Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment Resources

Updated On: Dec 13, 2023
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    Alcohol addiction is clinically known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which involves the compulsive consumption of alcohol.[1] Unhealthy patterns of alcohol use can lead to serious problems with interpersonal relationships and health, but plenty of treatment options and programs are available for AUD.

    What Is Alcohol?

    Alcohol is a psychoactive substance that’s been used for centuries.[2] Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and is found in beer, wine, and spirits, in the form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol).

    People use alcohol to feel relaxed or happy and to reduce their inhibitions. According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, more than half of US adults report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, and 17% of adults binge drink.[3]

    Under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, alcohol is not a controlled substance.[4] Alcohol is a socially acceptable and normalized drug, partly because it’s not a controlled substance. Some nicknames for alcohol include booze, juice, giggle juice, sauce, hard stuff, and hooch.


    Side Effects of Alcohol

    Alcohol affects everyone differently, depending on how much they drink, their tolerance, and other factors. With low levels of intoxication (drunkenness), loss of muscle coordination, changes in personality, mood, and behavior, and lowered inhibitions occur.[5]

    As intoxication increases, mental, sensory, and physical capabilities are impaired. Nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, and poor balance and coordination occur. These side effects worsen with more alcohol, leading to more serious side effects like poor reaction time, speech impairment, slowed pulse and breathing, blackouts, amnesia, decreased body temperature and blood pressure, and loss of consciousness.[6]

    How Is Alcohol Taken?

    Alcohol is drunk in the form of beer, wine, or spirits, the latter of which may be consumed on its own (straight) or as part of a cocktail or mixed drink. While different alcohols and combinations may have different alcohol concentration, their direct effects are the same whether it’s beer, wine, or spirits.

    Drinking is the most common way to consume alcohol, but there are a few additional ways people may get drunk without drinking:

    • Snorting: This method involves inhaling powdered alcohol, which sends it directly into the bloodstream to the brain.[7]
    • Inhaling: This method involves inhaling vaporized alcohol, which is absorbed in the alveoli of the lungs, rapidly absorbed in the bloodstream, and delivered to the brain.[8]
    • Sublingual absorption (under the tongue): The mucous membranes under the tongue absorb substances rapidly, including alcohol.
    • Enemas: Alcohol enemas (butt chugging) rely on absorption through the mucous membranes.[9] While this is true, people can die from alcohol enemas because the hit to the brain causes them to pass out with alcohol still inside them, so they continue to absorb it. Unlike drinking alcohol, vomiting doesn’t purge alcohol out of the body when it’s delivered using an enema.
    • Eyeballing: This method involves pouring high-proof alcohol directly into the eye. Very little alcohol is absorbed this way, but it can significantly damage the eye and cause permanent vision loss.
    • Eating: Alcoholic gummy bears, popsicles, gelatin shots, and fermented foods can contain alcohol and lead to intoxication. These methods require digestion, however, so they don’t cause a rapid spike in blood alcohol.
    • Household products: isopropyl and methyl alcohol are used in household products, but they have toxic additives to discourage drinking.[10] Some products have low amounts of alcohol that is safe to consume, such as mouthwash or cough syrup, that people may drink to get drunk.

    Alcohol Quick Reference

    As obvious as it may sound, we often take for granted that a treatment center will cater to our specific addiction- but it isn’t always that simple. Do your research and see if treatment centers that you’re interested in offer comprehensive, well-reviewed treatment for the specific addiction you’re dealing with.

    Substance Alcohol

    Drug Category Commercial & Street names DEA Schedule Administration
    Depressant Boozem giggle juice None Primarily Ingested/drunk

    Statistics on Alcohol Use, Misuse, and Addiction

    According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics:

    • 141,557 Americans die from the effects of alcohol in an average year
    • 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12 have alcohol use disorder
    • 60% of Americans increased their alcohol consumption during COVID-19 lockdowns
    • About 6.7% of people who consume alcohol will develop alcohol use disorder
    • 10.2% of Americans aged 12 years and older had alcohol use disorder in 2020
    • 24% of people aged 18 years and older reported binge drinking in the past month
    • Every day, 385 Americans die as a result of excessive alcohol use
    • 83.9% of deaths resulting from excessive alcohol use involve adults aged 35 and older
    • Alcohol causes 10% of deaths among 15- to 49-year-olds
    • Worldwide, up to 3 million people die each year as a result of alcohol abuse
    • Alcohol-related deaths account for at least 5.3% of the world’s deaths
    • Alcohol causes 13.5% of deaths among 20- to 39-year-olds
    • Men are three times as likely as women to die due to alcohol abuse
    • Collectively, Americans lose over 3.59 million years of potential life due to excessive drinking[11]

    Effects of Alcohol Abuse

    Can You Overdose on Alcohol?

    Yes, you can overdose on alcohol. Overdose happens when there’s so much alcohol in the bloodstream that the parts of the brain that control basic functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and body temperature, shut down.[12]

    Alcohol intoxication – being drunk – varies depending on many factors. A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) around 0.8% is the “legal limit.” If you’re above that, you’re presumed intoxicated and unable to drive. A BAC of 0.30% to 0.45% increases the risk of suppressing vital life functions, leading to unconsciousness, coma, and death. When the BAC reaches 0.60% to 0.80%, it’s typically fatal.[13]

    Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Overdose

    The symptoms of alcohol overdose include:

    • Mental confusion or stupor
    • Vomiting
    • Seizures
    • Difficulty staying conscious
    • Slowed or irregular breathing
    • Clammy skin
    • Slowed heart rate
    • Dulled reflexes
    • Dangerously low body temperature
    • Bluish skin[14]

    What to Do If You Suspect Someone Is Overdosing on Alcohol

    Immediate intervention is crucial during an alcohol overdose. If you suspect an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately. Don’t assume that someone can “sleep it off.” The BAC will continue to rise, even if the person stops drinking, because the digestive system continues to absorb alcohol. Wait for emergency responders to arrive and turn the person on their side to prevent them from choking if they vomit.

    Dangers of Long-Term Alcohol Use

    Repeated, prolonged exposure to alcohol use impacts your physical and mental health, including a negative impact on learning and memory.[15] Certain mental health conditions may be caused by alcohol use, including depression and anxiety.

    In addition, alcohol use increases the risks of certain cancers and cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.[16] It can also damage the immune system, liver, and pancreatitis.

    Mixing Alcohol with Other Drugs

    Mixing alcohol with other drugs, both illicit or prescription, can have devastating effects. Alcohol with other depressants or opioids can depress the respiratory system to dangerous levels, while mixing alcohol with stimulants can conceal the effects of alcohol, leading to overconsumption and possible coma or death.[17]

    Alcohol Addiction and Abuse

    According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), alcohol abuse and addiction are clinically referred to as an alcohol use disorder.

    The diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder is on a scale of mild, moderate, and severe. An individual may be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder if they meet 2 or 3 criteria, moderate alcohol use disorder with 4 or 5 criteria, and severe alcohol use disorder with 6 or more criteria that occur within a 12-month period.

    The diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder include (but is not limited to):

    • Being unable to stop drinking or control alcohol use despite trying
    • Using alcohol more frequently or in higher amounts than intended
    • Spending significant amounts of time getting, drinking, and recovering from the effects of alcohol
    • Failing to fulfill obligations at work, home, and school because of recurrent alcohol use
    • Experiencing tolerance
    • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop or cut back on drinking[18]

    Is Alcohol Addictive?

    Yes, alcohol is highly addictive. Like other drugs, it alters the brain’s reward system. With continuous use, the brain no longer responds to natural rewards like eating or sleeping and requires alcohol to experience pleasure.

    How Addictive Is Alcohol?

    According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder in the past year.[19] It’s more common than other types of substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder, highlighting how extremely addictive alcohol is.

    Signs of Addiction to Alcohol

    The signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction can vary but may include:

    • Extreme mood swings
    • Making excuses to use alcohol, such as relaxing or dealing with stress
    • Drinking alone or hiding drinking habits
    • Choosing alcohol over other responsibilities and obligations
    • Feeling hungover when not drinking
    • Isolating from friends and family members
    • Changing appearance or friend groups
    • Inability to control drinking
    • Feelings of guilt or shame over drinking[20]

    Alcohol use can have a significant impact on mental health. Some people self-medicate mental health conditions with alcohol, only to feel worse once the feeling wears off. Depression and anxiety are common with alcohol abuse, especially with long-term or excessive use.[21]

    Alcohol Addiction Treatment

    Alcohol use disorder is a devastating condition that has no cure, but it can be managed and treated effectively. Professional addiction treatment can help you overcome your addiction and sustain long-term recovery.

    Seeking help for addiction starts with an assessment to evaluate the severity of your addiction and determine the appropriate level of care. The cost for alcohol addiction treatment can vary based on several factors, including the facility and location, your individual care plan, and whether your insurance covers your treatment. Your time in addiction treatment also varies according to your care plan, but it can take a few weeks to a year or more.

    Alcohol Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

    If you’re ready to take the next step in your addiction treatment, there are several levels of care with therapies tailored to your needs:

    Medical Detoxification

    Medical detox is the first step toward recovery, but it’s usually not enough on its own. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening, but detox provides a safe environment with a medical team to monitor your health and keep you comfortable while the drug clears your system. Medications may be used to manage withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinations and delirium.

    Inpatient Treatment

    Inpatient or residential treatment programs involve staying in a rehabilitation center 24/7. The time you’ll spend varies, but inpatient treatment is typically a short stay of three to six weeks. Inpatient is ideal for people who have unsafe home environments, need intensive supervision, or struggle with external triggers for their addiction.

    Outpatient Treatment

    Outpatient treatment offers different levels of support: partial hospitalization programs (PHP), intensive outpatient programs (IOP), and standard outpatient. PHP is the most intensive and involves living at home but attending extended treatment sessions in a highly supportive and structured environment. IOP is a step down from PHP and involves several sessions each day over five days before stepping down in intensity. Standard outpatient is more flexible and requires a few treatment sessions throughout the week.

    Therapies Used in Alcohol Addiction Treatment

    Inpatient and outpatient treatment offers several types of behavioral therapies that are used to treat alcohol use disorder. These therapies include:

    • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is an evidence-based therapy that focuses on identifying unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that contribute to addiction and replacing them with healthier patterns.
    • Motivational enhancement therapy: This is a short-term therapy that’s designed to motivate patients to stop drinking and encourage them to make positive changes.
    • Family counseling: Family counseling brings in loved ones to address issues that arose in the relationship over the course of addiction and start rebuilding.
    • Medication assisted therapy (MAT): Medications can be used to help patients quit drinking. Disulfiram, a drug that blocks the metabolism of alcohol and causes unpleasant symptoms, and acamprosate, a drug that decreases alcohol cravings, may be used.

    Co-Occurring Disorders

    Co-occurring disorders are when someone has a mental health condition and a substance use disorder simultaneously. Together, these two conditions can influence one another and create more challenges to recovery.

    Alcohol use disorder commonly co-occurs with major depression, bipolar, anxiety disorders, and antisocial personality disorder.[22] Treatment for co-occurring disorders involves treating both simultaneously, rather than individually.

    How to Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment in Connecticut

    If you need alcohol rehab in Connecticut, you can reach out to your physician or mental health provider to learn about treatment programs for alcoholism. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also offers resources for evidence-based treatment for alcohol use disorder.

    If you’re ready to take the first step now, contact us at Paramount Wellness Retreat to learn more about our alcohol use disorder treatment program.


    Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal Management

    Alcohol withdrawal occurs when someone who drinks heavily decreases or stops consumption immediately. The signs and symptoms can include agitation, irritability, and anxiety, as well as serious symptoms like hallucinations, seizures, and delirium tremens.[23]

    Because of the potentially life-threatening effects of alcohol withdrawal, medical detox is often the first step for alcohol addiction treatment. This takes place in a hospital or residential environment and involves a medical staff to manage the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal and prevent adverse effects.

    Frequently Asked Questions

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