Alcohol use disorder
People may drink alcohol for all sorts of reasons — celebrating a special event, unwinding after a long day, socializing with friends, bonding over the hobby of home-brewed beers. In moderation, it might be a normal part of life. But sometimes alcohol use can become too frequent and may cause serious problems. The definition of alcoholism is the inability to stop or control alcohol use, even if it has negative social, professional or health consequences. 1 Knowing how to identify symptoms and find treatment resources at any stage can help you or a loved one struggling with alcohol use disorder.
How much alcohol is too much?
It can be hard to know how much alcohol is considered problematic. Generally, one drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men is considered moderate. For example, a 12-ounce beer or 5-ounce glass of wine with dinner may not be a red flag. When those drinks turn in to 4 or more in one day, or more than 14 drinks in a single week, it may raise concern. That’s considered heavy or high-risk drinking.2
What are the signs of alcoholism?
Did you know alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, has a spectrum? The condition can be mild, moderate or severe. This spectrum helps determine which treatment and therapies may work best to help people recover. Alcohol use disorder can show up differently in everyone. Common signs include:3
- Blacking out or not remembering things that happened
- Drinking even when it causes distress or harm
- Drinking more or longer than you planned
- Feeling irritable when you’re not drinking
- Frequent hangovers
- Getting into dangerous situations when drinking
Unfortunately, there aren’t tests that can diagnose someone with alcohol use disorder. Diagnosis typically happens when drinking may interfere with someone’s life or may harm their health. That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs in yourself or someone else, talk to your doctor and start a treatment plan.3
One important fact to know is that drinking alcohol causes brain damage. The effects of alcohol (especially heavy amounts) may show up in different parts of the body — and mind.
Effects of alcohol on the body may include:4
- Cancers (breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver)
- Heart muscle damage (which can lead to heart failure)
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Alcohol withdrawal syndrome
Effects of alcohol on the brain may include:5
- Brain shrinkage
- Poor circulation to the brain
- Mental health issues
- Changes in mood or personality
When you learn the side effects of alcohol, it may be eye-opening. Knowing this, you may decide it's time to stop using alcohol. And while it’s important to quit heavy drinking, it’s just as important to do it safely. The transition out of alcohol addiction can lead to alcohol withdrawal if it’s not done properly.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that happen when someone who’s physically dependent on alcohol suddenly stops drinking or drastically cuts back.5 It’s basically your body trying to get used to not having alcohol in its system. Signs of alcohol withdrawal include:6
- Nausea and vomiting
- Racing heart
- High blood pressure
What are the treatment options for alcohol addiction?
There are a number of treatment options that may be available for people who struggle with drinking. And each person’s treatment journey can look different. One of the following treatments might be an effective option to try solo, or in addition to others but please talk to your doctor first.7
- Behavioral therapies: Counseling, or talk therapy, with a psychologist or mental health provider can teach people ways to change behavior.
- Support groups: Group meetings with other people living with alcoholism can be a helpful addition to treatment. These meetings may be free and available in many communities.
- Medicine: Certain medication may help decrease alcohol cravings.
- Medical facilities: In severe cases, someone may need medical treatment in a hospital or rehabilitation center.