According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly 6% (3.3 million deaths) of all deaths around the world each year are due to alcohol use or misuse. The dangerous effects of abusing alcohol are far-reaching and can range from disease, personal health risks, and death to the breakdown of family relationships and friendships, legal trouble, and harmful social consequences.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a severe type of alcohol abuse. A person with alcoholism cannot manage their drinking habits. Also called alcohol use disorder, alcoholism can be organized into mild, moderate or severe categories. Each category has certain symptoms and could present hazardous side effects. Alcohol abuse can get out of control if left untreated.
Generally speaking, a person likely has a drinking problem if alcohol use causes undesirable issues or consequences for them. Those struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism frequently feel like they can’t function normally without drinking alcohol. This could cause a wide range of issues as well as impact:
- Personal matters
- Professional goals
- Overall health
The serious side effects of alcoholism can become worse and cause damaging complications the longer the disease is left untreated.
How Can You Tell if You’re an Alcoholic or Have a Drinking Problem?
Determining if a person’s drinking habits constitute a diagnosis of alcoholism is not an easy matter. Each person’s effects will vary since drinking is commonplace in many cultures. However, if you find you use alcohol to cope with difficulties or forget problems, you put yourself at risk for developing a dependency on alcohol. This dependency can lead to potentially dangerous situations.
You might have a problem with drinking if you:
- Feel ashamed or guilty about your drinking.
- Have to drink to feel better or relax.
- Hide your drinking or lie to others.
- Regularly drink more than you intended to.
- Forget what you did or black out while drinking.
- Ignore the negative impact of your drinking and continue to use alcohol despite undesired consequences, including physical danger.
- Withdraw from family, important work, social activities and roles.
- Build a tolerance to alcohol. You have the ability to drink more than others without becoming drunk or you need to drink more alcohol in order to feel the same effects.
- Experience withdrawal symptoms. After you cut back or stop drinking, you experience symptoms of sweating, anxiety, trouble sleeping, trembling and nausea or vomiting. You may even experience harsher symptoms like hallucinations and seizures. You have to drink to avoid or relieve these symptoms.
- Have a preoccupation with drinking or a compulsion to drink. Individuals with alcoholism have come to physically and psychologically rely on alcohol. An alcoholic’s brain will adapt to the presence of alcohol and undergo persistent changes. When alcohol use stops suddenly, the body isn’t used to being free of alcohol. Then, your internal environment drastically changes. This causes withdrawal symptoms.
Health Issues Associated with Alcohol Abuse
Alcoholism can cause or complicate a variety of physical and mental health issues, including:
- Chronic depression.
- Liver disease.
- Autoimmune conditions.
- Psychological disorders.
- Attachment disorders.
- Gastrointestinal issues.
Abusing Alcohol can:
- Increase your risk of depression and suicide.
- Cause traffic accidents or accidents involving intoxicated pedestrians deciding to walk home drunk.
- Play a big role in violent crimes like domestic violence and homicide.
- Lead to unsafe sexual behaviors, resulting in sexually transmitted disease or accidental pregnancy.
- Increase your risk of liver disease (cirrhosis and hepatitis)
- Increase your risk of stomach ulcers.
- Increase your risk of heart disease.
- Increase your risk of stroke or brain damage.
- Lead to other health issues.
Pregnant women who consume alcohol pose great danger to their unborn child, potentially causing them to experience various health issues like:
- Fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Low birth weight.
- Heart defects.
- Low birth weight.
- Learning difficulties.
Other Risk Factors Associated with Alcohol Abuse
Many people have a predisposition to abuse alcohol and develop alcoholism. The risk factors that increase the probability of having alcoholism include:
- Childhood or adolescent trauma.
- Early exposure to alcohol abuse.
- Co-occurring disorders or psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
- Your social environment.
Alcohol problems can stem from a combination of environmental influences and biological tendencies.
- Environment: Alcohol can be a huge part of an individual’s social group. It may also have been, sometimes destructively, a part of early family life. Individuals may turn to alcohol to obtain stress relief. This often backfires since drinking causes its own issues. Healthy friendships and family support can reduce this risk.
- Biology: Individuals with a family history of alcoholism have a greater risk of developing alcoholism themselves. For instance, if you have a parent with alcoholism, you have a greater risk of struggling with alcoholism yourself.
Research from the NIH suggests that certain inherited genes raise the probability of developing an addiction to alcohol. Though genetics alone cannot account for a person’s alcohol abuse, genetics can increase the likelihood of abusing alcohol, especially when coupled with other environmental risk factors such as trauma or inappropriate exposure to alcohol at an early age.
Some racial groups like Native Alaskans and Native Americans have a higher risk than others of alcohol addiction. Those with a family history of alcohol abuse or who closely associate with people who drink heavily have a higher risk of developing drinking problems.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction
You can break alcohol treatment down into three phases. These consist of:
The first phase of treatment is alcohol detox. Initial alcohol detox can have severe medical side effects. Supervision and guidance from a medical professional is necessary to avoid serious health risks and to ease distressing withdrawal symptoms. Doctors can provide medication to help alleviate severe withdrawal symptoms, improving the likelihood of completing detox.
Rehabilitation for treating alcoholism comes in two forms:
With inpatient rehab, you’ll be in an intensive treatment program where you’ll check into a facility for a certain amount of time. Generally, inpatient treatment lasts 30, 60 or 90 days.
With outpatient rehab, you’ll participate in a rehabilitation or recovery program, but you can continue on with your day-to-day life.
Completing rehab doesn’t complete your recovery process. To maintain long-term sobriety, you need ongoing support. Long-term support options may include individual therapy, group counseling, and/or support groups. Maintenance programs help people recovering from alcoholism stay sober and recognize warning signs before a relapse happens.Support is important regardless of whether you decide to:
- Go to rehab
- Get therapy
- Rely on self-help programs
- Take a self-directed approach to treatment
Recovering from alcoholism is simpler when you have a support team on your side to lean on for comfort, encouragement and guidance. If you don’t have adequate support, it’s too easy to fall back into the same alcohol abuse pattern when things get a little tough.
Your ongoing recovery will depend on you learning healthier coping strategies, continuing mental health treatment and making better choices when coping with the challenges of life. To stay free of alcohol for the long-term, you will also need to face the underlying issues that caused you to abuse alcohol in the first place.
If somebody you love is struggling with a drinking problem, you might be experiencing numerous painful emotions, including fear, shame, anger and self-blame. The issue might be so overwhelming, it seems simpler to ignore it and go around pretending nothing is wrong. Yet, denying the problem will only bring more harm to you, the loved one with the drinking problem and other family members in the long run.
Whether you suspect you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol-related issue, call your doctor. Alcoholism isn’t a sign of poor character or weakness. It’s a true disease where you can receive treatment. And, the sooner you receive treatment, the easier it will be to treat alcoholism.