Alcohol is a controlled, legal substance typically consumed for the relaxing, calming effects it produces. People may not consider alcohol a threatening substance of abuse because it has such a heavy presence in our society.
Each person who drinks may not struggle with alcohol abuse. However, people who have an alcohol use disorder will experience negative impact on their lives due to addiction to alcohol.
People seeking treatment for alcohol addiction and dependence may find hope and healing in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab center, where care and support are centered on helping addicted individuals break free from addiction.
Alcohol is so present in our lives, it may be difficult to determine what constitutes alcohol abuse and what is simply considered “having some drinks.” Alcohol abuse comes in many different forms.
The following types of alcohol abuse are defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):
Binge drinking: pattern drinking that raises blood alcohol concentration levels to .08. This usually occurs after four drinks for women, five for men in a span of about two hours. Binge drinking can happen once or more per month.
Heavy alcohol use: occurs when a person engages in binge drinking five or more days in a month.
At-risk for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD): for women, no more than three drinks on a single day, no more than seven drinks per week. For men, no more than four drinks on a single day, no more than 14 drinks per week.
These are estimates based on a health survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the NIAAA. However, abuse will look different for different people, based on how often you abuse alcohol, duration of abuse, and how much you drink at a time, overall health, and more.
People may abuse alcohol for any number of reasons. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it produces feelings of calm and relaxation, even euphoria. This may seem helpful in social situations, may be desirable for recreational purposes, and may appeal to people undergoing stress, dealing with mental health issues, like anxiety or depression, or to people who are trying to cope with some sort of trauma. People may abuse alcohol to self-medicate, or to try to deal with certain situations in their lives or health ailments.
In any case, alcohol abuse tends to worsen the problem, exacerbate the symptoms of the ailment a person is trying to heal, lessen the person’s immune system health or overall health, and can even contribute to the development of other mental health issues which may not have previously existed, including anxiety and depression.
Types Of Alcohol
There are many different types of alcohol. The type of alcohol consumed greatly affects intoxication levels. In general, a drink with a higher alcohol content by volume (ABV) will raise blood alcohol concentration levels faster than a drink with a lower ABV.
Beer is an alcoholic drink whose main ingredients are usually a combination of barley, hops, wheat, and water. Beer tends to have a low ABV, falling anywhere between two and 12 percent; most beers have about five percent ABV. This means it takes most people about three to five beers to be over the legal limit.
People who are addicted to alcohol may drink many more beers than three to five, in one sitting or through the course of a night. In fact, beer drinking represents a way of life to some. Having a few beers a night may lead over time to much more drinking than originally intended due to addiction, tolerance, and dependence.
People with beer addiction need help in treatment just as do people with addiction to other types of alcohol. What starts as beer addiction may turn into abuse of other types of alcohol—the body enjoys the way alcohol makes it feel.
With time, people addicted to beer may begin to feel withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, making it hard to stop drinking without help.
Wine is alcohol made through the process of fermenting fruit, particularly grapes. In comparison to beer, wine has a higher ABV. A typical wine pour is five ounces, which is roughly equivalent to a 12-oz beer. While intoxication from wine may not happen any more quickly than with beer, it may happen with drinking less wine than beer. Wine is typically paired with food, and consumed in high social settings.
In this light, it may be difficult to discern if someone is drinking too much, or too often. Some studies have shown that light to moderate consumption of wine can be good for the health. Yet many people do not understand what constitutes light to moderate drinking, and tend to exceed this limit: two drinks or less per day for men, and one drink or less per day for women.
Women are particularly affected by wine addiction. A report by USA Today found that people aged 21 to 38 drank 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015. Two-thirds of high frequency drinkers, those who drank more than 3.1 glasses per day, were women.
Though women may be most at risk of developing wine addiction due to the high instance of wine drinking among women, anyone is at risk of adverse health effects when abusing wine.
Liquor, also called spirits, is the term for hard alcoholic beverages with a high ABV, such as gin, tequila, rum, vodka, or whiskey. One ounce of liquor is comparable in ABV to a 5-oz glass of wine or a 12-oz beer. Because of this, and the hard taste, liquor is usually mixed with another beverage (a “mixer), such as juice, soda, or water, though some people drink it “straight.”
Research conducted on different types of alcohol cannot prove that different types of alcohol affect people differently; when considering that a person taking a 1-oz shot is getting the same amount of alcohol as a person drinking a beer, the effects should be quite similar.
Yet social setting and personal traits and feelings at the time of drinking may have an impact on how alcohol affects each individual. People at dinner parties drinking beer may feel and act somewhat differently than people in nightclubs drinking shots.
Further, people who have become dependent on alcohol and its effects to get through the day may no longer care what type of alcohol they consume. If they have gotten to the point of trying to hide alcohol addiction, they may carry a bottle of hard liquor, taking drinks from it throughout the day. No matter the type of alcohol, addiction to alcohol comes with vast consequences.
Liqueur is similar to liquor in ABV, and is typically taken in shot form as well. However, liqueur is quite different from liquor in that it is usually flavored with cream, fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, or flowers, and bottled with sweetener. Often, liqueur is consumed following a meal as a “dessert”drink.
Liqueur may not seem like a dangerous drink of abuse. Yet, when liqueur is the drink consumed after several drinks throughout the course of a meal, or if is the only drink available to someone who is addicted to alcohol, liqueur can be as dangerous as other types of alcohol.
Moonshine was previously an illicit, potent form of whiskey outlawed in the United States. Of late, moonshine has become legal for manufacturing, and is available on the market. The main ingredient in moonshine is a type of corn mash, and it has one of the highest concentrations of ABV in all types of alcohol.
Moonshine varies in ABV, but can measure anywhere from 60 to 100 percent ABV. Though moonshine is sold legally through alcohol manufacturers, many people still produce the drink illicitly. Given the drink’s potency, the effects can be felt immediately, even effects felt only at high levels of intoxication.
Short-term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse
Drinking increases your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The higher your BAC, the more alcohol affects you, or the more you feel the short-term effects of alcohol.
Short-term effects may include:
- Breathing issues
- Concentration troubles
- Memory problems
- Motor issues
- Reduced inhibitions
- Slurred speech
- In some cases, coma or death
Long-Term Health Effects From Alcohol Abuse
The NIAAA explains that consuming too much alcohol, whether on one occasion or over a period of time, can have vast effects on your health.
Long-term health effects of alcohol addiction may include effects to various organs:
- Brain: effects to communication pathways, how the brain looks, and how it works. These changes may have an impact on mood, behaviors, thought processes, and coordination.
- Heart: cardiomyopathy (stretching or drooping of heart muscles), arrhythmia, high blood pressure, or stroke.
- Liver: alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, fibrosis, steatosis (fatty liver).
- Pancreas: can produce toxic substances due to alcohol excess, which can cause pancreatitis.
In addition, alcohol can weaken the immune system and overall health, putting you at risk for contraction of infectious diseases as well as vitamin or other deficiencies. Thiamine deficiencies are common in people struggling with alcohol addiction.
Prolonged abuse of alcohol can contribute to the risk of developing several different types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver.
Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol Abuse
Since alcohol abuse can be hard to identify, it may be helpful to know the signs of alcohol abuse. A person may be abusing alcohol if he or she has tried to quit drinking, but cannot successfully quit. This can be true even if the person realizes the consequences alcohol is having on his or her life.
People struggling with alcohol abuse may drink more or for longer than they intended, and this may happen often. Addiction to any substance is characterized by the loss of control, the inability to resist the urge to use the substance. People who are abusing alcohol may withdraw from friends or family out of shame or guilt, or may try to hide their abuse.
As addiction takes over, people struggling with an alcohol use disorder may not have any motivation, or may lack interest in activities or hobbies which used to interest them. Soon, addicted individuals may begin shirking responsibilities, or even engaging in risky behaviors.
People who seem “fine” even though they abuse alcohol daily or almost daily are referred to as high-functioning alcoholics. High-functioning alcoholics may enjoy the perception of having their struggle under control. They may maintain life as usual, using alcohol as a way to cope or self-medicate.
People who drink moderately, but begin needing to drink in social situations or during times of stress may be high-functioning alcoholics as well. Even if they are unaware, people who rely on alcohol to feel a certain way or to deal with a certain situation likely have already formed addiction to alcohol.
Some people may also believe they are not at risk for alcohol use disorder because they keep their drinking to a specific limit; perhaps they drink every day, but only have a specific amount of drinks. Yet this pattern is still considered alcohol abuse if it is exceeds light to moderate drinking limits as mentioned above—three drinks per day or seven or less per week for women, four drinks per day or 14 or less per week for men.
Dangers Of Alcohol Addiction
In addition to adverse health effects, there are many dangers associated with prolonged alcohol abuse. Perhaps the biggest danger is developing addiction to alcohol or physical dependence on it, both of which are considered an alcohol use disorder.
Addiction is a mental reliance. When people become addicted to alcohol, they become used to the effects of it and begin to have trouble functioning when not drinking. Dependence is a physical reliance, and occurs when the body relies on alcohol to function—dependence is the reason we can experience physical symptoms when not drinking.
People who have an alcohol use disorder are at risk for dangerous behavior, such as drinking and driving. In fact, in 2014, “alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,967 deaths (31 percent of overall driving fatalities)” according to the NIAAA.
Further, people who drink regularly are more likely to experience violent behavior, suicidal thoughts and ideation, and risk of injury. Approximately 88,000 people per year will die from alcohol-related causes in the United States.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms tend to occur when a person develops alcohol dependence and suddenly tries to stop drinking. Symptoms can begin as early as eight hours or less after the last drink, and may last for weeks. Withdrawal symptoms often peak between 24 to 72 hours after they begin, but duration and severity of symptoms differs among people.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Increased heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Mental confusion
- Mood swings
- Pupil dilation
- Sweating or clammy skin
People who have been abusing alcohol for years are at risk for delirium tremens during withdrawal, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal characterized by agitation, fever, hallucinations, severe confusion, and seizures.
Many of the symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous to a person’s health. For this reason, it’s important not to attempt to withdraw from alcohol alone.
Medically-Supervised Alcohol Detoxification
Treatment for alcohol addiction is complete and effective, and often begins with detoxification, especially for people who have become physically dependent on alcohol. Detox is the process by which the body rids itself of harmful toxins acquired during substance abuse.
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous due to some of the symptoms it causes: anxiety or depression, mental confusion, fever, confusion, hallucinations, and seizures. For this reason, a medically-supervised detoxification may be the best route for someone seeking alcohol detox.
Undergoing detox with medical supervision allows individuals to receive the care they need to get well. Detox professionals will monitor vital functions to ensure safety, and may administer medication to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal.
Though necessary, detox alone is not considered a complete treatment program. Once detox is complete, formal treatment can begin. Many rehab centers offer a comprehensive program, moving clients easily from detox to treatment in order to stay focused on healing.
Treatment For Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol remains one of the most commonly abused substances in the U.S., and fortunately many modalities have been found to be effective at treating alcohol addiction. Alcohol affects all aspects of health when a person becomes dependent on it, so treatment must work to restore health to a person as a whole.
Many inpatient drug rehab centers recognize the need for comprehensive treatment for alcohol use disorders, and offer an array of methods to target the needs of each individual in treatment. Counseling is a large component, as it allows individuals to work through the thoughts, emotions, and any underlying trauma associated with alcohol abuse. Behavioral therapy helps people to let go of harmful thought processes and behaviors, and replace them with new, constructive ones.
Alternative, evidence-based methods may involve skill-building, self-awareness, and increasing confidence to build not only a life free from addiction, but a fulfilling, balanced life. These may include adventure and wilderness therapy, and holistic healing.