What is Alcoholism? | Signs of Alcohol Abuse & Treatment Options

What is Alcoholism?

what is alcohol use disorder

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), on average, Americans consume roughly 1.35 alcoholic drinks per day, 9.5 drinks per week, and 494 drinks per year. For most families, consuming alcohol is a regular occurrence in everyday life. We certainly don’t view it in the same light as heroin or meth, even if fatality rates and health concerns are just as prevalent among habitual alcohol users. Is alcohol addiction really serious? What is alcoholism?

alcohol abuse definedFor many Americans, ‘tis the season of merriment and a warm toast in honor of a new year. But, what if drinking habits extend beyond the holidays? Casual consumption of alcohol can quickly morph into disordered drinking without any real warning.

What is Alcoholism?

The NIAAA defines alcoholism – or more appropriately, alcohol use disorder (AUD) – as a severe form of alcohol abuse involving the inability of a person to manage drinking habits.

Alcoholism differs from most other diseases because it develops slowly and can occur in people of all ages. It also doesn’t have a single cause. In fact, causality ranges from factors like:

  • Heredity
  • Culture
  • Economics
  • Environment
  • Lifestyle
  • Mental health

Alcoholism is also complex in the way it presents itself from person-to-person. One individual may struggle with severe dependence and display outward signs of addiction like poor health, conflicted relationships, troubled finances, and precarious employment. A different person may drink heavily but still manage to maintain employment and juggle life obligations.

Alcoholism occurs differently for everyone facing an AUD diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder-5 (DSM-5) provides clinicians with a set of 11 factors that can be utilized to guide the diagnosis of an AUD. The severity largely depends on the number of elements present in a person battling with chronic drinking.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse also explains that physical dependence is a component of addiction but is not synonymous with addiction. A person can be physically dependent on alcohol without being psychologically dependent on it.

Early Stage Alcohol Abuse

What is alcoholism, and how does it appear in its early stages? The trouble with alcoholism is that there’s insufficient evidence that suggests social or occasional drinking will lead to the development of AUD. In the early stages of alcohol abuse, drinking is usually a social event, or binge drinking is a way of partying.

Binge drinking occurs when, within two hours, a person reaches a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or greater. For women, depending on body weight, this usually requires four drinks. In men, it requires five drinks. However, typical binge drinking episodes exceed these amounts, and as the result of the higher levels of BAC, individuals experience a host of debilitating physical and mental side-effects.

Some binge drinkers may experiment with heavy drinking outside of partying and socializing. Those who decide to drink heavily or regularly may do so for a number of reasons, but more prevalent factors include:

  • Genetic predisposition or family history
  • Mental health disorders
  • Social pressures

Scientific evidence indicates that approximately 45-65% of the propensity for AUD is due to genetic factors. Others may have existing mental health disorders and may graduate from social drinking to habitual drinking because they perceive it to relieve psychiatric symptoms like anxiety or depression.

Risk Factors

what is alcohol abuseIn the early stages of alcoholism, casual drinking may progress into a more serious misuse or abuse of alcohol. Generally, women who have a daily intake of more than three drinks, or seven per week, are considered at risk. On the other hand, men are considered at risk with four or more drinks a day or more than 14 per week.

Fortunately, in the early stages of AUD, treatment is highly effective and should be considered before continuing with unsafe drinking habits.

Alcohol Abuse: Moderate AUD

Moderate symptoms of AUD incorporate three to five factors from the list identified by the DSM-5.

Drinking wine regularly with evening meals is considered unsafe if it exceeds the limits set forth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And while it’s risky to drink daily, it doesn’t necessarily qualify a person as having an AUD. In general, a person with AUD, whether mild, moderate, or severe, demonstrates some degree of emotional or psychological attachment to drinking. Problem drinking and alcohol abuse is mainly associated with a loss of control over one’s alcohol intake or displaying signs of alcohol interfering with everyday life activities.

What is alcoholism according to the symptoms?

As previously noted, the DSM-5 has developed a comprehensive list of factors that indicate problematic drinking. Meeting criteria can help determine the severity of alcohol abuse, and it allows clinicians to diagnose AUD.

What is alcoholism? Here are the 11 symptoms used to determine AUD:

  1. Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  3. A great deal of time spent on activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from alcohol’s effects.
  4. A craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  5. Recurrent alcohol use failing to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. The continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  8. Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: a) A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect, or b) A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol b) Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Use Disorder severity is determined by the number of symptoms present at the time of evaluation. Here are the criteria:

  • Mild: identifies with 2-3 symptoms
  • Moderate: identifies with 4-5 symptoms
  • Severe: 6 or more symptoms are present

In cases of moderate and severe alcoholism, supervised detox may be a necessity. It usually depends on the length of time of alcohol abuse and the average volume of consumption. It’s recommended that those suffering from alcohol abuse discuss options and the best treatment approach prior to enrolling in a rehabilitation program.

AspenRidge can help better clarify the definition of alcoholism and what to expect with various treatment programs. If you’re looking for alcohol addiction treatment in Colorado, contact us directly at 855-281-5588.

Severe Alcohol Abuse

Having six or more of the present factors of alcohol abuse can confirm severe AUD. Severe alcoholism indicates the need for a treatment intervention to address addiction.

It’s essential to keep in mind that even at a severe stage, alcoholism doesn’t impact all drinkers the same. Consider heavy drinkers that can work every day, exceed expectations, and meet family obligations. These drinkers are usually referred to as high functioning, and they represent a large portion of all individuals suffering from severe AUD.

Psychology Today reports on studies that suggest the number of high-functioning alcoholics can be as low as 20% of all those with an AUD or as high as 75 and 90%.

Even functional addicts are not immune to the devastations of alcohol abuse. Adverse health conditions and diseases are still prevalent among those who can function at high alcohol abuse levels.

Health Issues from Alcoholism

Health troubles can range in severity, usually reflective of the level of AUD. The following health conditions may be present in those battling with chronic, heavy alcohol abuse:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Anemia
  • Dementia
  • Cirrhosis
  • Cancer
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Nerve damage
  • Gout
  • Infectious diseases

Co-occurring disorders are also extremely common among individuals suffering from AUD. More than 77% of individuals who seek psychiatric help for a mental health disorder reported using alcohol to self-medicate, while 82% of those who hadn’t seen a physician did the same.

Symptoms of Dual Diagnosis

What are alcoholism and co-occurring disorders? When a person meets the criteria for alcohol abuse and suffers from a diagnosed mental health disorder, it’s referred to as a dual diagnosis. The symptoms of dual diagnosis vary depending on the mental illness and the frequency and length of alcohol consumption. Here are some warning signs of dual diagnosis:

  • Intentionally isolating from family and friends
  • Changes in appetite
  • Loss of energy and motivation
  • Issues concentrating or completing tasks
  • Neglecting personal or professional responsibilities
  • Increased irritability, anger, or anxiety
  • Rationalizing excessive alcohol consumption

When to Seek Help

what is alcoholismIt’s never too late, or too early, to seek help for alcoholism or AUD. With time, problematic drinking can quickly morph into a more severe dependency on alcohol, which impacts treatment efficacy. Left unmanaged, compulsive drinking can greatly impact life and health.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about one-third of people treated for alcohol problems have no further symptoms one year later. For others, it can significantly reduce drinking and minimize exposure to risks associated with alcohol abuse.

Treatment for alcoholism or alcohol addiction should be tailored to the individual’s needs. It should take into account psychological, medical, and social factors and age, ethnicity, gender, and culture. Depending on the severity of AUD, clients can begin the recovery journey by first detoxing from alcohol. For mild and moderate cases of AUD, formal inpatient or outpatient has proven effective.

Most programs combine or integrate multilevel treatment modalities like behavioral therapies, counseling, medication management, and skills training to build systems that prevent relapse and allow for long-term sobriety.

AspenRidge Recovery

What is alcoholism, and what treatment options are available to me? If you’re ready to seek treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction or would like to learn more about various treatment options, contact AspenRidge Recovery. We’re an experienced, licensed provider of substance abuse rehabilitation focused on providing hope and recovery for those in need.

We are dedicated to spreading awareness of the disease of alcohol addiction and the risks involved with casual drinking. We strive to make treatment available for all Coloradans and offer various treatment options that are flexible and tailored to individual needs. We provide dual diagnosis care and ongoing support through our treatment modalities to transition back into your community. Contact us 24/7 for more information at 855-281-5588.

Not sure where to start? We offer a free assessment that answers, Am I becoming an alcoholic quiz. Find the quiz here:

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