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, 1 in every 12 adults aged 18 and older in the U.S. meets the criteria for alcohol addiction. 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.
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.
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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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
Signs like jaundiced skin, in particular, are indicative of severe chronic alcohol abuse and, if left untreated, can have potentially fatal consequences.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Other symptoms that are more intense but still quite common and more likely to manifest as alcohol withdrawal reaches its peak include:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Delirium Tremens: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (2018, April 30). Retrieved June 12, 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000766.htm
Mayfield, R. D., Harris, R. A., & Schuckit, M. A. (2008, May). Genetic Factors Influencing Alcohol Dependence. Retrieved June 12, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2442454/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017, June). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014, June 20). Behavioral Health Treatments and Services. Retrieved June 12, 2018, from https://www.samhsa.gov/treatment#co-occurring
Wilcox, S. (2015, July 25). Facts About Alcohol. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/alcohol/facts-about-alcohol