Alcohol Abuse: Symptoms, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Alcohol abuse by man with bottle

1Overview

Many individuals regard drinking alcohol as a pleasant way to relax and unwind once in a while. However, alcohol is a potentially addictive substance. In fact, many people find themselves drinking out of control until they endanger themselves and others.

When a person can’t stop drinking regardless of the consequences, it’s termed as alcohol abuse. For most adults, moderate alcohol use, which is described as no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink for women is harmless. Drinking too much might be dubbed as alcohol abuse, which is a drinking pattern that leads to recurrent adverse consequences.

Individuals who abuse alcohol may have difficulties fulfilling roles in school, work or family. In fact, they are the ones who face drinking-related legal problems like driving under the influence of alcohol or have relationship problems because of their drinking habits.

Alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease, and when it’s not treated accordingly, it may lead to alcohol dependence or alcoholism, which is serious, progressive and potentially-fatal.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 15.1 million adults who are 18 years old and above had alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder in 2015 in the United States. That’s about 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women.

This is also not just a problem among adults but in teenagers too. The number of adolescents having AUD is increasing by the minute. This is considered a disease and it needs urgent medical treatment.

However, about 70 percent of American adults always drink at low-risk levels or do not drink at all. An estimated 28 percent drink at levels that can put them at risk for alcohol-related problems.

Moderate drinking or having a drink or two occasionally is harmless, but binge drinking like there’s no tomorrow could cause a string of complications – physical and psychological. There are ways to spot a person with alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder. Sometimes, the signs and symptoms are observed by the family members, friends of partners. The person who has the alcohol-related problem would usually deny that there is indeed a problem.

2Symptoms

Alcohol abuse is easy to spot and here are the signs that a person has this health condition:

  • Drinking when it’s dangerous like while driving
  • Interpersonal problems with family, friends or colleagues as a result of alcohol drinking
  • Frequent and excessive drinking
  • Legal problems related to drinking

The other signs of possible alcohol abuse include:

  • Decreased involvement in activities
  • Loss of interest in school or work
  • Depression
  • Lack of interest in family and friend
  • Restlessness
  • Preoccupation with drinking
  • Inability to control drinking
  • Violent behavior
  • Erratic behavior

3Risk Factors

Anyone may suffer from alcohol abuse. However, there are people who are predisposed to the condition because of certain risk factors.

Age

Individuals who started drinking at an early age are at an increased risk of alcohol use disorder. This condition may begin in teens, but it could become alcohol abuse when they reach their 20s and 30s.

Adolescents are also at a high risk of drinking alcohol because of peer pressure and defiant attitudes toward authorities like their parents or teachers. Those at a heightened risk of developing alcohol abuse are those with a family history of alcoholism, history of abuse, family violence, stressful life events, and depression.

Gender

Men are at a greater risk of alcohol abuse. However, over the past years, the number of women becoming alcoholics has been increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17 percent of men and 8 percent of women are considered alcohol dependents at some points in their lives.

Steady Prolonged Drinking

Drinking excessively over time or binge drinking on a regular basis may lead to alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder.

Family History of Alcoholism

People who have parents or family members who have alcoholism or suffered from alcohol-related problems are more vulnerable to developing the same problem with alcohol.

Mental and Behavioral Disorders

People with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression are more likely to suffer from alcoholism, smoking and other forms of addiction. Moreover, many people who have alcohol abuse may also have accompanying mental health and behavioral disorders.

History of Abuse

People who were abused as a child are at a heightened risk of substance abuse when they grow up.

Social and Cultural Factors

Having friends or a partner who drinks on a regular basis may influence you to drink. When this habit goes on for a long time, you are at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder.

4Complications

Alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder may lead to severe consequences and complications including:

5Diagnosis

Usually, the family members of the person with alcohol abuse would report the signs they observe.  Often, the person with alcohol use disorder may not realize the problem, and when they’re confronted about it, they usually deny that they’re having alcohol-related problems. Some signs may go unnoticed such as family or relationship problems, driving under the influence of drugs, loss of a job and blackouts.

The doctor can conduct various diagnostic tests to determine if a person has alcohol abuse. Sometimes, the doctor will also conduct an interview about past medical history, personal practices, and behaviors when the person has been drinking.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – V (DSM-V), alcohol abuse is defined as:

  • A maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to two or more of the following in a 12-month period:
  • Recurrent substance use that may lead to alcohol-related problems in school, family, and work. These include suspensions, absences or expulsion. He or she may also neglect the household, especially the children.
  • A strong craving or urge to drink alcohol or use a substance
  • Recurrent substance use despite being in situations which are physically-hazardous like driving or operating machinery.
  • Continued substance use even though it has already affected the relationships with others like having a fight with the spouse, etc.

The doctor will mostly rely on the interviews with family members and self-report questionnaires to assess the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.

  • Consequences of drinking
  • Perceptions of the drinking behavior

6Treatment

People who wish to overcome an alcohol-related problem such as alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder, there are some treatments to choose from.

The treatment may also involve a short intervention, counseling, an outpatient program or in worse cases, a residential inpatient stay. The goal of treatment is to reduce alcohol consumption and bring life back to normal, healthily and gradually.

Detoxification (Detox) – Abruptly discontinuing alcohol abuse may lead to withdrawal symptoms like agitation, tremors, and insomnia. It can be dangerous that’s why it is important to begin detoxification slowly and steadily. This may take about two to seven days, but if withdrawal symptoms emerge, you can take medicines the doctor will prescribe. Detox is usually done in an inpatient treatment center to prevent the serious effects of alcohol withdrawal.

Counseling – Individual or group counseling is important in people who are trying to overcome alcohol abuse. This will help you better understand the alcohol problem and support recovery from alcohol use. Family therapy can be a great help too because social support is the key to the recovery process.

Medicines – Oral medications, which should only be prescribed by a licensed doctor, are also given to those who want to stay sober and prevent alcohol consumption. A drug called disulfiram (Antabuse) is a popular medicine to help prevent you from drinking. However, it won’t cure alcohol disorder. It works by causing physical symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and flushing when you drink alcohol.

Residential Treatment Programs – One of the most effective ways to overcome alcohol abuse is to stay in a residential treatment facility where health care professionals closely monitor you. The program is tailored to your needs and case. There are a variety of treatments for you such as medications, counseling, and activities to help you curb your alcohol cravings.

7Outlook

Individuals who have alcohol abuse are at an increased risk of various complications that could take a toll on their lives. However, for those who seek treatment, these could be prevented. There are some who have completed treatment who may have an increased risk of relapse, but with the support of family and friends, they could overcome this problem permanently.

8Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: What Are the Differences?

When alcohol abuse goes out of hand, it could turn to alcoholism. Alcoholism is a full-blown addiction to alcohol wherein you become dependent on it. Not drinking alcohol could lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are similar, but the only difference is the severity of the symptoms. People with alcoholism has the following symptoms:

  • Losing control wherein, you cannot stop yourself from drinking too often even if you try your best
  • Drinking despite legal and personal problems
  • Allowing alcohol to dominate your daily responsibilities and activities