Alcohol Use Disorder: Signs, Effects, & Treatment Options

Written By: Facility Staff

Published Date:

Edited By: Editorial Team

Last Updated: May 7, 2024

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be challenging to spot in yourself, friends, and family because it manifests differently in each person. Additionally, many who have the condition are good at hiding it. 

Fortunately, compassionate help can guide people with AUD toward a healthier lifestyle. 

Read on to learn more about AUD and how alcohol abuse can turn into AUD. You will also learn about the causes of alcohol addiction, who is at risk for alcohol abuse, and more.

What to Know About Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

AUD is a medical condition where people find it difficult to control or stop alcohol consumption. People with AUD struggle to stop drinking, even when it causes physical and emotional harm to themselves and others. 

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism, affects a significant number of people. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 29.5 million people aged 12 and older had AUD in 2023.

Identifying AUD can be challenging because alcohol is legal, easy to access, and socially acceptable in the U.S. Often, friends and family may only discern the presence of AUD when symptoms are more severe. 

For example, you  may notice alcohol abuse if the person with AUD gives up or reduces work and social activities to use alcohol, is unable to limit the amount of alcohol they drink, and spends a lot of time drinking or getting alcohol.

Fortunately, people with AUD and their loved ones can find hope in treatment and support groups.

Top Facts on Alcohol Addiction

  • 12.6% of U.S. males aged 12 and older have AUD.
  • 8.5% of U.S. females aged 12 and older have AUD.
  • Alcohol addiction can cause short-term health risks such as injuries resulting from falls and car crashes and alcohol poisoning
  • Alcohol addiction can also cause long-term effects, including liver damage, dementia, liver disease, digestive problems, and various cancers.
  • AUD treatment may include medications, behavioral therapies such as counseling, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

How Alcohol Abuse Turns to Alcohol Use Disorder

Over time, alcohol abuse can turn into alcohol use disorder. Here’s a breakdown of how alcohol use can lead to addiction, from the first time someone drinks to the development and addiction cycle.

Why People Drink Alcohol

People often drink alcohol because it is budget-friendly and readily available. It is also socially acceptable and sometimes even expected when socializing in certain circles. 

Here are some common reasons why people drink alcohol:

  • To fit in with their co-workers, friends, and peers
  • To rebel against their parents and other authority figures
  • To help them relax 
  • To cure boredom
  • To self-medicate an emotional health, physical health, or mental health issue
  • To escape problems in their lives

Alcohol Misuse

Alcohol can activate the brain’s reward system, producing rewarding effects such as anxiety reduction and euphoria. 

With time, the repeated activation of the brain’s reward system will encourage the person to seek the rewarding effects of alcohol more frequently. 

As a result, the person has a higher chance of repeated consumption. Over time, they may not be able to feel happy or normal without alcohol.

Alcohol Addiction and Dependence

People who are addicted to alcohol are often dependent on it. Note, however, that despite sounding similar, alcohol addiction and dependence are distinct concepts.

Alcohol addiction is an emotional or mental dependence on alcohol. People with this condition have intense cravings and behaviors that revolve around desiring or looking for alcohol. 

Alcohol dependence is when someone is physically dependent on alcohol and experiences physical discomfort, such as withdrawal symptoms, if they don’t drink alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms can make it dangerous for someone to quit alcohol without help, leading to a vicious cycle of alcohol consumption.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction 

Alcohol addiction affects people differently, and there are various levels of AUD. Accordingly, AUD signs vary from one person to another.

Common signs of AUD include:
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when one suddenly stops drinking alcohol
  • Being unable to control the amount of alcohol one drinks
  • Missing school, work, social activities, and hobbies due to alcohol
  • Having a strong urge to drink alcohol
  • Using alcohol in dangerous situations, such as when swimming or driving
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal may happen when someone has been engaging in prolonged and heavy alcohol use and suddenly stops or greatly reduces their intake. It can happen within hours or several days later. 

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Problems sleeping
  • Hand tremors
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Seizures

Causes of Alcohol Addiction

The causes of alcohol addiction vary from person to person. Common causes of alcohol addiction include:

  • People who can “hold their liquor” could have a low level of response to alcohol. This can cause them to engage in heavy drinking and develop AUD. 
  • People who experience stimulating rather than sedative effects from drinking alcohol can start drinking heavily and develop AUD.
  • People with mental health conditions can develop AUD when they use alcohol for self-medication. 20 to 40% of people receiving treatment for anxiety have AUD, and up to 40% of people who have had major depressive disorder have AUD.

Who Is at Risk for Alcohol Addiction?

Risk factors are elements that increase someone’s propensity for developing a condition. They are not the same as causes. 

Causes indirectly or directly cause a condition, while risk factors only increase the likelihood that someone develops a condition.

The risk factors for alcohol addiction are:

  • Drinking at an early age: People who start drinking in adolescence or earlier are more likely to develop AUD. This is particularly true when young people frequently engage in binge drinking.
  • High levels of stress: Careers and life situations that create a lot of stress can cause people to develop AUD. 
  • Peer groups: People who are always around others who drink heavily have a higher chance of drinking heavily and developing AUD.
  • Family history of alcohol addiction: People who grow up with relatives who drink heavily are more likely to develop AUD since they may normalize heavy drinking and fail to spot symptoms of AUD.

Ways People Abuse Alcohol

There are several ways people can abuse alcohol: binge drinking, heavy drinking, and high-functioning alcoholism.

Binge Drinking

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to at least 0.08%.

A woman has engaged in binge drinking when she has four or more drinks within two hours, and a man has engaged in binge drinking if he has five or more drinks in the same timeframe.

For youth, three drinks for girls and three to five drinks for boys can amount to binge drinking, depending on their size and age.

Heavy Drinking

NIAAA defines heavy drinking as:

  • For women, four or more drinks per day or 8 or more drinks per week.
  • For men, five or more drinks per day or 15 or more drinks per week.
High-Functioning Alcoholism

AUD disorders manifest differently from person to person. High-functioning alcoholism occurs in someone whose drinking habits do not affect their job or personal life, but may meet other criteria that lead to an AUD diagnosis.

What Are the Stages of Alcohol Addiction?

There are several stages of alcohol addiction. However, people can go through these stages at different rates.

The stages of alcohol addiction are:

  1. Binge drinking and alcohol intoxication: AUD can start when someone starts drinking with the intent to become intoxicated. 
  2. Alcohol withdrawal: After binge drinking repeatedly, a person may start experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they do not drink for some time.
  3. Alcohol use obsession and addiction: People in the later stages of AUD are usually obsessed by their addiction. By this point, their alcohol use is probably affecting their relationships and life in obvious ways. For example, they may prioritize binge drinking over going to work on time and reaching out to family and friends.

What Are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse and substance use disorder can cause short-term effects, such as memory loss and dizziness. However, over time, it can also cause long-term effects, some of which can be life-threatening.

Short Term Effects of Alcohol

In the short term, alcohol can cause euphoria and numb negative feelings. 

However, it can also cause short-term side effects that can lead to accidents and affect personal and job relationships. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drunk driving takes 32 lives every day across the U.S.

Short-term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Blackouts
  • Dizziness
  • Memory problems
  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Vision issues

Long Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol addiction can also cause long-term complications and health issues, many of which can change one’s life forever.

Long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease such as cirrhosis
  • Liver cancer
  • Mental health problems
  • Digestive issues
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Seizures
  • Heart disease
  • Compromised brain function

Top Treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder

AUD can cause a range of short and long-term health consequences. Fortunately, there are several evidence-based programs and treatments for AUD.

Alcohol Detoxification

Alcohol detoxification or detox is a period of medical treatment during which counselors and other health professionals help a person with AUD to overcome psychological and physical dependence on alcohol.

Patients receiving alcohol detox are usually required to travel to a treatment facility or hospital for daily treatment sessions. The sessions may be scheduled for evening or daytime hours. 

The initial assessment, which includes intake history, physical examination, ordering lab studies, and starting the detox treatment, typically takes one to two hours. The other sessions may take 15 to 30 minutes.

The duration of alcohol detoxification can range from 3 to 14 days. People receiving inpatient alcohol detox care are admitted to a hospital or another facility for 5 to 14 days.

Residential Alcohol Rehab

Residential alcohol rehab programs provide support and care 24/7. They require people to live at a facility and take time away from family, friends, work, and school so they can focus on getting the help they need for AUD.

The first step involves detoxification. The patient will then be moved to a room, where they will stay until the end of their program. 

Patients may receive therapies in group or individual formats. Group therapy involves discussing experiences and feelings with peers. Individual therapy focuses on nurturing recovery goals and addressing co-occurring issues such as anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Patients uncomfortable with living in a hospital or facility could consider joining partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)

PHP participants attend sessions at the facility for a large portion of the day, usually five days per week. They can then return home for the evenings and weekends.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment or MAT is typically used to treat opioid use disorders, but it can also be used to treat AUD. 

Medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat alcohol use disorders are acamprosate (Campral), naltrexone (Vivitrol), and disulfiram (Antabuse).

Outpatient Treatment

For those who don’t have the time, desire, or energy to join a residential alcohol rehab program, an outpatient treatment program may be a good choice. 

Outpatient programs allow AUD patients to receive treatment without being admitted to a facility or hospital. After receiving treatment before or after work or over the weekend, patients can return home.

There are several types of outpatient programs. Some provide daily sessions, while others only meet 1 to 3 times a week.

If someone you love needs a higher level of care than that provided by traditional outpatient services, they could consider joining an intensive outpatient program (IOP).

IOPs combine group therapy, medication management, individual therapy, and psycho-education. IOP patients may need to attend the program several hours a day for multiple times a week. 

Dual Diagnosis Care

A dual diagnosis treatment program can help if you have co-occurring disorders such as behavioral and mental health disorders. 

Examples of behavioral and mental health disorders that co-occur with AUD include anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy helps people deal with AUD by addressing the relationship between their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. The hope is that patients will develop and display healthier behaviors in the future.

Examples of behavioral therapy for AUD include dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Continuing Care for Alcohol Recovery

AUD patients who have successfully completed recovery must receive continuing care to prevent sliding back into their old habits.

Popular continuing care options include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a fellowship of people who help each other solve their drinking problems. These meetings are free, and there are no education or age requirements. Certain participants may be uncomfortable with AA since the program requires participants to admit they are powerless before a higher power.
  • Sober living houses, also called sober living environments or homes, provide structured living conditions for people who have just finished residential alcohol rehab programs and are not yet ready for an unsupervised lifestyle.
  • Continuing care includes services such as medication management, case management, continued therapy and counseling, and other kinds of AUD relapse prevention support. 

Learn About Research-Backed Alcohol Treatment at Hope’s Destiny

To learn more about AUD and other alcohol-related problems, Hope’s Destiny is here to help. We are your local wellness hub for community support, and we can help you and your family members take the first step to recovery.

Find healing, hope, and a bright future by contacting us. We offer partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and outpatient programs.

Further Reading

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Further Reading

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a major warning sign of alcohol use disorder?

There are several major warning signs of alcohol use disorder, including:

    • Feeling strong desires to drink alcohol
    • Failing to meet major obligations at home, school, or work due to frequent alcohol use
    • Continuing to use alcohol even though you know it is damaging your relationships and physical and mental health

How common is alcohol use disorder? 

The 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 29.5 million people (or 10.5% of the age group) 12 or older have alcohol use disorder. 

How is alcohol use disorder diagnosed?  

Health care professionals use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to determine whether someone has AUD and assess the condition’s severity.Anyone who suspects they have AUD should talk to their primary care physicians. If the physician suspects the individual has AUD, they may refer them to a mental health care provider.

Who is affected by alcohol use disorder? 

Anyone can be affected by alcohol use disorder. However, the following risk factors may make it more likely for someone to develop the condition:

    • A history of binge drinking
    • A history of drinking at an early age
  • Having loved ones with alcohol problems

How do you help someone with alcohol use disorder?  

Interventions from loved ones can help someone realize they have alcohol use disorder.If you believe someone has an AUD, you can point the person toward helpful tools and resources, such as sober living homes, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and continuing care. You can also offer to drive the person from and to these meetings. 

How long does it take to recover from alcohol addiction? 

How long it takes to recover from alcohol addiction depends on the person, how addicted they were, their environment, their treatments, how many times they relapse (if it happens), and many other factors.In some cases, it can take up to a year, or several years, to fully heal from alcohol addiction.


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Alcohol Use Disorder: Signs, Effects, & Treatment Options

Written mBy: Written by Placeholder

Published Date: 03/02/24

Last Updated: 03/02/24