Alcohol Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 14, 2022

Alcohol addiction occurs when a person cannot stop misusing alcohol regardless of the detrimental effects it has on your mental and physical health. Treatment options for alcohol abuse include detox, dual diagnosis treatment, and counseling.

Alcohol Addiction, Abuse, And Treatment Options

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there are nearly 15 million Americans 12 years of age or older that have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Of these, only seven percent of people 18 and older who habitually misuse alcohol received treatment in the past year.

Additionally, alcohol abuse is a factor in the death of thousands of people every year in the United States due to injuries, liver disease, stroke, and more.

Luckily, there are several ways to both identify and treat AUD.

This includes through the use of evidence-based treatment methods such as medically monitored detoxification, 12-step programs, counseling, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

What Is An “Alcoholic”?

An alcoholic is known as someone who is habitually intoxicated, drinks daily, and consumes larger quantities of alcohol than is recommended. Alcoholics typically cannot control their alcohol consumption voluntarily.

The term “alcoholic” was used often in the past but is currently viewed as outdated and stigmatizing to people with the disease of alcohol addiction.

Learn more about the definition of an alcoholic.

The Causes Of Alcohol Addiction

When ingested, alcohol targets the pleasure centers of the brain and triggers the release of the chemical dopamine, and affects serotonin levels as well.

Over time, the brain strongly associates alcohol use with euphoria and relaxation.

You may be at higher risk for developing AUD if you have a family history of substance abuse, you drink alcohol frequently, or you engaged in underage drinking before the age of 15.

Signs And Symptoms Of An Alcohol Addiction

The symptoms of alcohol dependence will differ depending on the severity of addiction, a person’s state of health, and other factors.

Below are some of the most common behavioral and physical signs that someone may be addicted to alcohol use.

Plugging Alcohol

Plugging alcohol, or “butt-chugging”, is the practice of inserting alcohol into the anus using a funnel, rubber tubing, or alcohol-soaked tampon.

The purpose of this is to bypass the digestive system and allow the alcohol to be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.

Read about plugging alcohol.

Binge Drinking And Heavy Drinking

Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 or higher. For the average adult, this means consuming five or more drinks over the course of two hours.

Heavy drinking is defined as when someone has had five or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month. Heavy drinking is a major risk factor for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Learn more about binge drinking vs. heavy drinking.

Drinking Household Products

People with AUD may turn to drinking mouthwash or drinking cooking wine in an attempt to get drunk. While intoxication is possible when drinking household products such as these, it can lead to dangerous side effects.

Read about the dangers of drinking nail polish remover.

Alcohol Tolerance

When someone drinks alcohol regularly, their body may become tolerant to the effects of alcohol. This will reduce the effects of intoxication and require more alcohol to be ingested to feel anything.

Developing a high tolerance to alcohol may be a sign of alcohol addiction. Tolerance can be influenced by factors such as body size, weight, genetics, and sex.

Learn about alcohol tolerance.

Common Side Effects Of Alcohol Abuse

The effects of alcohol vary from person to person. When alcohol is abused over time there are several physical side effects that can affect your body both inside and out.

“Alcoholic Nose”

An alcoholic nose, also known as a drinker’s nose, is a skin condition defined by a bumpy, red, swollen appearance of the nose.

This condition is called rhinophyma, a type of rosacea that causes chronic skin inflammation. While alcohol does not cause rhinophyma, it can exacerbate flare-ups.

Learn more about alcoholic nose.

Joint Pain

Alcohol misuse may lead to several joint and bone conditions that cause pain. This is due to how excessive alcohol consumption increases the rate of swelling and inflammation in the body.

Over the long term, people who abuse alcohol may develop conditions such as osteopenia (weakening of the bones), and gout, which occurs when there is a buildup of uric acid in the joints.

Read about the effects of alcohol on joint pain.

Glassy Eyes

One of the tell-tale signs of alcohol abuse is the onset of glassy-looking eyes. This is caused by the way alcohol affects the central nervous system (CNS).

CNS depressants such as alcohol will slow down bodily functions such as blinking, which cause the eyes to dry out and appear glassy.

Learn more about glassy eyes from alcohol abuse.

Stages Of Alcohol Addiction

When a person starts abusing alcohol, they won’t immediately become addicted.

Developing an alcohol use disorder takes time, and the symptoms of addiction become increasingly dire the longer alcohol abuse occurs.

The four stages of alcohol addiction are as follows:

1.) Pre-Alcoholism

Pre-alcoholism occurs when a person switches from occasional drinking to drinking as a form of coping with negative emotions.

2.) Early Alcoholism

Over time, heavy drinking will lead to physically craving alcohol, and constantly thinking about how and when they’ll get more of it.

3.) Middle Alcoholism

Middle alcoholism occurs when drinking begins to severely impact a person’s life. The signs of addiction can no longer be denied by friends or family members.

4.) Late Alcoholism

When a person completely prioritizes drinking over everything else, late-stage alcoholism begins. Physical health is severely impacted, and confusion, tremors, and other withdrawal symptoms may occur if drinking is abruptly stopped.

Learn more about the stages of alcohol addiction.

Dangers Of Alcohol Addiction

There are several short-term and long-term health risks associated with alcohol addiction. These can lead to the development of chronic diseases and death.

Dangers of chronic alcohol abuse include:

  • alcohol-induced nervous system damage
  • alcoholic hepatitis
  • cirrhosis
  • violent behavior
  • injuries
  • weakening of the immune system
  • various types of cancer
  • fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women
  • mental disorders
  • cardiomyopathy
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure
  • fatty liver
  • poor memory

By avoiding excessive drinking, you can greatly reduce your risk of developing these potentially life-threatening health risks.

Signs Of An Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol overdose can occur when a large amount of alcohol is consumed over a short period of time.

The body may not be able to continue basic functions such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature.

Symptoms of alcohol overdose include:

  • vomiting
  • blackouts
  • confusion
  • clammy skin
  • dulled responses
  • low body temperature

If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning, it’s important to seek the help of an emergency healthcare provider immediately.

Learn more about alcohol overdose.

Alcohol And Polysubstance Abuse

Polysubstance abuse refers to the use of more than one drug within a short period of time.

Combining alcohol with substances such as prescription pain medications, opioids, or benzodiazepines are all examples of polysubstance abuse.

Substances that are commonly consumed with alcohol:

People who use alcohol with illicit or prescription drugs, particularly other depressants, will put themselves at increased risk of serious health issues and overdose death.

Alcohol Addiction And Co-Occurring Disorders

The coexistence of a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder (SUD) is known as a co-occurring disorder.

Some of the most common co-occurring disorders seen with alcohol abuse include:

  • alcohol misuse and bipolar disorder
  • alcohol misuse and generalized anxiety disorder
  • alcohol misuse and schizophrenia
  • alcohol misuse and mood disorders
  • alcohol misuse and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • alcohol misuse and depression

Withdrawal Symptoms That Occur With Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol withdrawal refers to the symptoms that may occur when someone with dependence on alcohol suddenly stops drinking.

Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • disorientation
  • seizures
  • hand tremors
  • intense cravings
  • insomnia
  • visual hallucinations
  • high fever and excessive sweating
  • delirium tremens

The more regularly someone drinks, the more likely you are to develop potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Read more about alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Timeline For Alcohol Detox

It may take up to seven days for the detoxification process to flush all the alcohol-related toxins from the body. The timeline for alcohol detox can be divided into four stages.

Alcohol detox stages:

  • stage 1: first six to 12 hours after the last drink
  • stage 2: 12 to 48 hours
  • stage 3: up to 72 hours after the last drink
  • stage 4: three to five days

People who have ingested alcohol for a long time, or who have developed severe alcohol dependence may experience long-lasting withdrawal side effects.

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) can cause symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and bouts of depression for weeks or months after you stop drinking.

Learn more about the alcohol detox timeline.

Tips For Quitting Drinking

Quitting drinking can be difficult, but with a combination of determination, evidence-based treatment, and personal accountability, you can overcome alcohol abuse.

Some of the most common tips for alcohol cessation are:

  • evaluating drinking habits
  • replacing drinking with other, healthier habits
  • gradually reducing the amount of alcohol consumed daily
  • finding support to stop drinking alcohol

Learn more about how to stop alcohol use.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Addiction

Evidence-based addiction treatment programs are one of the most effective ways to face alcohol dependence and addiction.

Treatment services may include:

  • medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • medically monitored detoxification
  • residential treatment
  • outpatient treatment
  • dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders
  • intervention services
  • psychiatry services
  • individual and group therapy
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • case management and wellness services
  • peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • aftercare

Attending an inpatient or outpatient alcohol rehab program will help you or your loved one address the underlying causes of your addiction, and avoid potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

FAQs For Alcohol Addiction

Find answers below to any additional questions you may have about alcohol use disorder and treatment.

Alcohol addiction is considered a chronic disease of the brain that’s characterized by compulsive and impulsive behavior, as well as relapse.

Read more about alcoholism as a disease.

People with mild alcohol use disorder may be able to successfully detox at home, but it’s strongly recommended that you detox under the supervision of medical professionals.

If you find that you’re not able to keep up with responsibilities at home, work, or school, or are experiencing strained relationships due to alcohol use, you may need to seek help.

Learn about alcohol abuse screening and assessments.

Find Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment Today

Call our helpline today for more information on drug abuse or alcohol treatment. Our behavioral health professionals can put you on the path to alcohol addiction recovery.

Additionally, our team can assist you or your family member in finding a treatment provider that works for you. We can also provide referrals for medical advice.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 14, 2022
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