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Alcohol Use Disorder: Introduction to Alcoholism

Home Resources Alcohol Use Disorder: Introduction to Alcoholism

Alcohol Use Disorder Part 1:
Introduction to Alcoholism

Alcohol is society’s oldest and most widely used mind-altering chemical. The marketing and consumption of alcohol is deeply ingrained in our culture; many Americans drink without any ongoing or long-term problems. In today’s society, alcohol use is widespread and its consumption is often linked with relaxation and celebration.

Yet the very idea that drinking alcohol is commonplace and harmless can lead us to ignoring signs of dependence.

When alcohol use leads to alcohol dependence or addiction, it is a very real issue and the abuse of this particular substance is not any less hazardous than the abuse of other substances. The opioid crisis continues to dominate headlines, but alcohol is really deserving of the same, if not more, attention. The costs of alcohol problems in our society are significantly higher than the costs of drug addiction. And while our nation’s problems with alcohol may not seem as scandalous as illegal drugs, they’re just as serious.

Identifying when alcohol use has become a serious problem for a loved one can be tricky, whether you’re concerned about a child, a spouse, a colleague, or a friend. You need to know the signs of addiction and dependence, how to best help, and what to expect with treatment and recovery from alcoholism.

Some important points about alcoholism to keep in mind

Alcohol is considered a drug by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Drinking too much or binge drinking can cause a range of consequences, and increase your risk for a variety of problems, particularly for adolescents, whose brains are still developing. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it slows down vital functions and reduces a person’s ability to think with clear, rational judgement.

Alcohol is legal – but can still be dangerous

Prescription drugs are also legal, but our current opioid crisis clearly illustrates how dangerous they can be if they are misused. Twenty-eight percent of all traffic-related deaths are the result of alcohol use. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 88,000 lives are claimed each year due to alcohol abuse, including many from its detrimental health effects on the liver, heart, and brain.

Alcohol overdose is a real thing

Most people aren’t aware that you can overdose from alcohol. Overdoses can include problems with balance and slurred speech to coma or even death. The amount of alcohol that can lead someone to a dangerous overdose varies among individuals and age, weight, gender, drinking experience, the amount of food eaten, even ethnicity all can influence how much is too much.

Underage and new drinkers are at highest risk for alcohol overdose. Research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) tells us that people under age 20 typically drink about five drinks at one time, also known as binge drinking. In fact, adolescents ages 12 through 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States, even though alcohol is illegal under the age of 21.

Drinking such a large quantity of alcohol can overwhelm the body’s ability to break down and clear alcohol from the bloodstream. This leads to rapid increases in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and significantly impairs brain function. As BAC increases, so do alcohol’s effects and the risk for harm. Even small increases in BAC can decrease coordination, make a person feel sick, and cloud judgment, according to the NIAAA. This can lead to injury from falls or car crashes, leave one vulnerable to sexual assault or other acts of violence, and increase the risk for unprotected or unintended sex. When BACs go even higher, amnesia or blackouts can occur.

Alcohol poisoning can be deadly

Continuing to drink despite signs and symptoms of significant impairment can result in a potentially deadly type of overdose called alcohol poisoning. The NIAAA states that “alcohol poisoning occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down.”

According to the NIAAA, symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Trouble with breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Dull responses (such as the absence of a gag reflex, which prevent choking)
  • Extremely low body temperature

Keep in mind that the person’s BAC can continue to rise even if the person has stopped drinking and is unconscious. Alcohol in the stomach and intestine are continuously entering the bloodstream, increasing the person’s BAC even after they stop drinking.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) affects an estimated 16 million Americans

In fact, the CDC states that between 2006-2010, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years.

Knowledge is key to making the right decision if you believe your loved one is struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder. You may still be wondering whether the problem they are facing is indeed an addiction, or whether it has simply been a series of poor decisions. You’re not alone. Many people have a difficult time identifying the point at which heavy alcohol use becomes a disorder or an addiction.

When someone needs help, the important thing is that you take action. This is not the time to focus on what situations brought your loved one to this point or where to point the blame.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Identify the symptoms of the disorder and see where your loved one fits in the disease spectrum.
  • Gather facts on the nature of the disease and how people recover.
  • Research possible options for care.


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