Alcohol use disorder (or AUD) describes a pattern of uncontrollable alcohol use that interferes with your daily life, leads to preoccupation with alcohol, or causes problems with the law, your health, and your relationships. Unhealthy alcohol use is far broader, and can include any alcohol use that puts your health or safety at risk (including binge drinking).
Problem drinking is more common than you might think—in 2021, around one in every five people reported binge drinking at least once in the past month, and these rates have increased since the pandemic.
When does heavy alcohol use cross the line into alcohol use disorder? What signs and symptoms should parents, spouses, and loved ones look for when evaluating whether their loved one needs help? Below, we discuss some of the most common risk factors, signs, and symptoms of alcohol use disorder, as well as what you can do to help yourself or a loved one seek Alcohol Use treatment.
Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder can vary in severity; the more symptoms you experience, the more severe the disorder can be. Some of the symptoms of AUD include:
- An inability to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
- Unsuccessful attempts to cut down how much you drink
- Devoting a disproportionate amount of time drinking, recovering from drinking, thinking about alcohol, or getting alcohol
- Experiencing strong, regular urges to drink alcohol
- Continuing to drink alcohol even after it has begun to cause physical, work, legal, or relationship problems
- Using alcohol in unsafe situations (like driving, swimming, or in an unfamiliar location)
- Using more alcohol to feel the same effect
- Noticing that alcohol affects your ability to meet your obligations at work, school, or at home
- Withdrawing from social or work activities in order to use alcohol
- Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when you don’t drink
- Drinking to avoid symptoms of withdrawal
For many, alcohol use disorder is marked by a repeated cycle of alcohol intoxication and alcohol withdrawal.
When you ingest alcohol, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream increases, resulting in alcohol intoxication. This can cause changes to your mental and physical state, including inappropriate behavior, poor judgment, slurred speech, memory problems, and poor coordination. Over time, this alcohol use can cause brain damage and increase the risk of dementia.
If your blood alcohol level is high enough (0.30 to 0.40 percent or more), it could lead to alcohol poisoning, irreversible brain damage, coma, or death.
When you stop consuming alcohol after a period of heavy consumption, you may experience alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms of withdrawal can begin just a few hours after alcohol use and last four to five days. These symptoms include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat
- Hand tremors
- Insomnia or sleeping problems
In some cases, these symptoms may be severe enough to affect your ability to function for a day or more. In fact, navigating alcohol withdrawal symptoms without the help of a medical professional can be dangerous for those who have been using alcohol for an extended time. Alcohol dependency takes a toll on the body, and while it may seem more dangerous to continue engaging in a behavior that’s causing harm, it can also be life-threatening when the alcohol level suddenly drops in the body. Chronic alcohol use requires a very carefully controlled alcohol detox process to ensure the safety of the user and avoid any life-threatening issues.
What are the Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder has a variety of causes ranging from genetic to social, psychological, and environmental. Some people are able to moderate their drinking without much effort, or may abstain from alcohol entirely; others are at risk of developing problematic alcohol habits even with occasional consumption.
Some of the risk factors for alcohol use disorder include:
- Starting to drink at an early age
- A family history of alcohol use disorder
- Bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems
- A history of trauma
- Having multiple friends or a close partner who also drinks regularly
What Health Complications Can Alcohol Use Disorder Cause?
Alcohol is classified as a depressant, because it depresses your central nervous system. The more alcohol you consume, the more it will weigh on different parts of your nervous system, causing sleepiness, delayed reaction times, impaired judgment, and slowed breathing and heart rate.
Consuming a dangerous amount of alcohol could slow your nervous system enough to keep your heart and lungs from working correctly. Combining alcohol with other central nervous system depressants, like opioids or benzodiazepines, can significantly increase the risk of health complications.
Over the long term, drinking too much alcohol can cause complications like:
- Liver disease, including cirrhosis, hepatic steatosis, and alcoholic hepatitis
- Digestive issues, including ulcers, gastritis, and pancreatitis
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart failure, heart attack, and stroke
- Diabetes complications, including hypoglycemia
- Erectile dysfunction
- Menstrual disruption
- Involuntary rapid eye movement
- Weakness and paralysis of the eye muscles
- Birth defects (for alcohol use during pregnancy)
- Bone damage, including osteoporosis and damage to the bone marrow
- Neuropathy in the hands and feet
- Short-term memory loss
- Weakened immune system
- Increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, colon, and breast cancers
The sooner you can control the alcohol use, the sooner you can work to combat these negative health effects.
Helping a Loved One Seek Alcohol Use Treatment
If you’re concerned about alcohol consumption—your own or someone else’s—it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider to discuss the next steps. You can also discuss your concerns with (and get feedback from) a mental health professional or a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon, or Alateen.
One hallmark of alcohol use disorder is denial, which often makes it a challenge to seek treatment—or to encourage another to seek treatment. However, you don’t have to walk this path alone. At Anuvia, we offer a variety of programs designed to help overcome alcohol use, including inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment programs, substance abuse comprehensive outpatient treatment (SACOT), and early intervention programs for teens and young people. To learn more about the services we offer or to schedule an intake appointment, give us a call or visit our website today.