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 52 percent of Americans aged 12 or older (about 137 million people) had consumed alcohol in the last month. Twenty-three percent (60 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 (16.5 million people) were heavy drinkers who binge drank on at least five occasions in the last month.
When does alcohol use become alcoholism?
Heavy drinkers, as well as some binge drinkers, 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 18 million people over the age of 12 in the United States. Signs of alcoholism include:
- 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
- Racing heart rate
- Twitching or trembling
- Nausea or vomiting
- Visual, tactile, or auditory hallucinations
If someone you know meets at least two of these criteria, they may have alcohol use disorder (or be an alcoholic) and need help. It’s important to make sure that heavy drinkers don’t detoxify alone – the seizures that can occur during withdrawal can be severe enough to be fatal without medical supervision.
Other signs that someone may be addicted to alcohol include:
- 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 lateness 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
- 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
Risks of alcohol abuse or alcoholism
Consuming enough alcohol to become intoxicated can cause a number of immediate effects, including:
- Impaired judgment
- Slowed reaction times
- Poor balance
- Loss of coordination and dexterity
- Slurred speech
- Staggering gait
- Memory loss or “blackout”
According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use and associated intoxication increase the risk for:
- Injuries or accidents such as falls, burns, drowning, or motor vehicle collisions
- Violence, including sexual assault, intimate partner violence, suicide, and homicide
- Risky sexual behaviors such as unprotected sex or sex with strangers
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders among women who are pregnant
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to acute poisoning, which can cause nausea, vomiting, unconsciousness, coma, and death. Nearly 90,000 people die each year from excessive alcohol consumption, reports the CDC. The consequences of excessive alcohol consumption cost the United States over $223 billion annually.
Long after the acute effects of intoxication have faded, excessive alcohol consumption can continue to cause hangovers, which are characterized by flulike symptoms such as:
- Chills or sweating
- Impaired memory
- Impaired reaction times
A study in Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology found that the impairments in reaction times caused by alcohol consumption lasts 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. Hangover-related problems cost the United States over $148 billion annually (about $2,000 per working adult), according to the Annals of Internal Medicine.
- Long-term excessive alcohol use can also cause a number of other health problems:
- Weakened immune system
- Cardiovascular disease
- Liver disease
- Cancer, especially digestive cancers
- In addition to affecting the rest of the body, long-term alcohol abuse also affects the brain. This can cause:
- Depression or anxiety
- Damage to areas controlling attention and decision-making
- Korsakoff syndrome, a disorder of memory in which people have difficulty recalling old memories, cannot form new memories, and instead invent false “memories” or stories to fill the gaps, believing them to be true
Getting help for your loved oneIf your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, there is help.
SAMHSA offers a toll-free number where you can speak to a representative about alcohol abuse, request materials on alcohol abuse, and locate alcohol abuse treatment programs in your area: call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also find treatment centers online with SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator.
We can help too. Our highly credentialed staff members offer a full range of progressive treatments based on each patient’s individual needs. We’re ready to help your loved one begin their recovery – call today to learn more about what we have to offer.