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Alcohol Addiction | Statistics, Behavior, & Signs

Despite popular belief, America’s biggest drug threat isn’t opioids–it’s alcohol. This legal substance is also an addictive substance, and millions use it excessively, risking their health, lives, jobs, relationships, and more. Drinking too much puts many on the road to battling alcohol abuse which can, in turn, lead to alcohol addiction.

Alcohol addiction can lead to alcoholism, a chronic disease that is characterized by uncontrollable drinking patterns that create a physical and psychological dependence in an individual. Alcohol is one of the most common substances of abuse in society today. Since alcohol is legal, there are no real risks of obtaining a drink. However, the risks associated with alcohol abuse are far more dangerous and life-threatening than you might imagine.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder, affects your physical and psychological states. It is classified as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. When you are addicted to alcohol, it becomes more difficult to function on a daily basis without it in the body. Long-term alcohol use has severe effects on the human body as well as the brain. Depending on the severity of alcoholism in an individual, the side effects associated with the overconsumption of alcohol vary.

Although alcohol is typically referred to as, well, alcohol, there are a few alternative names for the substance:

  • Juice
  • Booze
  • Moonshine
  • Hooch
  • Draft
  • Hard Stuff

When alcohol is ingested, it causes euphoria and releases “feel good” chemicals to the reward system in the brain. Although alcohol can increase sociability and self-confidence, it causes difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, and slow reaction times – which are all effects on the brain. 

Heavy drinking produces a greater risk for damage to the brain, especially if you have been drinking for an extended time. 

The effects vary in severity depending on:

  • How much you drink
  • How often you drink
  • The duration of moderate to heavy drinking
  • Pre-existing health complications
  • History of alcoholism, including family history of alcoholism
  • If you have been exposed to fetal alcohol syndrome

Alcohol abuse is known to cause memory implications and blackouts. Blackouts will occur in those who drink too much, in a short amount of time. 

Physical complications can also arise in individuals who suffer from alcoholism. The most common are issues in the liver. The liver is responsible for the breakdown and excretion of alcohol from the body. When abnormally large amounts of alcohol enter the body, the liver might not be able to process the alcohol quickly enough. This causes dysfunction within the organ. Prolonged, untreated dysfunction in the liver results in cirrhosis – which ultimately ends up causing hepatic encephalopathy in the brain.

What Are the Signs of Alcoholism?

Alcoholism can be tricky to detect, especially if you are a casual drinker or drink frequently. However, there are a few signs to look out for if you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from alcoholism.

The most noticeable signs an alcoholic will display consist of:

  • Drinking alone or hiding alcohol consumption
  • Intense cravings for alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Inability to function without drinking alcohol
  • Choosing alcohol over responsibilities, priorities, or hobbies
  • Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Inability to stop drinking on your own or control the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Drinking immediately upon awakening
  • Feelings of guilt or remorse associated with drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite the consequences (physical, mental, financial)

Not everyone who consumes alcohol is predisposed to alcoholism. Genetics, as well as other major factors, play a large role in the development of alcoholism. If you are unsure if you are struggling with alcoholism or abusing alcohol, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you ended up drinking more than you planned to?
  • Have you tried to stop drinking on your own but were unsuccessful?
  • Do you constantly have the desire to drink?
  • Have you kept drinking despite increased depression or anxiety?
  • Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms from alcohol consumption?
  • Did you experience legal issues while intoxicated?
  • Have you had to drink more or more often to feel the desired effects of alcohol?

Although these may not be the conclusion if you are struggling with alcoholism or not, it will give you a general idea of the symptoms associated with the overconsumption of alcohol. Also, asking another individual who may be dealing with dependence or addiction to alcoholism can be the deciding factor in getting the person help before they succumb to the consequences of long-term alcohol use.

What Is Involved in Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

Alcoholics will need to undergo a series of treatment programs to abstain from alcohol safely. Since the effects of alcohol are detrimental to the body, withdrawal symptoms can lead to undesirable effects. 

The withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism are so severe that in some cases, they can be fatal. Symptoms vary based on the individual’s health as well as how much they drink, how often they drink, and the duration of their alcohol abuse.

Generally, if you are going through alcohol withdrawal, you will experience symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Irrational thinking
  • Nightmares
  • Sweating
  • Dilated pupils
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Delirium tremens
  • Increased heart rate

Alcohol withdrawal, if not appropriately treated, can be dangerous. 

Seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder will first include detoxing in a medical facility. Addiction treatment specialists recommended that users attend a detoxification facility because of the stronghold the illness has on individuals, as well as its easy accessibility. 

Also, alcohol is one of two substances that result in life-threatening consequences if you try to go through withdrawals without medical attention. Medical detox programs are designed to ensure comfort as well as safety for those seeking help from the disease of alcoholism. Depending on the severity of withdrawal, you will typically spend three to 10 days in a detox facility.

After the detoxification process, inpatient or residential programs will continue the abstinence of alcohol or other substances of abuse. An inpatient treatment program will give you time away from alcohol and surround you with constant support under medical supervision. 

It is imperative for alcoholics to commit to inpatient treatment due to its effectiveness. The benefits of long-term treatment programs consist of:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Addiction education
  • Relapse prevention
  • Individual therapy sessions
  • Group therapy
  • Amenities to introduce you to society without the use of drugs or alcohol
  • Introduction to support groups
  • Constant support and supervision from staff and peers

Long-term facilities typically last anywhere from 30 to 90 days. During the treatment stay, you will be encouraged to look at your alcoholism and will be guided through the initial stages of recovery. 

When inpatient/residential treatment ends, you may be recommended to complete an outpatient program. These programs are usually affiliated with the treatment center or sober living facility. They might last anywhere up to nine weeks; however, you will only be required to attend one to three group sessions a week.

Outpatient programs help you maintain sobriety while also keeping you accountable. Also, while you attend outpatient or intensive outpatient programs, you can also seek further support in 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alcoholism is treatable. However, there are seriously dangerous side-effects as a result of drinking alcohol in excess.

Medications Used in Alcohol Addiction Treatment

As a depressant, alcohol has the ability to cause some extremely dangerous symptoms during withdrawal that need to be treated safely and effectively to avoid serious complications. Some of the most serious symptoms may occur during the first week or two after you stop using. 

Alcohol can also cause some unpleasant post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) that can even be dangerous in some cases. To help keep you safe and as comfortable as possible, you might be treated with some medications during alcohol addiction treatment. 

Many people going through treatment will receive some basic medications to help control symptoms. For instance, anti-inflammatory drugs can help ease headaches. You may also receive medicine to treat nausea or insomnia. However, there are also some prescriptions that are approved to do more than treat symptoms. Here are the four U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved medications that are used in alcohol addiction treatment.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a medication that is also in the depressant category. They are often used to wean people off of alcohol slowly, to help avoid dangerous symptoms like seizures or delirium tremens. The work in the brain in a way that’s similar to alcohol, but they are also easier to control than alcohol when it comes to dosage. 

Unfortunately, benzos can also be addictive, and they can also cause dangerous symptoms if you quit them abruptly. Benzos are typically only used when absolutely necessary, and a weaning process is overseen by a medical professional. Weaning with benzos can also prolong the detox process, but it may be worth it if you are likely to experience dangerous.

Disulfiram

Also known by the brand name Antabuse, disulfiram is a medication that’s used to help safeguard sobriety after detox. The medication reacts poorly with alcohol in your system to produce uncomfortable symptoms like nausea and vomiting. The idea behind this drug is to create a deterrent to drinking and use negative reinforcement to make the idea of drinking distasteful. 

It’s effective among people who take the medication regularly throughout treatment. However, the drawback is the need for medication compliance. People who have strong cravings to drink can just as easily avoid taking the medication to negate its effects.

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is sold under the brand names Revia, Depade, and Vivitrol. The drug works by counteracting the euphoric feelings that come with alcohol intoxication. Like with disulfiram, the goal is to minimize the rewarding effects of alcohol abuse in order to make relapse less enticing. A study showed that the use of naltrexone with therapy decreased alcohol cravings. However, just like with disulfiram, medication compliance is a serious concern with naltrexone.

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Acamprosate

The most recent medication approved to treat alcoholism is acamprosate, sold under the brand name Campral. The drug works by alleviating the physical and emotional symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. The drug has been used in other parts of the world for decades, but it was only approved in the U.S. in 2004.

How Dangerous Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are real threats, and in many cases, they do turn out to be fatal. Despite the dangers, alcoholism is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., contributing to roughly 88,000 deaths every year. 

Also, more than half of these deaths are related to binge drinking. Alcoholism can lead to a long list of physical and psychological effects. Alcohol takes a serious toll on your health, especially if you frequently drink a lot. Alcoholism can lead to damage to the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, immune system, and it can also cause cancer. Alcoholism can also lead to anxiety and depression, as well as severe mood swings.

Alcoholism also kills. Alcohol withdrawal should be taken very seriously as it can lead to death. Withdrawal symptoms can start six hours after a person takes their last drink. These warning symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Shaky hands
  • Sweating

People with acute alcohol withdrawal could experience hallucinations that take place anywhere from 12 to 24 hours after their last drink. They also could have seizures within the first 48 hours. These seizures are not the same as delirium tremens or DTs. Those begin anywhere from 48 to 72 hours after the last drink.

Severe symptoms of DT include vivid hallucinations and delusions. The DTs reportedly affects only five percent of people in alcohol withdrawal. This group typically experiences confusion, a racing heart, high blood pressure, fever, and heavy sweating. All of these symptoms and conditions are reasons why abruptly stopping alcohol consumption is not the way to go. Going “cold turkey” can be deadly.  A medical detox, which is typically the first step in an addiction recovery program, is the safe way to do things. 

Aside from causing damage to the body, alcohol can affect the people in your life. Especially if you experience blackouts or violent episodes during intoxication. People also lose the ability to think and act irrationally – potentially causing car accidents or other fatal incidents.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs, and people turn a blind eye to it because it is legal. However, statistics show that alcohol has caused more deaths and has been the root of fatal accidents than other commonly abused drugs.

  • Alcoholism affects roughly 15.1 million adults in the United States, which doesn’t include teenagers and people who have tried alcohol with the potential to develop alcoholism later in life.
  • Studies also show that in 2014, alcohol-related car crashes accounted for 9,967 deaths.
  • In the United States, around 88,000 people die annually of alcohol-related issues.
  • One in 10 women in the United States reported using alcohol while they are pregnant.

The statistics regarding alcoholism and alcohol dependence can be an eye-opener if you find yourself identifying with the signs of alcoholism. Unfortunately, if alcoholism is genetic, there is little you can do to change that. However, there is support and help available so that you don’t become another statistic.

Sources

Alcohol Use Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body

Alcohol and Public Health. (2017, June 15). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/data-stats.htm

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (1970, January 1). Chapter 3-Disulfiram. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64036/

Loss of Brain Function – Liver Disease. (n.d.) Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000302.htm

Hartney, E. (2019, July 26). Why Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome Can Be a Barrier to Recovery. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-post-acute-withdrawal-syndrome-22104

Ogbru, A., & Marks, J. W. (2018, February 6). Benzodiazepines Drug Class: Side Effects, Types & Uses. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drugs-condition.htm

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