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Alcoholism Fast Facts: What is it, Side Effects, Treatment Options & How to Help

Alcohol use disorders occur at varying levels of severity, and alcohol abuse can cause serious problems in a person’s daily life. Substance abuse can graduate to dependence when drinking habits become out of control, putting someone’s physical and mental health at risk even more. Alcohol use disorders can build up over many years or become severe in much shorter timeframes. No two people experience alcohol abuse and the effects of alcoholism the same.

If you or someone you know is suffering from alcoholism, it can be difficult to understand the impact substance abuse has on a person’s life. From defining alcoholism and dependence to learning the symptoms of withdrawal, alcoholism can be scary and dangerous for all involved. Keep reading to learn more about alcohol dependence, including treatment options.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a form of substance abuse. It is classified as an alcohol use disorder and ranges from mild to moderate to severe. Alcoholism impacts a person’s ability to manage their drinking habits and alcohol intake. Those who suffer from alcoholism continue to compulsively abuse alcohol despite experiencing emotional distress and negative consequences.

An alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease that is also characterized by relapsing. As of 2015, more than 15 million American adults had an alcohol use problem. Alcohol use disorders and problems with alcohol include binge drinking, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking involves consuming large amounts of alcohol in a single session. The official classification of binge drinking is five or more drinks for men in one session and four or more drinks for women in one session. Binge drinking can also be defined as drinking with the goal to get drunk. For young people with alcohol use problems, binge drinking is the most common issue.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse goes a step further than binge drinking. Instead of unsafe alcohol consumption in one session, drinking impacts daily life. A person suffering from alcohol abuse continues drinking despite negative consequences or personal difficulties. Alcohol can cause someone to miss important daily activities, such as work or school, or run into legal troubles like drunk driving or public intoxication. The ratio of time spent drunk to time spent sober starts to lean more towards drunk.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence is classified by a craving for alcohol and a loss of control over drinking habits. Through alcohol abuse, a person can increase their tolerance for alcohol, requiring more alcohol to achieve the same effect. When someone stops drinking for an extended period of time, days or even hours, they may experience the symptoms of withdrawal. This disease is progressive, and the need to drink will likely only get stronger over time if left untreated.

As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you can lower them.

Robin Williams, Weapons of Self Destruction

People who experience alcohol dependence may find that they drink larger quantities or for a longer period of time than planned. They may also find it difficult to cut down on their drinking or moderate their alcohol consumption. Alcohol dependence is a more severe form of alcohol abuse and typically requires outside help to treat.

What are the effects of alcoholism?

Alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) greatly affect the body and the brain. The effects of alcohol will differ by individual, but there are some common side effects for people who find it hard to control their drinking. In most cases, one drink is considered 12 fluid ounces of beer, eight to nine fluid ounces of malt liquor, five fluid ounces of wine, or one and one-half ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Blood alcohol content is one way to determine how alcohol impacts your body, but people with an alcohol use disorder may have built up their tolerance over time. Lower blood alcohol content (BAC) percentages result in temporary side effects while higher BAC percentages can result in serious and life-threatening effects. Prolonged alcohol abuse can cause many health problems, including damage to a person’s internal organs.

Common Effects of Alcoholism

  • Memory loss
  • Impaired coordination
  • Loss of balance
  • Emotional response issues
  • Weakened heart
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Stroke
  • Sudden cardiac death
  • Liver disease and liver failure
  • Obesity
  • Pancreatitis
  • Increased risk of pancreatic cancer

Depending on how much alcohol was consumed and how long a person has been drinking, the side effects of alcohol abuse can be long-term or short-term. Short-term effects include slurred speech, impaired vision, and mood shifts. Long-term effects include cardiovascular diseases, respiratory infections, and nerve damage.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When a person stops drinking, they are likely to experience alcohol withdrawal as toxins leave their body. There are many risk factors involved in alcohol withdrawal, making it a very dangerous process. A lack of proper medical care can increase the risk of permanent damage or death during alcohol withdrawal. Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Shaking hands
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever

What is an alcoholic?

Alcoholics are now more commonly referred to as people with an alcohol use disorder. The signs and symptoms of alcoholism are different for every person, so alcohol use disorders are diagnosed on an individual level. In simple terms, alcoholics are those who abuse alcohol compulsively.

What defines an alcoholic?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders outlined criteria to diagnose alcohol use disorders. Individuals who meet at least two of the criteria within a 12-month period may suffer from alcohol abuse or an alcohol use disorder. Criteria includes:

  • Using alcohol in higher amounts or for longer periods of time than intended
  • Inability to decrease alcohol use despite a desire to cut down
  • Substantial time spend obtaining and using alcohol and recovering from the effects
  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Inability to fulfill major obligations due to alcohol use
  • Continued alcohol abuse despite social or interpersonal problems related to alcohol use
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to alcohol use
  • Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations, including driving
  • Alcohol abuse despite physical or psychological problems related to alcohol use
  • A tolerance for alcohol
  • Stopping the use of alcohol results in withdrawal symptoms

Treating an alcohol use disorder

The decision to stop drinking is not easy to make, but it is crucial for a person’s health and wellbeing. Recovering from alcohol use disorders usually begins with withdrawal, which can be dangerous. Medically-supervised treatment programs offer a safe environment where doctors and nurses can monitor a patient’s withdrawal symptoms and provide proper care at each stage of withdrawal.

Once a person has navigated alcohol withdrawal, maintenance care is needed to prevent a relapse. Alcohol use disorders are chronic and characterized by relapse, so continued work and care is necessary to keep someone from drinking again. Support groups, counseling, and medication can all help provide preventative care for alcoholism.

At-home Detox

Detoxing at home is not recommended by the medical community. The symptoms of withdrawal, including delirium tremens, can be very dangerous and potentially life-threatening. When a person detoxes from alcohol at home, they do not know how their body will react to the process. At-home detoxing also places unnecessary stress and responsibility on the person recovering.

Treatment Facilities

Treatment programs are available to help people with an alcohol use disorder through the detox and withdrawal processes. Medical detox involves medical supervision and medication to keep someone safe as they detox. These programs are able to ease discomfort through withdrawal and provide emergency medical care if issues arise during the process. With 24-hour care, the person recovering does not have to worry about managing their health on their own during an already difficult time.

Support Groups

Ongoing care after detox or rehabilitation is necessary to prevent relapses. Recovering from an alcohol use disorder is a lifelong process that can be difficult from time to time. A person’s commitment to staying sober can be strengthened by support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous. Both 12-step and non-12-step groups offer support and comfort. Individual counseling and group therapy can also provide support and care after alcohol detox.

How to help an alcoholic

Alcoholism does not just affect one person – it impacts everyone in their life. Friends and family never want to see their loved ones struggle, but it can be difficult to know how to handle the situation. Alcoholics may not always reach out for help, or even realize that they have a problem. Loved ones who recognize the warning signs can provide loving and supportive intervention to provide the proper care.

Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse

  • Lack of control over alcohol consumption
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Cravings or desire to drink
  • Placing alcohol above responsibilities
  • Increased spending on alcohol
  • Changes in behavior, especially after drinking

If you or a loved one are in need of professional help, get in touch with one of our intake professionals today.