Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction rewires your brain so that you need to use the substance to function normally. Alcohol addiction can harm your physical health, mental state, relationships and more. Heredity has an impact on your likelihood of developing alcohol addiction.

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Those who suffer from alcohol addiction have a physiological dependence on the substance. They will have significant side effects from not using alcohol on a regular basis.

Doctors define alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), as using alcohol in greater quantities than intended with an increase in physical tolerance to the substance. There are withdrawal symptoms associated with not using alcohol.

People with alcoholism may have an ongoing desire to stop drinking, but this is rarely accomplished alone. They may spend an inordinate amount of time obtaining and drinking alcohol. They also have a decreased recognition of the adverse effect that alcohol is having on their health, mental state and life in general.

Alcohol addiction comes with a great psychological and social price. It can affect your job security, physical health, relationships and legal status.

Heredity plays a role in who becomes addicted to alcohol and who doesn’t. If your parents or grandparents had a history of alcohol abuse or addiction, you run a higher risk of developing an addiction as well. 

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol addiction is not necessarily the same thing as alcohol abuse. There are many people who abuse alcohol but are not addicted to the drug. Abusers of alcohol drink heavily and are unconcerned with the results of their use.

Alcohol Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Alcohol has short-term effects and long-term effects. The major short-term effects come from the consumption of ethanol, otherwise known as “drinking alcohol.” It is a well-known central nervous depressant even in small doses.

Symptoms begin at low blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of less than 0.1%. Short-term effects include mild euphoria, decreased anxiety and enhancement of mood.

Higher BAC concentrations lead to:

  • Sedation
  • Poor balance
  • Visual impairment
  • Decreased reaction time
  • Confusion

Severe overdoses of alcohol with a BAC of between 0.25% and 0.8% may lead to:

  • Loss of bladder control
  • Unconsciousness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Respiratory depression
  • Coma
  • Subsequent death

Chronic heavy alcohol consumption has many health effects on the mind and body.

Examples of negative health effects include:

  • Alcohol-related hepatitis can persist from chronic ethanol consumption, leading to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and liver cancer.
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy can occur from heart muscle damage along with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Thiamine deficiency from chronic use can affect memory.
  • Certain cancers have an increased risk of occurrence with alcohol abuse, including head and neck cancers and liver cancer.
  • Mental impairment may occur, including memory loss and recurrent blackouts.

Chronic alcohol abuse is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol addiction can be treated with either outpatient or inpatient treatment at an alcohol treatment center. Treatment starts with detoxification and proceeds with several kinds of treatment strategies.  Many alcoholics can undergo short-term treatment on an inpatient or outpatient basis and can then participate in a twelve-step program for long-term alcohol abstinence.

There are several medications available to help alcoholics avoid problems with alcohol withdrawal and alcohol cravings.

Naltrexone

Naltrexone blocks opioid receptors in the brain that are involved in the cravings for alcohol. It works in some alcoholics to prevent relapses.

Acamprosate

Acamprosate (Campral®) is active in the glutamate and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter systems, which results in a reduction of withdrawal symptoms like dysphoria, restlessness, anxiety and insomnia.

Disulfiram

Disulfiram (Antabuse®) blocks ethanol degradation so that acetaldehyde builds up. This leads to very unpleasant symptoms when drinking alcohol and decreases the chance that an alcoholic will have a positive experience when drinking alcohol.

Topiramate

Topiramate is a GABA and glutamate-influencing drug that is an off-label medication to reduce relapses in alcoholics.

Author:Kent Hoffman
Kent Hoffman

Kent Hoffman, D.O. has been practicing medicine for nearly 30 years. He is board-certified to practice addiction medicine and family medicine. Dr. Hoffman gets to know his patients on a first-name basis to provide compassionate and professional health care.

Last modified: 01/14/2019