Alcoholism, also referred to as alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction, is a condition that is characterized by the inability to stop or control alcohol use despite the negative consequences it has on one’s life, health, and well-being.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), describes the main criteria that qualify a person as an alcoholic, which include:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 out of 10 excessive drinkers are not dependent on alcohol.
Many people who drink a lot of alcohol are not considered alcoholics, and many people who drink can drink in moderation.
However, drinking heavy amounts often can quickly lead to health problems, including alcoholism.
Certain risk factors can increase the likeliness of becoming an alcoholic.
These risk factors can include:
Some people may be an alcoholic but not be aware of the severity of their problem or even be in denial that there is a problem.
Many alcoholics don’t see their drinking as a problem. Because drinking is so common in social settings in the United States, it is also hard for people to see that excessive drinking can quickly become a serious health problem.
It is also possible for a person to have a drinking problem but still be able to function normally at work, school, or in their home life. Sometimes, this is called a “high-functioning alcoholic,” and it can be very difficult to tell that the person needs help.
Different kinds of drinkers are often categorized into 4 different types based on motivation.
The 4 different kinds of drinkers include:
Social drinkers usually use alcohol in moderation. Often to celebrate or when spending time with friends. Many young people are social drinkers.
A conformity drinker frequently drinks less than other people. They usually drink to fit in or only if they are with others who are drinking so they can feel the same or that they are a part of the group.
Enhancement drinkers are likely looking to have a “good time” and want to feel drunk. They are more likely to engage in binge drinking, which is commonly seen in college-aged young adults. Typically, enhancement drinkers also tend to act more extroverted and, sometimes, aggressive.
Coping drinkers use alcohol as a coping mechanism for worries or problems. Drinking as a way to cope often leads to more negative health consequences because the underlying problem is never addressed.
Family history and environment play a large role in the likeliness of developing alcoholism.
When a person is exposed to excessive alcohol use at an early age, they are more likely to engage in heavy drinking patterns themselves. Normalizing an unhealthy amount of alcohol use leads young people to engage in excessive drinking without regard to its serious effects.
Additionally, when a person has a family history of alcohol addiction, they are more likely to develop alcoholism.
4 risk factors for alcoholism can include:
Some of the 5 most common causes of alcoholism include:
Drinking as a way to cope can lead to an unhealthy cycle that can be very difficult to get out of.
Some people use drinking as a way to cope with stress, difficult emotions, or experiences that they want to escape from.
Using alcohol to cope can make matters worse because the person is, in a way, “numbing” themselves and never actually addressing the root of the problem.
Over time, drinking alcohol as a way to cope can lead to a pattern of unhealthy behaviors.
Common signs of alcoholism include:
Symptoms of excessive alcohol use can include:
When a person builds a tolerance to alcohol, they need more and more of it to produce the same desired effects.
Over time, the body and brain get used to the alterations that drugs and alcohol cause. So, to feel the same effects they once did, they need more of it to do so.
Withdrawal symptoms occur when a person has developed alcohol dependence.
When the person stops drinking alcohol or significantly decreases their use, they will experience withdrawal symptoms as the body responds to the changes.
When a person is an alcoholic, they are unable to control or stop their alcohol use. Even if they try to stop, they will experience cravings that keep them wanting more.
They may try to quit or try to drink in moderation but may be unable to.
Commonly, individuals facing challenges with alcoholism will show apparent behavioral signs that their loved ones may recognize.
However, the signs may not be as obvious for others as many people struggling with alcoholism try to cover up their drinking problem from their friends or family.
When a person is abusing alcohol, they will often exhibit changes in their energy, motivation, mood, and appearance.
They may show a lack of care for personal hygiene, and they often have problems in personal relationships from drinking.
Other behavioral signs of alcohol abuse can include:
Excessive alcohol use can lead to behavior problems such as:
A person facing challenges with alcoholism may display behavior patterns that can indicate a need for help.
They often follow patterns of controlled drinking, followed by uncontrolled drinking, where they will set limits for themselves for a few days and then lose control and go on a heavy binge to the point where they blackout or become reckless.
An alcoholic will also often face challenges at work or school, commonly because they start to lack motivation, focus, and energy to complete everyday tasks and manage priorities.
Alcohol can affect the brain in many ways.
These effects occur not long after a person consumes alcohol and worsen the more a person drinks.
A person may experience lapses in their memory, have sleep problems, and develop mental health disorders like depression or anxiety.
Alcohol can also cause cognitive problems like a lack of attention or problems with motor coordination.
In severe cases, a person can also fall into a coma due to alcohol use.
Alcohol does not only impact a person’s physical health but their mental health too.
Some psychological problems associated with alcoholism can include:
Psychosis refers to a loss of contact with reality and describes conditions that affect the mind, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Alcoholism can seriously harm a person’s physical and mental health.
Alcohol can impact major systems and organs like the brain, heart, pancreas, and liver.
When a person becomes an alcoholic, they lose the ability to control their alcohol use, despite its negative impact on the brain, body, and life.
If a person drinks too much on one occasion or drinks over a long period of time, they can suffer serious health consequences.
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to alcohol overdose, which happens when there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream and important areas of the brain begin to shut down.
Warning signs and symptoms of an alcohol overdose can include:
If you believe someone is experiencing an alcohol overdose and is in danger, seek help immediately and call 911.
Drinking alcohol, especially in large amounts, can cause changes in a person’s mood and emotions.
When a person drinks, they can become more irritable and also experience decreased inhibitions.
This can make it more likely for someone to become aggressive and can impact the way a person makes judgments.
Because of the way alcohol alters brain function, it can also impact an individual’s personality. A person may start acting completely different than what their loved ones know them as or may start acting out-of-the-ordinary.
Alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways and can impact the way it works.
Additionally, heavy drinking over a long period of time can alter neurons, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Young brains are more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol use because their brains are still going through major development. Alcohol misuse during adolescence can potentially cause long-lasting changes to brain structure and function.
Alcohol-induced blackouts can also occur when a person is intoxicated and experiences gaps in their memory. This happens because alcohol temporarily blocks the transfer of short-term memories to long-term memory.
When a person drinks alcohol over time, brain structure and function can become impacted in such a way that a person loses control over their alcohol use, despite the negative effects they are facing, which is known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Short-term effects of alcoholism can include:
Long-term effects of alcoholism can include:
Some questions a person can ask themselves to see if they may be an alcoholic can include:
If you think you or a loved one may be facing challenges with alcoholism, you should seek professional help from a healthcare provider or medical professional who can help you find treatment options and give you a proper diagnosis.
Signs that may indicate a person should stop drinking include:
Also, a person should not drink if they are taking medications that can interact with alcohol.
Many people can drink in moderation.
However, stopping drinking altogether may be a better choice for others.
For example, individuals with an alcohol use disorder or mental health disorders should stop drinking completely.
A. Taking An Honest Look At Your Drinking Habits
Many people who have drinking problems may not be honest with themselves about their drinking habits. They may be in denial and convince themselves it is “normal.” When a person takes an honest look at their drinking habits, they can recognize if they should talk to someone about it.
B. Asking Yourself Important Questions
Asking yourself important questions, like how alcohol is affecting your relationships, responsibilities, and health, can help a person identify the negative impact alcohol has, both short-term and long-term.
C. Seeking Professional Help
Seeking professional help through your healthcare provider or a medical professional can get a person a proper diagnosis and alcohol treatment.
It is important to find a treatment center that fits your needs the best.
Our goal is to provide the most helpful information. Please reach out to us if you have any additional questions. We are here to help in any way we can.
Sometimes, the signs of alcoholism are not obvious. It is important to seek help if you or a loved one are facing challenges with alcohol use. Sandstone Care supports teens and young adults with mental health and substance use disorders.