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Learn about alcohol addiction and substance abuse
Alcohol abuse occurs when a person begins to use alcohol to the extent that a problematic pattern develops, resulting in significant impairment to the individual’s ability to function properly on a daily basis. While it is not uncommon for adults to drink alcohol, the problem arises when a person’s alcohol use begins to have a negative impact on various, if not all, aspects of their life. It is known to be a chronic, progressive disease that gradually intensifies over time.
However, with the right types of inpatient detox, treatment, medication, therapies, and long-term support, most who struggle with alcoholism are able to successfully overcome their addiction and begin to lead a happy, healthy, sober life.
Alcohol addiction statistics
In the United States, an estimated 8.5% of adults over the age of 18 abuse alcohol, occurring more prominently in men than in women. Alcohol abuse is said to peak in individuals ages 18-29 and to be lowest among individuals age 65 and over.
Causes and risk factors for alcohol addiction
The causes of alcoholism can vary and overlap depending on the individual. Some factors that may contribute to the development of alcohol dependence include:
Genetic: Alcohol abuse runs in families. It is said that 40-60% of the risk of developing alcoholism is due to genetic influences. People are three to four times more likely to begin abusing alcohol if they have biological family members who abuse it as well.
Physical: Alcohol dependence can occur due to chemical changes in the brain. The more that a person drinks, the more likely it is that there will be a disturbance in the normal balance of chemicals and nerve tracks in the part of the brain that recognizes pleasure, as well as in the part of the brain that affects a person’s judgment and ability to exercise self-control.
Environmental: The most glaring environmental factor that can lead to the development of alcoholism is the simple fact that drinking alcohol is accepted in society and even encouraged in many different cultures. Alcohol is a legal substance that is widely available and, for adults in the U.S. who are over the age of 21, it can be purchased almost anywhere. This is in great contrast to other substances such as cocaine and heroin, which are illegal and therefore more difficult to obtain.
The environment in which a person lives and/or works can also play a role in the onset of alcohol dependence. For example, people who are under a lot of stress at work may be more likely to drink alcohol after work in an attempt to relax. But the more that people drink, the higher their tolerance becomes, which then requires them to drink more, putting them at risk for developing alcohol dependence. Similarly, people who have home lives that are stressful, abusive, or unhappy may turn to alcohol consumption in an attempt to numb themselves from the emotions that result from the things happening around them.
- Family history / genetic influences
- Peer pressure
- Being male
- Having a tendency to act impulsively
- Low self-esteem
- Having easy access to alcohol
- Relationship problems
Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction
The signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse will vary based on things such as the extent to which a person is drinking, the length of time that they have been drinking, and their age. The following are examples of the various symptoms that someone abusing alcohol may exhibit:
- Continuing to drink even after suffering from health concerns as a result of alcohol use
- Drinking alone
- Making up excuses or finding reasons to drink
- Acting hostile or defensive when questioned about drinking
- Hiding alcohol
- Missing work or school
- Changes in eating patterns
- Changes in appearance (less concerned about hygiene or appearance)
- Alienating loved ones
- Flushed skin
- Feeling the need to drink alcohol in order to function
- Suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms (such as nausea, shaking, or sweating) after not having had a drink after a short amount of time
- Lack of “hangover” symptoms in the morning following a night of heavy drinking
- Waking up and not remembering how you got to where you are
- Distorted vision and hearing
- Lapses in memory
- Losing consciousness / “blacking out” after drinking heavily
- Impaired decision-making
- Impaired judgment
- Mood swings
- Increased irritability
- Emotional disturbances
- Losing interest in previously established interests
Effects of alcohol addiction
The effects of alcohol abuse can include:
- Social isolation
- Health concerns (liver disease, damage to the brain, heart problems, weakening of the immune system, etc.)
- Risk of developing certain types of cancer
- Participating in high-risk behaviors (such as driving while intoxicated)
- Increased family problems
- Broken relationships
- Damage to a fetus when consumed by pregnant women
Alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Conduct disorder
Effects of withdrawal and overdose (also known as alcohol poisoning)
The effects of withdrawal from alcohol abuse will vary from person to person. It is said that, on average, withdrawal symptoms begin to occur about eight hours following one’s last drink. However, in some individuals, symptoms may not occur until days later. Typically, symptoms will be most intense 24-72 hours after a person’s last drink, but they can continue for days or sometimes even weeks. Some common effects include:
- Mood swings
- Increased irritability
- Change in skin color
- Rapid heart rate
Alcohol poisoning is extremely dangerous and usually occurs without the person even realizing that they have had enough to drink to bring them to that point. Even if a person stops drinking because they have “passed out,” their blood alcohol level will continue to rise, putting them at greater risk for alcohol poisoning. Some critical signs that a person has alcohol poisoning can include:
- Excessive vomiting
- Slowed or irregular breathing
- Drop in body temperature
- Change in skin color (sometimes turning blue or becoming extremely pale)
When a person is suffering from alcohol poisoning, it is essential that they receive medical treatment. If immediate treatment is not received, the result can be fatal.