Alcohol is a legal and socially acceptable intoxicant and it can seem mostly harmless or even safe. However, alcohol addiction, known more commonly as alcoholism or alcohol dependency, is one of the most common forms of addiction in the United States. Alcoholism can have serious detrimental effects on relationships, daily functioning, and quality of life. It can also permanently damage many systems of the body, including the nervous system, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism statistics highlight how serious the problem is:

  • Over 15 million people in the U.S. are currently suffering from alcoholism
  • Men are almost twice as likely to suffer from alcoholism
  • In 2012, up to 6% of deaths worldwide were attributed to alcohol
  • Alcohol abuse costs Americans over $200 billion a year
  • Around 17% of men and 8% of women will be affected by alcohol dependency during their lifetime

NHIS reports that over 50% of adults drink alcohol semi-regularly. Studies have found that moderate alcohol use (up to 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 drinks a day for men) may have positive effects on health such as a decreased risk of heart disease. So, when does normal alcohol use turn into alcohol addiction?

Signs and Symptoms

Once normal alcohol consumption is negatively affecting daily life, health, relationships, or functioning, it is has turned into abuse. Symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Use of alcohol in dangerous or hazardous situations
  • Difficulty fulfilling responsibilities and obligations at home, school, or work due to alcohol
  • Use of alcohol despite physical health, family, relationship, or work issues caused by use
  • Legal problems as a result of alcohol use
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Inability to control or limit the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Alcohol poisoning (overdose)

Not all alcohol abuse evolves into addiction. Alcohol addiction usually develops after extended, long-term abuse, and is characterized by mental or physical addiction. You experience symptoms of withdrawal, dependency, and an inability and lack of will to stop using alcohol even when it leads to negative repercussions. Symptoms of alcohol addiction or dependency include:

  • Developing a higher tolerance to alcohol, leading to consuming increasing amounts
  • Unsuccessful attempts to reduce the amount consumed or frequency of use
  • Use of alcohol despite acknowledging the negative consequences
  • Hiding alcohol or drinking secretly
  • Increased symptoms of depression or other mental health issues
  • Depending on alcohol to cope or function normally in daily life
  • Frequent "inappropriate drinking" - drinking at work, school, or first thing in the morning
  • Inattention to physical health, school, work, family, friends, or relationships
  • Loss of interest or participation in activities (like exercise, hobbies, or time spent with friends and family)
  • Reduced ability to deal with responsibilities
  • Lack of control when drinking (inability to control amount consumed, frequency, or length of drinking)
  • Denial of a drinking problem (blaming drinking on others, lying about frequency or amount consumed)
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using alcohol. Signs of withdrawal include:
    • Excessive sweating
    • Agitation, moodiness, depression, or anxiety
    • Insomnia
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Shaking, usually tremors in the hands
    • Seizures or hallucinations
    • Loss of appetite
    • Fatigue
    • Headache

For those suffering from alcohol addiction, withdrawal symptoms can be very serious. Suddenly stopping alcohol use can cause seizures, hallucinations, fever, stroke, or even heart attack.

Effects

Alcohol addiction has severe lifestyle and interpersonal consequences. Addiction can lead to the loss of a job, friends, family, and loved ones. Domestic violence, legal problems, withdrawal or isolation also often result from abuse and addiction.

However, the effects of alcoholism aren't limited to external issues. Long-term addiction can cause serious physical health problems and lead to irreversible damage to organs and most major body systems. Alcoholism is a progressive affliction, meaning that symptoms develop and worsen over a long period of time. It can take more than 12 years of abuse and addiction to develop physical symptoms, and deterioration of organs and body systems usually occurs after 18 or more years of abuse. However, alcoholism brings with it daily risks of alcohol poisoning or alcohol-related injuries. The long-term negative consequences of alcohol addiction include:

  • Cirrhosis (scarring of liver tissue)
  • Hepatitis (liver disease or damage)
  • Ulcers
  • Birth defects
  • Decreased immune function
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Osteoporosis
  • Bone loss
  • Heart problems
  • Stomach problems
  • Increased risk for cancer of the mouth, liver, breast, esophagus, and larynx

Liver diseases are the most common physical effect of alcohol addiction. Almost 50% of deaths due to liver disease involve alcohol.

Causes and Risk Factors

Like many other addictions, it's difficult to identify a single cause for alcohol addiction. Researchers have identified risk factors which can increase the possibility for developing alcohol addiction. Many incidences of alcoholism result when those suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders use alcohol as a coping mechanism or as a form of self-medication. The following risk factors can increase the probability of developing alcohol addiction:

  • Family members that have also struggled with alcoholism or addiction
  • High-stress environments
  • Chemical imbalances
  • Mental health disorders
  • Unresolved trauma
  • Social or psychological pressures
  • Peers or surrounding individuals who encourage alcohol use
  • Use of alcohol or drugs before the age of 21

Clinical evidence continues to grow, emphasizing the strength of biological and genetic predispositions to addiction. Those with first-degree relatives who have suffered from alcohol addiction are four times more likely to develop alcoholism. If you have a close relative who has suffered from alcoholism, or if you believe you have several of the risk factors listed above, prevention and proper precautions should be taken to prevent the development of addiction.

Treatment

Treatment for alcohol addiction usually involves several parts, which include:

  • Intervention
  • Detox
  • Rehab
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Support and self-help groups
  • The A 12-step program
  • Counseling
  • Drug education
  • Medication for underlying mental health issues

Often several of these treatments are used in conjunction for the highest level of effectiveness. Treatment for alcohol addiction generally varies from one person to the next. Many options are available, so an important part of recovery is choosing a method that will work for the individual in question. After initial treatment, therapy, counseling, or support groups (Alcoholics Anonymous) are recommended in order to provide continuing support and management. Treating alcoholism is a life-long process and commitment, and day-to-day maintenance is important in order to prevent a relapse.

Due to the risks of developing serious health problems, such as seizures, stroke, hallucinations, delirium or heart attack due to alcohol withdrawal, those suffering from alcohol addiction shouldn't attempt to stop drinking suddenly. Attempts at self-treatment without the assistance of a doctor can be very dangerous. Alcoholism should be treated by professionals - many physicians and healthcare workers are trained in addiction medicine and withdrawal management. A physician may decide that medical care, such as detox or medication, is necessary as one of the first steps of addiction treatment.