Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is one of the most common and dangerous addictions in America. Unbeknownst to many, alcohol is a strong and addictive depressant drug that can cause considerable damage to an individual’s brain and body when it is consumed chronically and excessively. Millions of Americans can drink alcohol without becoming addicted to it, or suffering negative consequences as a result of drinking. However for the nearly 18 million people in the United States, according to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who do suffer at the hands of alcohol, alcoholism is an addiction that is unique from other addictions in many ways.
Alcoholism is Difficult to Differentiate From Alcohol Abuse
Since alcohol is legal above the US drinking age of 21, easily accessible, and widely accepted in most social situations, consuming alcohol does not have the negative stigma associated with most other drugs of addiction. Even prescription drugs can create a negative stigma because any individual who uses them should have a medical justification for doing so, otherwise, he or she is abusing drugs and therefore carries a negative image.
Alcohol consumption is so massively integrated into our society that most people think nothing of an individual who drinks, or becomes intoxicated. For this reason, alcoholism can develop without the individual, or those around him/her taking notice.
Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking alcohol that results in having one or more of the following situations in a 12-month period ¹.
- Failure to fulfill major responsibilities (i.e. work, school, personal, financial and family obligations)
- Consumption of alcohol in dangerous or risky situations like driving or operating dangerous machinery
- Experiencing recurring negative situations as a result of drinking, like DUI charges or physical harm or injury to oneself or others while drinking
- Continuation of consuming alcohol despite negative consequences
This list describes situations that are identical to the effects of alcohol addiction; however, there is really only one major difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction, and that is the physical dependence on alcohol. Being dependent on alcohol requires that an individual experience withdrawal symptoms when he or she is not consuming alcohol, and unlike almost every other drug, these symptoms can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly in many cases. Most drugs of addiction produce unpleasant, and even painful withdrawal symptoms, but are not life threatening. Alcohol withdrawal, however, can claim lives if the addiction is severe and withdrawal occurs without medical supervision. Some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range from moderate to severe and life threatening, and include:
Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
- Nervousness or jumpiness
- Vivid and disturbing dreams
- Mood swings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Clammy hands
- Severe headache
- Mild fever
- Rapid heart beat
- Hand tremors
Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
- Hallucinations (auditory and visual)
- Delirium Tremens (DTs) – Combination of confusion and hallucinations
- High fever
Although these symptoms can be deadly, they are the differentiating factors between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction, and often the individual who is suffering is the first one aware of alcohol addiction when he or she experiences withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol.
For the nearly 18 million Americans who engage in alcohol abuse, the consequences can be devastating. However, it is far less likely that one who abuses alcohol will be cautioned until such time that he or she becomes addicted to alcohol. The initial warning signs of alcohol abuse that may be developing into addiction can be subtle, especially in a group of people who also drink alcohol. It is important to understand that alcohol abuse can be just as serious as alcohol addiction, and is no more acceptable or safe for any individual. Some signs of alcohol abuse that may be developing into alcohol addiction can be:
- Repeated failed attempts to cut down or stop drinking alcohol
- Frequent episodes of drinking beyond intoxication and experiencing blackouts (losing memory of events while drinking)
- Drinking more alcohol to tolerate a hangover after drinking the night before
- Drinking alcohol at inappropriate times and events (i.e. school, work, business meetings, early in the morning)
- Use of other drugs with alcohol to enhance its effects
- Becoming violent and/or hostile when drinking alcohol
- Increased isolation (drinking alone)
Although it may be difficult to notice the initial signs of a developing alcohol addiction, the signs of alcohol abuse are relatively overt. A common problem with intercepting an impending alcohol addiction is that the majority of people around an individual who is at risk are drinking with him or her, and unable to see the danger signs, as they may be at risk themselves.
Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
In addition to the social and legal repercussions of alcohol abuse and addiction are the physical effects on the brain and body. It has been said for many years that drinking alcohol kills brain cells, and alcohol can do that, and so much more. Depending largely on a few factors, heavy and chronic alcohol consumption can have devastating, and some permanent effects on the brain. The main factors that determine the extent of potential damage include:
- The amount and frequency of alcohol consumed
- The age of the individual when he or she began drinking, and how long he or she has been drinking
- An individual’s age, gender, family history of alcoholism, genetic background and education level
- Whether there may have been prenatal exposure to alcohol
- The general health of an individual
One of the more noted effects of heavy alcohol consumption is memory loss, which most commonly occurs in the form of blackouts. Blackouts occur when an individual drinks so heavily that he or she does not remember parts of, or entire events while drinking (usually the night before). Alarmingly, many individuals who experience blackouts later learn that they participated in risky behavior during the time of their memory lapse, which includes activities like unprotected sex, driving, and fighting or vandalism. Long-term excessive alcohol consumption can also result in permanent memory loss and learning impairment.
It is well known that heavy drinking over an extended period of time can lead to liver damage and cirrhosis of the liver. As an important organ responsible for cleaning alcohol from the body, when the liver is damaged from drinking alcohol, and consumption continues, an individual is at extremely high risk for acute alcohol poisoning, which can lead to coma and death.
Cirrhosis of the liver can also affect the brain by potentially causing a condition called hepatic encephalopathy. Hepatic encephalopathy can cause a series of debilitating issues such as
- Sleep disturbances
- Mood and personality dysfunction
- Shortened attention span
- Coordination problems
Alcohol Detox and Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Alcohol is a very dangerous drug, and when an individual becomes addicted to it, he or she must get treatment as soon as possible for any chance at survival. As with any addiction, alcoholism is progressive, and continues to get worse with each passing day without treatment and sobriety. The first step for any alcoholic to begin a path to health and freedom from addiction is to admit that he or she has a problem and needs the help. Depending on the individual situation, this first step may take more time and effort for some than for others. Since prolonged and excessive consumption of alcohol does cause brain damage, and literally shrinks the brain of an alcoholic, cognitive abilities are often deficient, and it may be very difficult for family members and loved ones to convince an alcoholic that he or she needs help. In this case, intervention may be a valuable asset. It is not uncommon for families of alcoholics to turn to the help of an addiction professional and develop a plan to persuade their addicted loved one to get help and return to health.
Once an alcoholic has admitted that he or she needs help and is willing to get that help, the next step is detoxification to remove the alcohol and any other drugs from his or her body. This process can be dangerous, or even deadly without medical supervision and care.
No matter what the extent of drinking, always get medical consultation prior to attempting to withdraw from alcohol.
In moderate to severe cases of alcohol addiction, medical staff will monitor an individual to ensure the avoidance of complications with the detox, and administer medication to ease severe withdrawal symptoms and facilitate sleep throughout the process. Typically, an alcohol detoxification takes 1-2 weeks, which depends on the individual, the severity and length of his or her alcoholism, and any other medical complications that may be present and need to be addressed.
After the detoxification is completed for an alcoholic, it is imperative that he or she participates in an addiction treatment program. Not only can he/she learn about alcoholism, and its effects, but also understand how to recognize dangerous people, places, and things that may jeopardize his or her sobriety. Since alcohol is abundant, accepted, and legal in the United States, there will be rare occasions without its presence, and this is why it is so important for recovering alcoholics to have a solid foundation in recovery before returning to their home and attempting to stay sober.
Get Help for Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is a fatal condition, but addiction treatment has worked for millions of alcoholics who remain in recovery year after year. The key is to find an addiction treatment program that works for you, or your addicted loved one. A singular approach has been proven ineffective for every individual, which is why rehab programs today offer a wide variety of modalities and spiritual tracks. The goal of any rehabilitation program is to provide the knowledge and tools needed for each addicted individual to be empowered to the point at which he or she can remain sober once the program has been completed. This goal must be attained on an individual basis, determined by each person’s needs, preferences, and belief system.
If you, or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, please call us now and speak with a certified counselor about your needs, preferences, goals, and belief system. We will work with you to narrow down the dozens of choices for addiction rehab programs to find the one that will work for you, or your loved one.
We understand the horrors of addiction, and with a condition as dangerous and fatal as alcoholism is, there is no time to waste searching in vain, and there may not be another opportunity to find the right treatment program. This is why we are dedicated to ensuring that you know all the facts, and make an educated decision about the treatment program that will work, based on your individual needs. Please don’t wait for alcoholism to get any worse. We are here to help, and we will help you find the rehab program that is best for your situation. Call now.