Alcohol is a psychoactive substance that contains addictive properties. Despite the harmful and life-threatening effects of alcohol, it is one of the most commonly used drugs in our society today. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the consumption of alcohol is recognized as a common factor in more than 200 diseases and other medical conditions. Therefore, alcohol use disorder is considered a global health concern and is ranked seventh among the leading causes of death and disability.
The harm caused by alcohol and the significant social and economic consequences of alcohol dependence is far-reaching. Yet, people still partake in excessive drinking habits like binge drinking, making alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse responsible for thousands of deaths each year.
What Is Alcohol Dependence?
Alcohol dependence, also called alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic, relapsing medical condition in which a person is physically and psychologically dependent upon alcohol. A person who suffers from alcohol addiction lacks control over their alcohol intake and experiences a negative emotional state when alcohol is not available.
Alcohol, like other drugs, has a powerful effect on the brain, creating pleasure sensations and dampening unpleasant ones. Despite the potential consequences to their health and well-being, these emotions can inspire some people to continue drinking alcohol. For instance, research indicates that drinking to cope with stress, while it may provide momentary relief from emotional distress, tends to exacerbate negative emotional states between episodes of alcohol intake over time. These shifts can encourage continued drinking and trap an individual in an unhealthy cycle of alcohol use.
As individuals continue to consume alcohol over time, structural and functional changes may occur in their brains. These alterations can impair brain function and facilitate the transition from occasional, controlled use to chronic, difficult-to-control abuse. These alterations may last long after a person has stopped drinking and may contribute to relapse.
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Alcohol withdrawal, also known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), is a set of physical and psychological symptoms that arise in alcohol-dependent individuals when they try to reduce or cease alcohol consumption abruptly.
Symptoms of withdrawal and the alcohol withdrawal timeline may differ from person to person, depending on individual factors like the duration and level of alcohol consumption and the severity of their dependence. Individuals with a severe form of dependence will experience severe withdrawal symptoms, while those with mild dependence may experience mild symptoms. Acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms generally manifest within six hours after the last drink and subside within five to 10 days.
The death of actor Nelsan Ellis shows how dangerous alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be without professional medical care. Those looking to quit should do so in an inpatient facility under the care of medical professionals. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal must be followed by treatment of alcohol dependence in an inpatient care or outpatient treatment facility for long-term recovery.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Dependence
Signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorders may vary from one person to another. These symptoms can be categorized as behavioral signs, social signs, or physical signs.
Behavioral signs and social signs may include the following:
- Loss of self-control
- Partaking in binge drinking or heavy drinking regularly
- Neglecting responsibilities and obligations
- Neglecting appearance and hygiene
- Engaging in risky or aggressive behavior
- Drinking as a form of self-medication
- Avoiding family or loved ones
- Drinking secretively
- Drinking alone at inappropriate times of the day (early in the morning)
- Only participating in social events that involve alcohol
- Getting irritated when there is no alcohol available
- Unable to control alcohol intake even when it causes repercussions at work, home, or school
Physical signs may include the following:
- Constant craving for alcohol
- Developing an alcohol tolerance
- Experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- Memory impairment
- Slurred speech
- Impaired thinking
- Being lethargic
- Constant headaches
- High blood pressure
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Repeated infections and skin sores
- Upset stomach
- Feeling numbness and tingling
- Lack of coordination and balance
- unexplained bruises and injuries
- Alcohol withdrawal seizures
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a series of screening questions that can help determine whether or not someone is addicted to alcohol. The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) measures the likelihood that a person has a problem with alcohol.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Dependence
Numerous studies have been conducted on the causes and potential risk factors of alcoholism throughout the past few decades. While it may be impossible to attribute a person’s propensity to develop alcohol dependence to a single component, research demonstrates that various life circumstances can influence their likelihood of misusing alcohol. However, alcoholism is a disease that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, body type, or personal beliefs.
The most common risk factors for alcohol dependence include the following:
- Drinking at an early age
- Having low self-esteem or self-worth
- Experiencing high levels of stress
- Exposure to trauma
- Frequent alcohol use over a long period
- Family history of alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder
- Psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder
- Living in a family or culture where alcohol use is common and accepted
Alcohol-Related Health Risks
Excessive drinking is harmful to one’s health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2015 and 2019, excessive alcohol use caused more than 140,000 deaths and 3.6 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) annually in the United States, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 26 years.
Alcohol drinkers heighten their likelihood of serious health complications. The short-term health risks of alcohol use include the following:
- Severe accidents and injuries, including motor vehicle accidents, falls, drownings, and burns.
- Being a victim of violence or inflicting violence on others, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.
- Risky sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex or sex with several partners.
- Alcohol poisoning (a medical emergency caused by excessive drinking).
- Miscarriages, stillbirths, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are common among pregnant women.
The long-term health risks of alcohol use include the following:
- Alcohol use disorders or alcohol dependence
- Cardiovascular disease
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Gastrointestinal Bleeding
- Coronary artery disease
- Hallucinations and alcohol withdrawal seizures
- Severe liver disease (cirrhosis)
- Weakening of the immune system
- Learning and memory problems like dementia
- Increased risk of cancer (liver cancer, bowel cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer)
- Psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety, and psychosis
- Brain damage (leading to long-term problems with thinking and memory)
- Osteoporosis (a condition that delays new bone formation, resulting in bone fractures)
Treatment of Alcohol Dependence
Accepting that you are struggling with alcohol dependence is in itself a significant step, and it’s a step that most individuals take time to accept. Alcohol-dependent individuals should always begin their treatment with a medically assisted detox, as it can be extremely dangerous to quit alcohol cold turkey. Inpatient alcohol detox will help you withdraw from alcohol safely and comfortably.
To identify an individual’s withdrawal risk before entering a detoxification program, a physician must evaluate their history of alcohol abuse, previous withdrawal experiences (if any), and medical and psychological history. They may also undergo blood testing and screening for co-occurring mental or physical health problems. Individuals at risk of severe, life-threatening alcohol withdrawal syndrome, including seizures and delirium tremens (DTs), must detox in an inpatient care facility.
After completing the alcohol detoxification program, those with alcohol dependence must continue to receive individualized treatment in an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility. These facilities provide individual and group counseling, evidence-based behavioral therapies, and aftercare support. These programs help address the underlying conditions that contribute to your physical dependence and help reduce the risk of relapse.
If you or someone you know is struggling to tackle alcohol dependence or experiencing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here to help. We are specialized in medical care for adults with alcohol use disorder, addiction, and co-occurring mental health disorders. Futures offer various addiction and individualized treatment options and wellness programs, including inpatient detox, residential treatment with specialized treatment tracks, and outpatient management services.