer after work, a glass of wine with dinner, or a drink or two with friends. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) recommend that women have no more than one drink per day and that men have no more than two. However, for some people, alcohol use doesn’t stop at just a couple of drinks, and it can spiral out of control into addiction. They can go from having a casual drink here or there into becoming an alcoholic.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that more than 51 percent of Americans aged 12 or older ( 139.8 million people) had consumed alcohol in the last month during their 2018 survey. Twenty-four percent (67.1 million people) binge drank in the past month, meaning that they consumed five or more drinks on at least one occasion. A little over 6 percent (16.6 million people) drank heavily or binge drank on at least five occasions in the last month.
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When Does Alcohol Use Become Alcoholism?
People who drink heavily or binge drink may find that their alcohol use has come to cause problems in their lives. These problems are a warning sign of alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, which SAMHSA reports affects at least 14.8 million people over the age of 12 in the United States.
If someone you know meets at least two of the following criteria, they may have an alcohol use disorder (or be an alcoholic) and need help. Treating alcohol use disorder requires managing a few different things, including detox, treating the underlying addiction and also offering aftercare and support for continued sober living.
- 11 Behavioral Signs of Addiction:
- Using alcohol in larger amounts or over longer periods of time than originally intended
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol, in which greater and greater amounts of alcohol are needed to achieve the same effects over time
- Spending a considerable amount of time and energy trying to get alcohol, use alcohol and recover from its effects
- Failing to fulfill responsibilities and obligations at school, work or home
- Giving up important family, work, social or recreational activities in order to use alcohol or because of the effects of alcohol use
- Continuing to use alcohol even when it causes stress or negative consequences in social or interpersonal relationships
- Trying to stop drinking alcohol but cannot
- Craving a drink so badly that the thought takes over other thinking
- Getting into situations while or after consuming alcohol that increases the chances of getting physically hurt
- Having withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit drinking alcohol
- Continuing to drink even though it’s impacting health in other ways like worsening depression or making heart problems worse
Signs of Alcoholism
- Physical & Mental Symptoms of Alcoholism:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Racing heart rate
- Twitching or trembling
- Visual, tactile or auditory hallucinations
- Other Signs:
- Intoxication at odd times, such as during the day or during important obligations
- Brushing teeth at odd times to mask the scent of alcohol on the breath
- Secretive behavior meant to downplay or conceal the amount of alcohol consumed
- Suspicious, dishonest or deceitful behavior
- Being frequently unreachable
- Unexplained scrapes, bruises or injuries
- Uncharacteristic moodiness or inhibition
- Difficulty paying attention, forgetfulness or sleepiness
- Loss of interest in usual hobbies or activities
- Loss of motivation or energy
- Unexplained problems with performance or attendance at work or school
- Unexplained tardiness to events
- Unexplained shifts in personality or priorities
- Spending more money on alcohol than can be easily spared
- Stealing money or asking for money without explanation
- Possession of a false identification card
What else to look for:
- Finding that alcohol has gone missing or is frequently being replaced
- Finding that water has been added to bottles to replace missing alcohol
- Finding that mouthwash, cough syrup, hand sanitizer or other alcohol-containing products have gone missing or are frequently being replaced
- Finding excessive alcohol bottles in the trash or recycling
The first stage of someone quitting alcohol is detox and it’s important to make sure that people who drink heavily don’t detox alone. The seizures that can occur during withdrawal can be severe enough to be fatal without medical supervision.
Risks of Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism
Consuming enough alcohol to become intoxicated can cause a number of immediate effects from impaired judgment and slower reaction times to memory loss or “blackout.” A study in Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology found that the impairments in reaction times caused by alcohol consumption last a full 16 hours, long after the study participants had sobered up. Driving while hungover presents a very real danger. Hangovers also cause problems like missed class or work, low quality work or schoolwork, and lost productivity.
Long after the acute effects of intoxication have faded, excessive alcohol consumption can continue to cause health risks.
Risks of Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism
- Acute Effects of Excessive Alcohol Consumption:
- Chills or sweating
- Impaired memory
- Impaired reaction times
- Long-Term Excessive Alcohol Use:
- Cancer, especially digestive cancers
- Cardiovascular disease
- Liver disease
- Weakened immune system
- Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use on the Brain:
- Damage to areas controlling attention and decision-making
- Depression or anxiety
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), a type of brain damage caused by alcohol-related nutritional deficiencies. WKS is a medical emergency and causes long-term memory impairment and trouble forming new memories. Many of the long-term effects of alcohol abuse can be damaging and even deadly. Understanding the risks associated with prolonged alcohol abuse or addiction can help you or a loved one make healthier choices about alcohol use.
Getting Help for Your Loved One
If your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, there is help. The Recovery Village can help. Our highly credentialed staff members offer a full range of progressive treatment options based on each patient’s individual needs, including teletherapy. We’re ready to help your loved one begin the journey to recovery — contact us to learn more about personalized, comprehensive treatment plans.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently Asked Questions – Alcohol.” 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” Aug. 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Accessed October 20, 2019.
National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2018. “Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.” Samhsa.Gov, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.
Sainio, K, et al. “Electroencephalographic Changes during Experimental Hangover.” Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology. Accessed October 20, 2019.