In the United States, alcohol is everywhere. It can be purchased at grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies and is enjoyed ubiquitously at bars, clubs, restaurants, movie theaters, sports games, and more.
People often appear to take alcohol use for granted as a normal activity compared to drug use, so alcohol has actually become one of the most commonly used and abused addictive substances in the country.
In fact, more than 14 million adults have an alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder. Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease that can have destructive, potentially fatal effects on the person who is dependent on alcohol and the people around them as well.
An alcohol use disorder is defined by the most current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a chronic relapsing brain disease, generally characterized by an inability to control one’s alcohol intake, compulsive alcohol use, and a negative emotional state when someone is not using.
Alcohol is classified by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as the third leading preventable cause of death in the country, claiming nearly 90,000 lives per year. The longer an alcohol use disorder goes untreated, the more likely the physical and psychological damage it can cause will become permanent, and possibly even fatal. This is why it is crucial for someone with an addiction to alcohol to get into recovery treatment as soon as possible.
How Does Alcohol Work?
Alcohol is known as a central nervous system depressant, which means that when you drink, alcohol slows down, or depresses, activity in the central nervous system.
Alcohol does this by mimicking and binding to a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a brain chemical that calms you down by blocking signals that cause stress and anxiety from reaching the brain.
So when alcohol enters the body disguised as GABA, it activates the GABA receptors in the brain, stimulating them into overproduction and creating far more GABA than the body would ever be able to on its own. This is why alcohol use causes feelings of relaxation and a general lowering of inhibitions. It’s also why drinking results in slurred speech, slowed breathing, and impaired movement, as these are all caused by too much GABA.
When someone regularly abuses alcohol for an extended period of time, the brain becomes hardwired to depend on the GABA supplied by the alcohol, as it will have started making much less natural GABA to balance things out in the brain.
As a person’s alcohol abuse progresses to dependence and addiction, when they stop drinking, the brain becomes starved of GABA, which is what causes withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, panic attacks, and more. This problem will, of course, only increase as they grow tolerant to alcohol’s effects, needing to drink more to attain the same calming effects as before.
What Causes Alcohol Addiction?
Unfortunately, there is no simple cause for developing an alcohol use disorder. Much like any other addiction, there are many factors involved that contribute to both the onset and progression of an alcohol use disorder. Some of these factors include:
Environmental factors can encompass a wide range of different influences, including being raised in a household where one or both parents also suffered from an addiction to alcohol. The risk of someone becoming dependent on alcohol rises by a staggering 200 to 300 percent if their parent or guardian abuses alcohol.
This early exposure can lead a child to think that alcohol abuse is normal or it can be the cause behind childhood trauma that will, unfortunately, make someone more likely to drink to cope with these experiences.
Media and the cultural landscape can also be classified as environmental factors that can influence someone’s risk of alcohol addiction. Movies, television shows, and more will often glorify the use of alcohol as being both a rite of passage for young adults and an act with little to no negative side effects.
And speaking of coping, psychological issues are also typically a major factor in developing an alcohol use disorder. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 45 percent of Americans who seek treatment for a substance abuse disorder have also been diagnosed with a co-occurring mental health disorder.
Anxiety, depression, and even just stress are all things that can lead to alcohol abuse when someone drinks to self-medicate against these issues or ease the symptoms associated with them. Other co-occurring disorders like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can also contribute to alcohol addiction.
Unfortunately, while it can seem to help at first, ultimately, alcohol abuse only serves to worsen the symptoms of a mental health disorder, especially depression, creating a dangerous feedback loop where someone drinks, even more, to deal with these escalating symptoms.
Finally, addiction research studies have determined that alcohol use disorders are generally not an isolated event in a family line and can occur across generations. However, the line between what can be considered genetic and what is environmental can seem a bit blurred, as we have already illustrated that children raised by people with alcohol use disorders are likely to develop them as well.
On the other hand, while scientists have yet to identify anything as specific as a gene that indicates a susceptibility to alcohol abuse, what we do know is that there are some genetic variations in people that can contribute to raising their risk of alcoholism.
There are certain genes that cause a boost in the intoxicating effects of alcohol in people as compared to people who do not have the gene. Similarly, there are genetic mutations that reduce the effects of a hangover. For someone with both of these genetic variations who experiences more intense effects when they drink with less of a hangover, this can easily lead to them being more likely to misuse or abuse alcohol.
Blood Alcohol Content
If you drink five beers in a short time, your BAC will be much higher than if you only drink one beer over dinner. Several factors influence BAC including:
- How many drinks you consume
- How quickly you consume those drinks
- Your body weight
- Your biological sex
- Any medications you may be taking
- Food recently consumed
The physical and mental effects of alcohol are felt increasingly as your BAC rises. At a BAC of 0.01 percent to 0.03 percent, it is illegal for anyone under age 21 to drive or ride a bike. At a BAC of 0.04 percent to 0.06 percent, you are likely to feel a sense of relaxation and a minor impairment of judgment and memory. ABAC of 0.08 percent and above constitutes being legally impaired to drive, and you could be arrested on a charge of driving under the influence. At a BAC of 0.1 percent, you begin to experience significant impairment of motor coordination and cognitive judgment.
ABAC of 0.13 percent to 0.15 percent causes substantial gross motor impairment, and the individual may begin to appear sloppy. Severe intoxication marked by mental confusion and the inability to walk without assistance sets in at a BAC of about 0.25 percent. You are likely to lose consciousness at a BAC of 0.35 percent. At a BAC of 0.4 percent and above, coma and death caused by respiratory failure are likely.
If you are drinking, it is important to remain aware of your BAC. Even if you don’t know the exact percentage, you can be aware of the associated symptoms with the different BAC levels. Being alert to how much alcohol is in each drink you consume, as well as how your body typically responds to alcohol, can help keep you mentally and physically safe.
What Are The Signs Of Alcohol Addiction?
It can be difficult to identify the signs of a growing problem early on with alcohol abuse that is blossoming into alcohol addiction because they are not always obvious. If you are not paying close attention to the changes in someone else’s or even your own behavior, you may not start to realize there is a problem until the signs of alcohol addiction have begun to interfere with life in a way that is impossible to ignore.
One means of early self-diagnosis involves four simple questions known as the CAGE Questionnaire. These questions can be used by a doctor on a patient as well and are as follows:
- Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
- Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
- Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (an Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
While this is a very simplistic means of diagnosis, giving a “yes” answer to at least two of the questions is a sign of a growing dependence on alcohol.
As obtaining and drinking alcohol becomes the highest priority in someone’s life and the driving force behind nearly all of their major decisions, there are many behavioral signs of a growing addiction, including:
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Being unable to function or perform daily tasks without drinking
- Drinking multiple times a day
- Attempting to rationalize or justify alcohol use
- Drinking in risky situations such as while at work or driving
- Developing a tolerance and needing more alcohol to get the same effects
- Regularly engaging in binge drinking
- Being unable to control how much they drink once they start
- Blacking out from excessive alcohol use
- Choosing alcohol over relationships and responsibilities
- A decline in academic or workplace performance
- Lying about how much they drink or hiding their alcohol use
- Wanting to stop drinking but being unable to
And as abuse progresses into full-blown alcohol use disorder, the behavioral signs of alcohol addiction are both much harder to miss and even more potentially dangerous to both the person who has become dependent on alcohol and those around them. Some of these signs of alcohol addiction include:
- Domestic arguments and violence
- Legal trouble, including arrests
- Child welfare issues
- DUI charges or accidents caused by drunk driving
Apart from behavioral signs of alcohol abuse and addiction, there are also many physical signs of alcohol abuse that, unlike many early behavioral signs, are much more difficult to hide. These physical effects from regularly abusing alcohol include:
- Significant changes in weight
- Extremely dry skin
- Constantly flushed appearance
- Frequent stomach cramps
- A noticeable decrease in personal hygiene
- Impotence and erectile dysfunction
- Broken capillaries on the nose and face
- A very sudden increase in age spots and wrinkles
- Yellowed skin and eyes from liver damage
- Injuries that were sustained while intoxicated
Signs like jaundiced skin, in particular, are indicative of severe chronic alcohol abuse and, if left untreated, can have potentially fatal consequences.
How Dangerous Is An Alcohol Use Disorder?
As previously illustrated, despite its acceptance as a normal, even harmless, activity, alcohol misuse and abuse is anything but harmless. Chronic alcohol abuse and long-term alcohol addiction can, among other things, result in:
- Serious heart problems, including abnormal changes in blood pressure and arrhythmia
- A weakened immune system that leads to an increased risk of infections and disease
- Disrupted communication within the brain, resulting in impaired judgment, motor skills, and emotional and behavioral problems
- Severe liver damage, including alcoholic hepatitis fibrosis, and cirrhosis
- A much higher risk of throat, liver, mouth, esophageal, and breast cancers
- Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, developmental disorders, and birth defects resulting from drinking while pregnant
These are just a small sampling of the ways that alcohol can permanently damage someone’s brain and body as well as kill them. These also do not account for the many ways that alcohol can cause serious harm to those around someone engaging in alcohol abuse, such as driving drunk, which accounts for roughly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the country.
What Is Involved In Alcohol Detox?
Central nervous system depressants, including alcohol, have some of the most uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, which is why it is essential for someone’s safety to detox from alcohol in the safety of a professional detox treatment center.
Recovery treatment from alcohol, or really any substance, should start with detoxification. Detox is the process during which alcohol and any accompanying toxins are flushed out from someone’s system in order to both treat intoxication and stem the mental and physical damage caused by long-term alcohol abuse.
Medical detox will cleanse the body of any alcohol and prepare it for the next level of treatment. This can be done through the gradual tapering of alcohol use, as well as professionally administered medications.
Recovery cannot start before detox has been completed.
A person cannot enter recovery while they are still intoxicated or have alcohol in their system. There is also the issue of struggling with withdrawal symptoms while attempting to try and focus on recovery. Detoxing from alcohol before starting a recovery treatment program leaves a person’s body free of alcohol and their mind free to focus on the challenge of recovery.
What Are The Symptoms Of Alcohol Of Withdrawal?
While the exact symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will depend on the length and severity of someone’s alcohol abuse, there are a common set of symptoms consistent with alcohol withdrawal, and they are, as previously stated, potentially extremely dangerous.
Typically, during detox, symptoms will begin within about 24 hours of someone’s last drink and will hit their peak strength between one to three days. The first symptoms to appear will generally be milder and can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Mood swings
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
Other symptoms that are more intense but still quite common and more likely to manifest as alcohol withdrawal reaches its peak include:
- High blood pressure
- High body temperature and excessive sweating
- Heart palpitations
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
Finally, there are the most intense and dangerous symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. These are generally associated with severe, long-term alcohol use disorders, and can also manifest when someone attempts to quit using alcohol all at once or “cold turkey,” which is incredibly dangerous. These symptoms can include:
- Chest pains
- Intense confusion
- Delirium tremens
Delirium tremens is a particularly dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptom that is responsible for the symptoms of intense disorientation, hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, and grand mal seizures. It can take as long as three full days for the symptoms of Delirium tremens to begin to appear, and another three days for them to run their course.
Can Alcohol Withdrawal Kill You?
The short answer is yes, alcohol withdrawal can kill you, especially if you attempt to detox from alcohol at home without at least some form of medical supervision or intervention.
Withdrawal from central nervous system depressants is much more dangerous than nearly any other substance withdrawal, and alcohol is no exception. Even the milder alcohol withdrawal symptoms have the potential to be life-threatening depending on the circumstances.
About 5 to 25 percent of people who undergo alcohol detox die as a result of complications caused by Delirium tremens. Luckily, this percentage drops significantly when someone seeks out professional detox services as opposed to trying to detox on their own.
In a supervised and controlled medical setting, where doctors can administer medications like benzodiazepines to counteract the effects of Delirium tremens and prevent seizures, alcohol withdrawal becomes much less dangerous.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
While the intoxicating effects of alcohol will be experienced only for a relatively short period, traces of the substance will linger for much longer. Additionally, traces of alcohol will remain in your blood, urine, hair, and on your breath for various amounts of time. This can be relevant for people who must undergo various forms of drug testing and are concerned about their results, as well as for people who are concerned about their physical or mental performance abilities.
Various tests can be used to detect recent alcohol use. They include:
For about 24 hours after your last alcoholic drink, a breathalyzer can measure your BAC. This is the shortest alcohol testing time frame.
A traditional urine sample can be collected and tested for alcohol use for 12 hours to 48 hours after drinking. Ethyl glucuronide (EGT) urine testing can detect alcohol in your urine for three to five days after your last use.
Traces of alcohol can be detected in hair follicles for up to 90 days after drinking.
A blood test can be used to test for alcohol consumption for up to 12 hours after your last drink.
Saliva tests can be used to detect alcohol for one to five days after drinking.
In addition to being prepared for a drug test, it is important to know how long traces of alcohol stay in your system if you are taking any medications or are going to be starting any. Alcohol can have dangerous interactions with many medications, so it is important to consult your doctor before mixing alcohol with any medicines.
What Are The Next Steps Of Alcohol Addiction Treatment?
Once someone has successfully completed their alcohol detox, the next step in alcohol addiction treatment must be entering into a recovery treatment program. Detox does remove the alcohol from someone’s system, but that’s all it does.
Detox does not address the issues and behaviors at the root of a person’s alcohol addiction. If someone stops at detox and does not follow up with ongoing care, they are not treating the actual problem and are essentially guaranteed to relapse again, and sooner rather than later.
During alcohol addiction treatment, the addicted individual will learn to understand the issues behind their addiction behaviors and be better able to control and manage them. An alcohol addiction treatment program is a person’s best chance at maintaining long-term sobriety.
Alcohol addiction treatment can be done on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending on the severity of someone’s alcohol use disorder and what will best suit their individual needs. This will also be the determining factor in the length of treatment, although the general recommendation is at least 90 days for minimum effectiveness.
In terms of treatment elements, someone’s alcohol addiction treatment program will typically be somewhat customized based on what is deemed to be the most effective combination of therapies for them. This recovery treatment plan will likely include at least some mix of the following:
- Individual therapy
- Group therapy
- Family therapy
- Educational workshops
- Holistic therapy (mindfulness, yoga, etc.)
- Stress management
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Dual diagnosis treatment
There are also many post-treatment resources and services available, including support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and treatment center alumni programs, which allow those who bonded through their shared treatment experience to remain in contact as a network of support.
Start Your Alcohol Addiction Treatment Today
If you or a loved one is currently battling an alcohol use disorder, it can often feel hopeless. But while quitting is never an easy journey, there is always hope, and with the help of Delphi Behavioral Health Group, you can climb out from under the weight of alcohol addiction and get on the path to a sober tomorrow.
Our admissions specialists are ready to help you find the facility and treatment program that best fits the needs of you or your loved one, as well as address any concerns or questions that you may have.
How Alcoholism Is Treated During Pregnancy
Treating alcoholism is a complex process that is made even more complicated if you are pregnant. In many cases, women don’t seek treatment because they are afraid of what it could do for their baby. They may also be afraid of legal repercussions.
Typically, pregnancy will mean that you need a high level of care and medical expertise. There are a number of approaches available for the treatment of an alcohol use disorder (AUD) but not all of them are appropriate for a pregnant mother.
There are three medications that are approved for AUD treatment in the U.S. including, naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate. However, there is very little information as to the safety of these drugs in pregnant women and some evidence suggest that they might be dangerous. However, weaning off of alcohol can also pose a risk to the baby.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also cause a danger to the mother and child without treatment. Alcohol withdrawal can come with a variety of symptoms ranging from mild nausea and tremors to seizures, panic, and catatonia. There is very little research as to the effects of alcohol withdrawal on a pregnancy but it can be assumed that the physical and psychological upheaval that it comes with can pose a significant threat.
However, there are treatment options available for pregnant women seeking help with an AUD. It’s important that each case is treated on an individual basis. Medical professionals will be able to evaluate your specific needs and the benefits and risks of each treatment method. If you have a low risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms, you may only need medical monitoring and treatment to alleviate mild symptoms.
In more severe cases, you will need a medical team ensuring your safety and the safety of your baby. Regardless, seeking medical treatment is safer than going through an AUD and pregnancy alone. If you need help, or if you are concerned that you might have an AUD while pregnant, don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more.
Tips for Getting Past Alcohol Relapse
If you’ve relapsed on alcohol or another drug, the first thing you should do is refrain from beating yourself up. You don’t want to take it lightly, but you also don’t want to judge yourself so harshly that you end up thinking, “Well, I’m such a failure that I might as well just keep drinking.”
Don’t self-criticize or stay down in the dumps. Instead, get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the road to recovery. Relapsing doesn’t mean you failed. It’s a slip, and there’s an opportunity to learn valuable lessons that could prevent you from slipping again.
If you’ve relapsed, another helpful thing you can do is reach out for support from your family members, friends, and other people in recovery. It’s alright to admit that you slipped. By becoming accountable to another person, you take full responsibility for the relapse. You also open the door to the encouragement that will get you back on the road to recovery.
In the future, it will help you to pinpoint why you relapsed. What triggered you? Did you allow too much stress to build up? Did you think you were strong enough to go to a bar? Did you feel guilty about lying about something? Do your best to figure out what triggered you, then address it. This tactic might help you prevent a relapse the next time you find yourself in the same situation.
Some people find that attending a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery helps them get back on the road to recovery. To strengthen your recovery muscles, you may want to attend one meeting a day.
A therapist could help you sort out underlying issues in your life. Seeing a counselor for a series of sessions may help you pinpoint why you relapsed, and it could help you prevent relapsing in the future. You can also address things like anxiety, stress, depression, relationship problems, and career issues.