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Alcohol Use Survey Reveals Risks Before, During and After an Addiction

Our recent survey shows alcohol’s significant health and social risks, how people found help, what alcohol detox is really like and what to expect during and after rehab.

In 2019, an estimated 14.1 million Americans struggled with an alcohol use disorder, or alcohol addiction. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has not helped this crisis: in fact, many people are turning to alcohol to cope with the added stress, isolation and uncertainty. Recent studies have reported significant increases in alcohol consumption this past year, with alcohol sales surging at the start of the pandemic and throughout 2020.

Drinking more heavily and more often during the pandemic can increase people’s risk for developing an alcohol use disorder, which can require treatment to recover. Increased alcohol consumption can have other effects on the person’s health, relationships and overall wellness.

The Recovery Village recently surveyed more than two thousand respondents to better understand their experience with alcohol: how had alcohol impacted their life? How did they find help? What was detox and recovery like for them? Understanding how their peers recovered from alcohol addiction can help people feel more confident about getting the treatment they need.

Alcohol Study Results

The Recovery Village Alcohol Survey Results

We surveyed 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not). We asked them about their alcohol use, reasons for drinking, alcohol-related outcomes, health and more. In addition, 1,559 respondents had undergone a detox from alcohol and were asked about their detox experiences and how their recovery was going. Note: Some questions asked respondents to select each option that applied, so in a few instances, the total percentage will be greater than one hundred.

Alcohol Use Stats

Heavy alcohol use contributes to a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder and experiencing other health complications. A subset of the study’s respondents (47.1%) qualified as heavy alcohol users

Research shows that people who drink before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become addicted to alcohol later in life. Among those surveyed:

  • 10.1% had their first alcoholic drink at 11 years old or younger
  • 37.5% had their first alcoholic drink between 12–17 years old
  • 39.7% had their first alcoholic drink between 18–25 years old
  • 12.6% had their first alcoholic drink at 26 years old or older

Alcohol use disorder can involve feeling like you need to drink to keep going, but it doesn’t start that way. Multiple different reasons can spur someone to drink until they’ve become dependent on alcohol. Among those surveyed:

  • 64.9% used alcohol to cope with stress (to relax, unwind, or deal with life)
  • 43.5% used alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression
  • 61.9% used alcohol recreationally or socially
  • 38.1% used alcohol out of boredom
  • 16.6% reported being physically dependent on alcohol
  • 17.8% used alcohol as part of their daily routine (i.e., a drink with dinner)

When asked to rank their reasons for drinking alcohol, coping with mental health symptoms, coping with stress and recreational/social use ranked first, second and third as the biggest reasons respondents drank alcohol.

Alcohol and Your Life

Alcohol misuse can negatively impact aspects of your life in ways you may not expect. Among those respondents who had tried to stop drinking at some point:

  • 53.5% reported alcohol affected their physical health
  • 44.5% reported alcohol affected their mental health
  • 41.9% reported alcohol affected their relationships with loved ones
  • 21.7% reported alcohol affected their abilities as a parent
  • 25.3% reported alcohol affected their career or job
  • 29.5% reported alcohol affected their hygiene 
  • 34.0% reported alcohol affected their finances
  • 13.2% reported alcohol affected their legal status (incarceration, fines, etc.)

Those who qualified as heavy drinkers consistently reported higher percentages for each of these effects. Compared to other people in our study, heavy drinkers more than doubled their risk for a negative impact on their mental health, relationships and careers. They were 96% more likely to have their abilities as parents affected and 66% more likely to experience a legal issue.

When asked to rank these impacts, it didn’t matter if you drank heavily or not or tried to stop using alcohol or not: physical health, mental health and relationships were ranked as the biggest impacts on respondents’ lives. 

Alcohol and Your Health

Research has linked alcohol abuse, especially heavy alcohol use, to numerous health issues, from liver disease to depression to cancer. When we asked survey participants about health complications directly related to their alcohol use:

  • 1 in 3 reported depression (38%)
  • 1 in 3 reported high blood pressure (31%)
  • 1 in 6 reported liver disease (17%)
  • 1 in 10 reported cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) (12%)
  • 1 in 10 reported cardiovascular disease (11%)
  • 1 in 7 reported a weakened immune system (15%)
  • 1 in 10 reported nerve damage (11%)
  • 1 in 12 reported pancreatitis (8.4%)
  • 1 in 11 reported seizures (9%)
  • 1 in 13 reported cancer (7.8%)

Consistently, respondents who qualified as heavy alcohol users reported every health complication more often than average and significantly more than other alcohol users. Compared to people who didn’t drink heavily, heavy drinkers in our study had more than doubled their risk for certain health issues. They were:

  • 2.12 times more likely to have liver disease
  • 2.26 times more likely to have cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
  • 2.06 times more likely to have high blood pressure
  • 2.26 times more likely to have cardiovascular disease
  • 2.77 times more likely to have nerve damage
  • 2.18 times more likely to have pancreatitis

They were also at higher risk for other common health complications compared to other moderate or light drinkers. Heavy drinkers were:

  • 85% more likely to be depressed
  • 61% more likely to have a weakened immune system
  • 73% more likely to have seizures
  • 48% more likely to have cancer

In addition, avoiding all of these complications was harder the more you drank: heavy drinkers were 71% less likely to have none of these illnesses compared to other people in the study. 

Finding Help for an Alcohol Addiction

To better understand how our respondents (those who had either decided they wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to stop) viewed recovery, the survey asked a series of questions about finding help for their alcohol abuse. When asked what they did or would consider for help, more than half (64%) sought some form of outside help:

  • 17.1% would use a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, etc.
  • 21.8% would use professional substance use treatment (rehab)
  • 25.1% would work with their doctor or psychiatrist
  • 36% didn’t/wouldn’t receive any outside help to stop using alcohol

Among those who did/would seek out professional substance use treatment, the most common research technique was an internet search (61%), followed by asking a doctor or medical professional (55%). If you’re relying on internet searches to find potential treatment centers, make sure to ask these ten questions to find a licensed facility that can meet your needs. 

When deciding where to get help for an alcohol addiction, many factors can affect your decision, including:

When asked to rank these factors, respondents on average placed credentials/accreditations as the top factor, followed by location and length of program. Respondents who had decided on using a professional rehab had the strongest consensus for these top three factors. High-quality rehab facilities meet rigorous standards for accreditation beyond being licensed by the state they operate in and employ board-certified medical staff and addiction specialists. Collectively, the staff at The Recovery Village facilities hold over 3,000 professional credentials.

Barriers to Treatment

Of the 14.1 million people with an alcohol use disorder in 2019, only 17% received any kind of substance use treatment. Overcoming common barriers to treatment is essential to help people receive the care they need. 

We asked those who had tried to stop drinking without help to rank the reasons why they had not sought outside help (such as rehab, a doctor or a support group) to stop drinking alcohol. They selected, in the following order:

  1. Financial cost
  2. Being unsure what to expect
  3. Lack of time for treatment 

These respondents tried to stop drinking on their own because they either believed they couldn’t afford care, had unanswered questions about care, or lacked time (and may have benefitted from more flexible programming like outpatient care or teletherapy).

We also asked those who had decided they wanted to stop drinking, but haven’t yet tried to stop to rank their reasons why. Like the first group, people in this group cared most about cost and expectations, but they added “judgment from others” in their third place. The social stigma surrounding addiction is a strong demotivator for getting help, despite often being based on outright myths about addiction. These results highlight an urgent need to continue educating our families, peers and communities about addiction and reducing the stigma so that more people will enter lifelong recovery.

Alcohol Detox & Withdrawal

Alcohol detoxification is the first stage of recovering from alcohol abuse, in which the body naturally removes alcohol from its system after you stop drinking. People experience a range of withdrawal symptoms during this process. While this can be done on your own at home, alcohol withdrawal and detox can be deadly, and is often done under medical supervision at a rehab facility or medical center, called medical detox.

Of the 1,559 respondents who had detoxed before, 72% did so at home and 28% did so at a rehab facility or medical center. When deciding between detoxing at home versus at a medical center or rehab facility, both groups ranked safety and comfort as their top two factors. Medical detox is significantly safer and better able to help you manage discomfort created by withdrawal symptoms. 

Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal is physically and psychologically uncomfortable due to the body and brain’s dependence on the substance. Respondents’ withdrawal symptoms lasted for an average of 4.83 days. For 95% of respondents, withdrawal symptoms lasted between 2–8 days. This range stayed the same whether they detoxed from home or at a medical facility.

Respondents who had detoxed from alcohol reported experiencing the following withdrawal symptoms: 

  • 1 in 2 respondents reported irritability (46.8%)
  • 1 in 2 reported fatigue (42.3%)
  • 1 in 2 reported sweating (44.9%)
  • 1 in 2 reported stress or anxiety (48.6%)
  • 1 in 3 reported hand tremors (33.5%)
  • 1 in 4 reported nausea or vomiting (23.6%)
  • 1 in 4 reported mood swings (23.6%)
  • 1 in 5 reported rapid heart rate (22.9%)
  • 1 in 8 reported hallucinations (13.4%)
  • 1 in 10 reported Delirium tremens (DT) (11.4%)
  • 1 in 12 reported seizures (8.2%)

Across the board, heavy alcohol users reported withdrawal symptoms more than average. Heavy drinkers more than doubled their risk for hallucinations during detox, being 2.39 times more likely than other alcohol users to experience them. Compared to others during detox, heavy drinkers were:

  • 90% more likely to experience Delirium Tremens (a potentially fatal complication)
  • 45% more likely to experience seizures 
  • 95% more likely to experience rapid heart rate
  • 147% more likely to experience hand tremors
  • 69% more likely to experience sweating
  • 65% more likely to experience nausea or vomiting
  • 35% more likely to experience irritability
  • 28% more likely to experience fatigue
  • 28% more likely to experience stress or anxiety 
  • 27% more likely to experience mood swings

Polysubstance use

Some people in recovery are recovering from using multiple substances (like alcohol and cocaine, for example), called polysubstance abuse. Among those who detoxed, 78.7% were only detoxing from alcohol, while 21.3% detoxed from alcohol and at least one other substance (polysubstance use). Compared to those detoxing from alcohol only, people detoxing from polysubstance abuse were:

  • 2.14 times more likely to experience Delirium tremens (DT)
  • 2.25 times more likely to experience seizures
  • 1.60 times more likely to experience hallucinations

Polysubstance use often complicates the detox process and necessitates more medical care, which is reflected in the data: 36.8% of people detoxing at a rehab facility or medical center were detoxing from multiple substances, compared to only 15.3% of people detoxing at home. Medical detox at a rehab facility may be necessary to keep those struggling with multiple substances as safe and comfortable as possible during a critical time.

Alcohol Rehab & Recovery

Recovery is a lifelong process that often begins with professional treatment and continues long after a person leaves the rehab facility. We asked respondents in recovery about their experiences during and after rehab treatment.

Different rehab programs are available to meet the unique needs of each patient in recovery. Of those surveyed:

In contrast, 44.1% of heavy drinkers started in inpatient treatment while only 9% started with teletherapy. Heavy drinkers were 2.42 times more likely to attend inpatient or residential rehab treatment than any other treatment program, most likely due to the increased needs involved with heavy alcohol use. 

The more heavily you use alcohol, the more likely higher levels of care will be necessary to begin recovery. When asked about their first time in rehab:

  • Among inpatient or residential patients, two-thirds (66.5%) qualified as heavy drinkers.
  • Among intensive outpatient patients, half (54.1%) qualified as heavy drinkers.
  • Among outpatient patients, less than half (44.2%) qualified as heavy drinkers.
  • Among teletherapy patients, two-thirds (68%) did not qualify as heavy drinkers.

Rehab programs vary in length. For example, outpatient programs generally last longer than inpatient care but require fewer hours per week. Among those surveyed:

  • 55.4% spent less than 30 days in rehab
  • 27.1% spent 31-60 days in rehab
  • 10.8% spent 61-90 days in rehab
  • 6.7% spent more than 90 days in rehab

Traveling for rehab has benefits and drawbacks depending on your situation. Most respondents attended rehab treatment locally in their city (63.8%), with 22.5% traveling to another city in their state, 8.8% traveling to a nearby state, and 4.9% traveling across the country for rehab. 

Relapse & Recovery Outcomes

Relapse is common and a normal part of the recovery process; it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. For the study, relapse was defined as a return to old alcohol abuse behaviors.  Of those surveyed, only 29.4% reported not relapsing at all. The largest group (32.3%) relapsed back to alcohol use within the first year after stopping. With perseverance, your chances of relapsing decrease the longer you stay sober: 21.4% relapsed in their second year in recovery, but only 9.6% relapsed in years three through five, and only 7.2% did so after their fifth year in recovery.

Returning to a treatment program later on in someone’s lifetime is sometimes necessary. Many of these cases involve trying a less intensive program first or not having a full continuum of care the first time. Among those surveyed:

  • 49.1% attended rehab once
  • 26.8% attended rehab twice
  • 14.1% attended rehab three times
  • 9.9% attended rehab four or more times

Not finishing your rehab treatment completely is another common reason for relapse and eventual return to care. Among those surveyed, only 19.5% completed their program, while 80.5% left treatment early. 

Relapse Prevention

When asked which relapse prevention strategies they used to stay in recovery:

  • 49% used exercise for relapse prevention
  • 37.1% avoided triggering activities, people and places
  • 34.6% pointed to lifestyle changes they’d made
  • 34.3% used an aftercare treatment plan, including regular therapy appointments
  • 35.0% used 12-step programs or other support groups
  • 28.7% took medication to curb their dependence
  • 22.9% took to journaling
  • 24.6% cited their religion or spirituality as a factor

When asked to rank which relapse prevention strategies were the most helpful for keeping them in recovery, respondents consistently placed lifestyle changes, exercise and avoiding triggers as their top three factors. While everyone’s situation and needs are different, these three strategies are essential to any relapse prevention plan after treatment.

Join Your Peers in Recovery

If you want to stop drinking alcohol, know you’re not alone. Many people have made the same decision already and many others are considering it as well. This survey data shows the clear, negative impact alcohol can have on your health and personal life. It also illuminates the path others have taken, from searching for help to detox, treatment and beyond. The survey findings indicate that understanding what you can expect, from program options to financial obligations to how a facility can keep you safe and comfortable during detox, can help you feel more confident making the decision to seek the life-changing care you deserve.

Professional help is available for you or a loved one at The Recovery Village. Contact us today to speak to one of our intake coordinators who will help you understand the programs we offer, how insurance can help cover the costs of rehab and how we’ll support you every step of the way.

Methodology & Definitions

Surveys conducted by The Recovery Village use an organic, random sample of U.S. Americans collected through Pollfish’s random device engagement (RDE) sampling method. All surveys are double-blind studies with a 95% confidence interval and ±3% margin of error.

In this survey, the sample size for general alcohol questions was 2,136. The sample size for detox- and recovery-related questions was 1,559 (respondents who qualified to answer these questions). The requisite sample size was determined based on the estimated national population size of adult alcohol users (18+) in the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Survey questions were developed using recommendations and definitions from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as well as insights from addiction experts and medical professionals.

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic brain disorder diagnosed using eleven distinct criteria. Presenting at least two of these eleven symptoms will usually lead to an AUD diagnosis. The disorder can be classified as mild, moderate or severe, but recovery is possible for all of these subclassifications.

Heavy alcohol use (or heavy drinking) is defined as binge drinking on five or more days in the past month.

Binge drinking involves having five or more drinks on one occasion in the past month for males or four drinks for females.

 

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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