Alcoholic beverages are available nearly everywhere, from gas stations and grocery stores to restaurants, sports stadiums, and even movie theaters. More than half of American adults consume alcoholic drinks, enjoying Happy Hour after work, beers at barbecues, shots at parties, or a glass of wine at dinner. Because alcohol use is so commonplace and ingrained in American culture as a normal activity, especially when compared to substances like meth or heroin, it can be difficult to perceive the shift from alcohol use to abuse to full-blown addiction.
But there is hope. By understanding the causes of alcoholism, it can become easier to avoid. You can learn to spot the signs of alcohol abuse in your own life or that of a loved one so that, most importantly, you can get the help you need to get you on the road to recovery and sobriety.
The most effective way to treat alcoholism is through early detection, and the longer someone waits before seeking treatment, the harder it is on both the treatment center and the patient. By procrastinating when it comes to getting the help you need, the chances of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms and relapse skyrocket.
Alcohol is, in fact, the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, with nearly 18 million people suffering from alcohol dependence or abuse, which equates to 1 in every 12 adults. The specific medical diagnosis of alcoholism is Alcohol Use Disorder, which is described as a chronic brain disease distinguished by compulsive alcohol use, a negative mental and emotional state when not using, and a lack of control over alcohol intake. So what can mark the transition from using alcohol to abusing it and falling prey to addiction?
There is, of course, no single answer to this question, as a number of factors are in play when it comes to determining what can cause alcoholism in any one person, including environmental, physical, psychological, social, and genetic. However, some of these factors can have a more significant impact than the others. For example, someone’s risk of potentially becoming an alcoholic is as much as three to four times greater if their parent is an alcoholic.
In that same vein, the seeds of alcoholism are planted much earlier than people might think. Children who start drinking before the age of fifteen are six times more likely to later develop a dependence on alcohol than those who don’t drink until the age of 21, which is especially troubling when taking into account that more than 40 percent of all tenth graders drink alcohol.
Children and young adults who otherwise wouldn’t intend to start drinking are often introduced to it via peer pressure, causing use to potentially escalate to abuse. College is also the starting point for substance abuse, with some students unable to appropriately handle their newfound freedom. In fact, freshman students showed some of the highest rates of student substance abuse on college campuses. And while many may think of alcoholism as a “middle-aged” disease, the “Young Adult” subtype is actually the largest subtype of alcoholics in the United States, accounting for 32 percent of alcoholics.
Mental illness is also a common impetus for alcohol dependence and abuse, as many people suffering from conditions like depression or anxiety might use alcohol to self-medicate. At the start, it can feel like alcohol dulls the symptoms associated with these illnesses, but over time, it will only serve to make them worse and more difficult to cope with.
Finally, while scientists have yet to identify an “alcoholism gene,” there are genes we do know that can reduce the impact of a hangover and boost the power of alcohol. The combination of getting a more intense high from drinking without having to feel as much of the effects of heavy drinking puts them at a much higher risk of developing debilitating alcoholism.
The shift from alcohol use to dependency and abuse to full-blown addiction generally follows a regular pattern as the user loses control of their consumption and alcohol becomes the force that drives the majority of their behaviors. A brief series of questions called the CAGE Questionnaire can be used to diagnose alcohol symptoms:
Answering “yes” to at least two is a sure sign of a growing dependency. Beyond this, there are many signs of alcohol abuse, including some that, isolated from the rest, can be easy to miss. However, as these troubling behaviors begin to pile up, things become clearer:
It is essential and potentially life-saving that professional help and treatment are sought out before these signs, and the serious repercussions that go along with them, manifest.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) possesses similar criteria for diagnosing a substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). The following criteria are the official criteria used by medical and clinical professionals when seeking to make a diagnosis:
Of these official criteria set forth by the DSM-V, you must meet at least two of them to obtain your diagnosis of a substance or alcohol use disorder. If you meet at least two to three, you will receive a mild substance use disorder diagnosis. If you meet four to five, you will receive a moderate substance use disorder diagnosis. If you meet six to seven, you will receive a severe substance use disorder diagnosis.
As mentioned prior, upon receiving your diagnosis for an alcohol addiction, obtaining proper help is vital. Alcohol addiction treatment is the only way to get your problem drinking under control. Addiction is a chronic and progressive mental health disorder. This means that there is no cure, the condition will continue to manifest in your life, and it will only get worse as opposed to better. Read on to see what alcohol addiction treatment entails and how it can help you or a loved one combat alcohol addiction.
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There are many factors involved in treating alcohol addiction, such as whether it is done through residential treatment or an outpatient program. Determining which one is the best option depends on the patient and which environment is best suited to his recovery. However, if a medical detox is necessary, then that needs to be done at an inpatient center. If alcohol withdrawal is not handled by a trained medical professional, the results can be fatal. About 10 percent of alcoholics will experience a life-threatening withdrawal, so a carefully monitored detox is the first step.
Treatment begins with a patient evaluation that helps to determine the most effective treatment plan, which will typically involve a mix of some or all of the following addiction therapies:
The amount of time a person needs to be in treatment will vary depending on circumstances such as the severity of the addiction. It is; however, important to keep in mind that alcoholism is a chronic condition that will require lifelong management. Relapse rates tend to fall within the range of 40-60 percent, but it is equally important to remember that a relapse is not a failure but a chance to refine treatment and management plans to make them more effective and avoid a future relapse.
What’s more, it’s important to undergo the full continuum of care. This refers to completing each level of care in a step-down fashion. By starting off at a higher level of care, which contains more hands-on intervention by the medical and clinical staff, you slowly descend to lower levels of care that contain fewer hands-on approaches by the medical and clinical staff.
This allows you to slowly amass personal freedom and responsibility at an appropriate rate in correlation to the place you’re at in recovery. As you become more stable physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you can handle the lower levels of care. This is the most effective means of alcohol addiction treatment that is also consequently the most effective means of relapse prevention.
Despite the skewed cultural perspective on alcohol, the danger of alcohol abuse is very real and often fatal: Alcoholism is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., contributing to roughly 88,000 deaths every year, more than half of which are due to binge drinking. Prolonged excessive alcohol use can negatively affect your body in a number of ways, including:
These are just a few of the most prominent dangers of alcohol abuse, not even mentioning the dangerous situations people can find themselves in when their cognitive functions have been compromised by excessive alcohol, such as driving drunk, acting aggressively, or even causing harm to loved ones.
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CDC Features. (2016, January 12). from https://www.cdc.gov/features/costsofdrinking/
DSM 5 Criteria for Substance Use Disorder. (n.d.). from https://www.buppractice.com/node/12351
Fetal Alcohol Exposure. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/fetal-alcohol-exposure
Gallup, Inc. (2012, August 17). Majority in U.S. Drink Alcohol, Averaging Four Drinks a Week. from http://news.gallup.com/poll/156770/majority-drink-alcohol-averaging-four-drinks-week.aspx
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Wilcox, S. (n.d.). Signs and Symptoms from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/signs-and-symptoms/signs-and-symptoms