Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder, commonly known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, is the use of alcohol in an unhealthy or unsafe way. People with alcohol use disorder drink large amounts (daily, too much, or too often) despite the problems it causes. Someone with alcohol use disorder may have withdrawal symptoms if they do not drink.

Key takeaways:
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    Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that involves the use of alcohol in an unhealthy or unsafe way.
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    People who have alcohol use disorder cannot stop drinking easily.
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    Psychological problems or mental health issues can lead to alcohol use and may complicate the treatment process.
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    Alcohol use often begins in the teenage years, but alcohol use disorder often occurs in the 20s and 30s.
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    Treatment includes detoxification where withdrawal symptoms are medically managed.

What is alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition in which someone overuses alcohol. People who have alcohol use disorder cannot stop drinking easily. It is a brain disease that requires medical and psychological treatment.

Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe. Some people develop it over a short period of time, but it may take longer for others. Often, people drink because they feel the urge, the need, or begin to have withdrawal symptoms. Their body begins to crave alcohol.

This can be a problem for many people. It causes physical, emotional, and mental health problems. It can also harm their relationships, work, and social lives. People may also find themselves in legal trouble or other bad situations. But, in many instances, their need for alcohol takes priority.

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic (long-term) disease that people cannot control. It is a dependency. People with alcohol dependency are not weak. They need help to overcome the problem.

What causes alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol use disorder can stem from many things. It can be genetic. Social drinking can lead to increased drinking that becomes problematic.

Psychological problems or mental health issues can lead to alcohol use. For some people, alcohol is an easier outlet than dealing with their problems. Traumatic events in childhood or adulthood have led people to turn to using alcohol to cope.

Who’s at risk of developing alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is common and affects over 14.5 million Americans ages 12 or older. Alcohol use often begins in the teenage years, but alcohol use disorder often develops in the 20s and 30s. It can occur at any age.

Other risks include:

  • Drinking on a regular basis for an extended period.
  • Binge drinking often.
  • Beginning to drink at an early age.
  • Family history of alcohol use disorder.
  • Depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems.
  • History of emotional, physical, sexual, or other forms of trauma.
  • Bariatric surgery.

Signs of alcohol use disorder

Signs of this condition can include:

  • Feeling irritable when not drinking.
  • Having an urge for alcohol when not drinking.
  • Struggling at work, school, or in relationships.
  • Not being able to stop drinking once you start.
  • Blacking out or not remembering what happens when you drink.
  • Obsessing over alcohol or your next drink.
  • Putting yourself in unsafe situations when drinking, like driving or having unsafe sex.
  • Giving up things you enjoy in place of drinking.
  • Drinking even though it causes harm to you or those you care about.
  • Being unable to control the amount you drink.
  • Wanting to cut back or stop drinking but not being able to.
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking.
  • Having frequent hangovers.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you’re not drinking.

How much is too much?

Too much is not the same for everyone. It can also depend on how much is too much. A standard drink is one 12 oz can of regular beer, one 5 oz glass of wine, or 1.5 oz of liquor.

  • Too much for a woman is more than 3 drinks at once or drinking more than 7 days a week.
  • Too much for a man is more than 4 drinks at once or drinking more than 14 drinks in a week.

Diagnosing alcohol use disorder

Have a discussion with your healthcare provider about your use of alcohol. Diagnosis of alcohol use disorder is rather simple. Let your provider know how long you’ve been drinking, how much your drink, and how often. This will help them make the diagnosis.

Your provider may ask questions about your family and social history and family status. They may ask about work or school. This appointment will include a physical exam and possibly a mental health exam. Your provider may look for alcohol-related health problems if there are concerns.

Treating alcohol use disorder

Treatment for alcohol use disorder can depend on what you need. Treatment can include individual or group counseling, outpatient treatment, or inpatient therapy. Therapies are necessary for all treatment levels. It can be difficult to stop alcohol use without mental health support.

Treatment programs offer some of the following interventions:

  • Detoxification programs where withdrawal symptoms are medically managed. This can take 2-7 days.
  • Education on how to cope with stress and change behaviors.
  • Counseling and goal setting to assist with avoidance of alcohol.
  • Mental health counseling in group, individual, or family settings.
  • Support groups to connect with others in recovery from alcohol use disorder.
  • Medications to help discourage you from drinking. These medications do not cure alcohol use disorder, but they can make alcohol taste unpleasant to help deter you from drinking.
  • Treatment for underlying mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety.

Is it preventable?

Prevention starts with avoiding alcohol use when risks are present. This is different for everyone. Be sure not to exceed the number of recommended drinks in one sitting or on a consistent basis.

Watch teens for signs of alcohol use or abuse. This is an ideal time to help prevent problems from arising. Look for:

  • Loss of interest in activities and personal appearance.
  • Changes in relationships.
  • Poor grades.
  • Trouble in school.
  • Defensive behavior.
  • Mood swings.


A common complication that can develop from alcohol use disorder is withdrawal. Withdrawal occurs when a person’s normally-high blood alcohol level decreases. Signs of withdrawal include:

  • Sweating.
  • Shaking.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Agitation.
  • Restlessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Confusion.
  • Seizures.
  • Delirium tremens.
  • Coma or death.

Alcohol use can affect your health. Use can lead to other diseases like:

  • Liver diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis.
  • Heart disease and related conditions such as high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, heart failure, and stroke.
  • Hypoglycemia.
  • Digestive issues, including gastritis, pancreatitis, and ulcers.
  • Sexual dysfunction (erectile dysfunction or disrupted menstrual cycles).
  • Birth defects such as miscarriage and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
  • Eye problems.
  • Dementia.
  • Bone damage.
  • Cancer.

Alcohol use disorder is a common problem that can start anytime from someone’s teens to their thirties. There are many factors that can impact why someone starts drinking. Depending on how often, how much, and how frequently someone drinks, they may be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. It is very difficult to stop or control drinking alone. It can lead to many health problems.


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