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What is Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism?

Discover the signs, symptoms and causes of alcoholism and how treatment can help you live a life of recovery and freedom from alcohol.

Alcohol is one of the most widely-used substances in the world. Drinking is commonly normalized, and embraced by many as an accepted form of social engagement. However, regularly drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol may be associated with adverse effects and may put people at risk of certain short- and long-term health consequences. Across the U.S., nearly 70% of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol in the past year while more than half reported that they drank in the past month according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).1

Because it is relatively easy to get and socially acceptable to consume (for those of legal drinking age), it can be a challenge to have people evaluate their own drinking behavior and know whether the amount of and frequency with which they drink places them at-risk for alcoholism. To help individuals better quantify their drinking patterns, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jointly-issued 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines “moderate” drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.2

Additional metrics may also be helpful for gauging potentially problematic drinking. For instance, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of consumption that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher.2 Typically, this is around 5 or more drinks for males and 4 or more drinks for women in about 2 hours.2

The NIAAA describes heavy use as more than 4 drinks for men or more than 3 drinks for women on any given day.2 According to the NSDUH, in the past month of the survey, 25.8% of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking while 6.3% reported engaging in heavy alcohol use. Further, an estimated 14.1 million Americans aged 18 and over were reported to have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).1

Although not everyone who drinks alcohol will become addicted or develop an alcohol use disorder, understanding the risks of heavy drinking and binge drinking may help some slow the progression of their problematic drinking behaviors. Learn more about alcoholism below and how professional addiction treatment can help those struggling with alcohol abuse work toward recovery.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is a chronic condition characterized by an inability to slow, stop, or otherwise control the use of alcohol despite the negative consequences of continued use.1 AUD is diagnosed based on an individual meeting certain criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Individuals who meet at least 2 of 11 criteria within the same 12-month period may be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. People who meet these diagnostic criteria may have experienced or exhibited the following types of signs, symptoms, and behaviors within the last year:3

  • Had times when you drank more (or longer) than planned.
  • Wanting to stop or cut down on drinking but weren’t able to do so.
  • Spending a considerable amount of time getting alcohol, drinking, or getting over the effects of drinking.
  • Wanting an alcoholic beverage so much so that you couldn’t think of anything else.
  • Drinking (or being sick from drinking) hindered your ability to meet home, school, or job obligations.
  • Continuing to drink, despite drinking causing problems with family or friends.
  • Spending less time or giving up activities that are important or interesting to you or that gave you pleasure for the purpose of consuming alcohol.
  • During or after drinking, getting into situations where you increased your risk for getting hurt (driving a car, for example).
  • Continuing to drink, despite it making you feel anxious, depressed, or contributing to a separate health problem, or after having experienced a memory blackout.
  • Needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect or the regular amount that you drink, no longer has the same effect.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off, like restlessness, sweating, shakiness, sleeping, seizure, racing heart; or sensed things that were not present.

Short and Long-Term Effects of Use

Even if an individual doesn’t abuse alcohol regularly, they can still experience several potentially negative physical and psychological effects.

In the short-term, the effects of alcohol can range from mild, such as slight euphoria, to more severe symptoms such as passing out or vomiting.5 Depending on how much drinking has taken place, other short-term effects of alcohol can include: 5,6

  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Loss of coordination; clumsiness.
  • Dulled sensory perception; increased reaction time.
  • Decreased visual acuity; visual disturbances including double vision.
  • Lowered inhibitions.
  • Loss of critical judgement.
  • Fluctuating moods.
  • Reduced core body temperature.
  • Raised blood pressure.
  • Slowed breathing progressing to respiratory arrest.
  • Loss of consciousness; coma; death.

Chronic physical and mental health issues can also be caused by drinking too much over time. Drinking large amounts of alcohol for many years can damage the brain and nervous system, heart, liver and pancreas.7

Heavy drinking can contribute to or cause issues such as cardiovascular disease, multiple types of cancer, and/or liver damage.1,6,8 Other long-term health risks associated with alcohol misuse include:7

  • High blood pressure.
  • Increased blood cholesterol levels.
  • Stroke.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Depression.
  • Dementia.
  • Sexual problems (e.g., impotence, premature ejaculation).
  • Infertility.
  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.

Long-term alcohol misuse can also make individuals more vulnerable to serious infections by weakening their immune system.7 It can also weaken a person’s bones, putting them at risk of fracturing or breaking them.7

Regular misuse of alcohol is also associated with the development of physiological dependence and an unpleasant (and potentially dangerous) acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome when drinking slows or stops.3,7

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

A person who has been abusing alcohol regularly may develop significant alcohol dependence, which places them at risk of experiencing several symptoms of alcohol withdrawal if they suddenly quit drinking.9 Typically, symptoms occur within 8 hours after the last drink and peak by 24 to 72 hours.9 In some cases, certain symptoms may not begin until days after the last drink and go on for weeks.9

Alcohol detox and medical withdrawal management is often the first step in the rehabilitation process for people with significant alcohol dependence. The acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome may consist of symptoms that range from mild to dangerous, and left unmanaged, heavy alcohol users may experience uncomfortable and potentially severe symptoms.9

Exactly which symptoms are experienced may vary with each individual. Some of the more common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include :9

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Fatigue.
  • Nightmares.
  • Jumpiness or shakiness.

Other symptoms may include:9

  • Headache.
  • Insomnia.
  • Increased body temperature.
  • Increased sweating.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Hallucination.
  • Agitation.
  • Profound confusion.
  • Generalized tremors.
  • Seizures.

Symptoms can vary person-to-person in terms of severity. A supervised, medical detox can help people avoid unnecessary discomfort or life-threatening complications from withdrawal. Medical detox is a challenging but necessary element of early alcohol recovery. The supervision and care of a professional detox program helps keep the individual as safe and comfortable as possible as their body clears itself of alcohol’s influence.9

Each detox facility may have its own particular set of plans and protocols. However, in general, a medical detox plan may include medications, close patient monitoring, and caring support from the treatment team at the core of treatment plan at this early stage of recovery.

Treatment Options for Alcoholism

Following detox completion and successful withdrawal management, many will continue with additional alcohol addiction treatment to continue working toward recovery. Several individual factors may help to determine the type of treatment that will be most suitable for you such as:

  • Current alcohol use and corresponding level of physical alcohol dependence.
  • Any previous attempts to quit.
  • Any additional substance use.
  • Any co-occurring medical and/or mental health conditions.

Though treatment settings may vary, all incorporate a variety of recovery programming such as behavioral therapies, individual and group counseling, medications to manage AUD, coping skills education, and relapse prevention classes. Patients may experience rehab in a variety of settings including short- and long-term residential treatment and outpatient programming.10

Inpatient and residential alcohol treatment centers provide 24-hour care, giving patients access to on-call medical and psychiatric services during their stay.10 Inpatient/residential alcohol treatment centers typically offer 30- to 90-day programs in order to allow patients to focus solely on their recovery without the distractions of their everyday lives.

Outpatient treatment can vary in structure, level of care, and time commitment—from partial hospitalization programs (PHP) to intensive outpatient (IOP) to scheduled office visits with a therapist or counselor. These types of programs may be most suitable for individuals with strong social support systems and those not able to miss work for treatment.10

Regardless of the exact treatment setting, individuals seeking help for alcohol use disorders can expect to be exposed to a variety of behavioral therapies as they work toward recovery. These types of evidence-based therapies provide an opportunity for individuals to modify behaviors that can contribute to excessive drinking and learn new coping methods to avoid relapse.11

Types of behavioral treatments for alcoholism include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, dialectal behavioral therapy, contingency management, marital and family counseling, and 12-step facilitation.11 Along with these therapies, patients may be administered certain treatment medications as part of a long-term alcohol recovery strategy.11

There are three medications that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used to treat alcohol dependence.11 These medications include acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone.11 Though they all work differently, each has been shown to decrease continued drinking behavior. When taken regularly, these medications can be a valuable component of managing the chronic issue of alcoholism, similar to how daily medications may be used to manage other chronic health conditions such as asthma or diabetes.11

Determining the Right Treatment

If you or someone you care about is ready to seek treatment for alcoholism, there are a few questions you may want to consider when researching alcohol rehab facilities:11

  • How does the program work with individuals who have relapsed? Because relapse is often part of the recovery process, it’s important to know what the protocol is in these situations so you can know what to expect.
  • Is treatment tailored to fit each individual based on their unique needs? It’s important to know that your personal needs within this process are met in order to increase your chances for success.
  • What kind of treatment does the program offer? This will help you to determine if the facility only uses one approach to treatment, if they use a variety of current methods, if they offer medications with their treatment, and if they address co-occurring mental health disorders.
  • Is treatment success measured? Knowing this information may help you determine which program resonates with you the most.

As operator of Alcoholrehab.com, American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers a toll-free hotline so that you may speak with our admissions navigators about your treatment options any time of day. AAC operates a nationwide network of treatment centers and is dedicated to making recovery accessible to all persons in need.

Our approach to alcoholism treatment is rooted in evidence-based therapies and tailored to fit each individual’s unique needs. With locations across the country, we’re able to provide a number of unique settings as your backdrop for recovery. We are also equipped to treat co-occurring disorders throughout our network of facilities via an integrated approach to treatment.

To improve your overall experience, patients can also participate in a number of alternative therapies such as yoga, equine, music and art therapies while at one of our facilities. Depending on location, these programs are open to all patients and are overseen by licensed therapists. 

If you’d like to learn more about our approach to treatment, facility locations and/or what treatment may involve, call us today. All calls are 100% confidential and there’s no pressure to make a decision right away. We’re here for you and are excited to discuss your path to recovery with you. 


[1]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.

[2]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined.

[3]. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Alcohol Use Disorder. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol 5; 490-491.

[4]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2007). Alcohol Metabolism: An Update. Alcohol Alert, No. 72.

[5]. Herron, J.H, & Brennan, T.K. (2015). The ASAM Essentials of Addiction Medicine, Second Edition.

[6]. Piano M. R. (2017). Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular SystemAlcohol Research: current reviews38(2), 219–241.

[7]. National Health Services. (2018). Alcohol Misuse.

[8]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.

[9]. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. (2020). Alcohol Withdrawal.

[10]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Types of Treatment Programs.

[11]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.