Alcohol Addiction

Written by Mara Tyler | Published on July 14, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 14, 2014

What Is an Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, is a widespread disease that affects people of all walks of life. While experts have long tried to pinpoint genetic, gender, racial, or socioeconomic factors that may predispose someone to alcohol addiction, it appears that it has no singular cause and can afflict anyone.

In the medical community, alcohol addiction has long been considered a psychosomatic condition (Carver, 1948). This means that social, psychological, genetic, and behavioral factors can all contribute to the disease. However, it’s important to note that it is a real disease, and once addicted, an alcoholic may physically be unable to control his or her actions. Research has shown that addiction, including alcohol addiction, causes physical changes to the brain and neurochemistry of an addict.

Alcohol addiction can show itself in a variety of ways. The severity, frequency of use, or type of alcohol consumed varies from one person to the next. Some may drink heavily all day, while others binge drink for a period and then stay sober until their next “bender.” The type of alcohol you drink does not preclude you from alcoholism.

Regardless of how the addiction looks, alcoholism is usually present if a person heavily relies on drinking and cannot stay sober for a long period of time.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?

It may be difficult to recognize alcohol addiction. Unlike drugs such as cocaine or heroin, alcohol is a widely available drug and is accepted in most cultures. It is often at the center of social situations and is closely linked to celebration, reward, and enjoyment. Drinking is a part of life for many people, young and old. Also, alcoholics are often good at hiding their drinking from loved ones or minimizing the seriousness of their habit. Because of this, it is hard to tell the difference between someone who likes to have a few drinks now and then and someone with a real problem.

The following could be signs of alcohol addiction.

  • increased quantity or frequency of use
  • higher tolerance when drinking or lack of “hangover” symptoms
  • drinking at inappropriate times (first thing in the morning) or places (church or work)
  • wanting to be where alcohol is present and avoiding situations where it is not
  • changes in friendships (an alcoholic will choose friends who drink just as heavily)
  • avoiding contact with loved ones
  • hiding alcohol where no one will find it, or hiding while drinking
  • dependence on alcohol to function or be “normal” in everyday life
  • increased lethargy, depression, or other emotional issues
  • legal or professional problems such as an arrest or loss of job

As this addiction tends to get worse over time, it’s important to look for early warning signs. If identified and treated early, the alcoholic may be able to avoid major consequences of the disease. If you are worried that an addiction is present, it’s best to approach the alcoholic and discuss your concerns in a supportive way. Avoid shaming them or making them feel guilty. This could push them further away and make them more resistant to the help you offer.

What Are the Treatment Options for Alcoholism?

Treating alcohol addiction can be complex and challenging. In order for treatment to work, the alcoholic must want to get sober. Usually, you can’t force a person to stop drinking or consider treatment if they aren’t ready. Success depends on the individual’s personal drive to get better.

The recovery process for an alcoholic is a lifetime commitment. It involves daily maintenance, and is not a quick fix. For this reason, many people say alcohol addiction is never “cured.”

Rehab

A common initial treatment option for alcoholics is an outpatient or inpatient rehabilitation. In severe cases, an inpatient program lasting anywhere from 30 days to a year can help the alcoholic handle the withdrawal symptoms and emotional challenges that come with stopping drinking. Outpatient treatment provides daily support while allowing the patient to live in his or her own home.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Other Support Groups

Many alcoholics also turn to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). However, there are also other support groups that don’t follow the 12-step model. They include SMART Recovery or Sober Recovery.

Regardless of the type of support system someone in recovery chooses, it’s usually important to get involved in at least one. Sober communities can help an alcoholic deal with the challenges of sobriety in day-to-day life. All of these options put the alcoholic in touch with other people who have gone through similar experiences. It makes them accountable and gives them new, healthy friendships. It also provides a place to turn when a relapse may be on the horizon.

Other Options

An alcoholic may also benefit from other treatment methods, such as drug therapy, counseling, or nutritional changes. A doctor may prescribe something like antidepressants if the alcoholic was self-medicating for an existing problem like depression. They can also prescribe drugs to assist with the emotions common in recovery. A therapist is useful in teaching someone to manage the stress of recovery and the skills needed to prevent relapse. Also, a healthy diet can help undo damage that the alcohol may have done to the person’s health, including any weight gain or loss.

In general, alcohol addiction involves several different treatment methods that vary from one person to the next. It’s important that the alcoholic has a recovery program that will work for him or her and support long-term sobriety. This could mean an emphasis on therapy for someone who is depressed, or inpatient treatment for someone with severe withdrawal symptoms. The right treatment for you depends on your specific needs.

What is the Outlook for Alcoholism?

When an alcoholic gets help early on, treatment tends be more promising. However, long-term addictions can be successfully treated as well. The danger with waiting to treat the addiction is that it tends to progress quickly. Generally, addictions that have gone on longer are harder to break, though many people are successful after struggling with addiction for years.

Relapses are not uncommon. An alcoholic who has remained sober for months or even years may find himself or herself drinking again. He or she may binge drink once or drink for a period of time before getting sober again. A relapse does not indicate certain failure.

Friends and family of the alcoholic might benefit from seeking professional support or by joining programs like Al-Anon/Alateen. The alcoholic’s recovery process can be just as challenging and painful for loved ones as it is for the alcoholic. Ultimately, however, sobriety is the responsibility of the alcoholic. It’s important to not enable destructive behaviors and to maintain appropriate boundaries if the alcoholic is still drinking. This could mean cutting off financial assistance to the alcoholic or making it more difficult for him or her to indulge in the addiction.

What Are the Health Complications of Alcoholism?

Untreated, alcohol addiction can result in heart disease and liver disease. Either of these can cause death. Untreated alcoholism can also cause:

  • ulcers
  • diabetes complications
  • sexual problems
  • birth defects
  • bone loss
  • vision problems
  • increased cancer risk
  • suppressed immune function

If the alcoholic takes risks while drinking, he or she could put others in harm’s way. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drunk driving, for example, takes 30 lives every day in the United States. Drinking is also associated with increased incidence of suicide and homicide.

These serious complications are another reason it’s important to treat this addiction early. But, nearly all of the risks of alcohol addiction are avoidable or treatable with long-term, successful recovery.

What Are Resources for Alcoholism?

For more information about alcoholism or to help a loved one find options for help, it may be best to talk to your doctor. He or she can refer you to local programs in your area, such as treatment centers or 12-step programs. Also, the following organizations may be useful:

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