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What is alcohol abuse?

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse is a general term that can refer to many things. It doesn’t just mean getting blackout drunk, either. There are many different types of alcohol abuse, and they all can have negative effects on your life. A person who drinks too much–and often–might have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as “alcoholism.” People with an AUD may continue drinking despite recognizing negative consequences from their drinking or experiencing cravings for alcohol. However, different people react differently to alcohol in their bodies, and some people are more likely than others to develop an AUD as a result of their drinking habits. If you think that you might be struggling with alcohol abuse, here is more information about the topic and how you can get help.

Unsafe Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol abuse is when someone drinks more than what is recommended for their health, safety, or social responsibilities. Alcohol abuse is not the same as alcoholism, although many people confuse the two terms. Alcoholism is a dependence on alcohol that interferes with a person’s health and social relationships. There are many different types of alcohol abuse. There is binge drinking, underage drinking, drinking while pregnant, driving under the influence of alcohol, drinking too quickly (“speed-drinking”), and using alcohol as a coping skill. People who drink too much may have an alcohol use disorder.

Types of Alcohol Abuse

There are many types of alcohol abuse. Some of these types are more serious than others, but all of them can result in negative consequences in your life.

  • Binge Drinking: Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more standard alcoholic drinks (about two drinks for women and three drinks for men) in about two hours. This type of heavy drinking is the most common form of alcohol abuse among people between 18 and 34 years of age and is responsible for many of the negative consequences associated with alcohol abuse. Binge drinking has many negative effects. It can lead to injuries, sexual assault and death.
  • Underage Drinking: Underage drinking is the consumption of alcohol by minors. In many places this is a criminal offense, and the penalties can be severe depending on the circumstances. Many people begin drinking at a young age. However, it is important to remember that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. This means that young people are at a higher risk of experiencing harmful effects from alcohol.
  • DUI: Driving under the influence is when a person drinks too much alcohol and then gets behind the wheel. Driving under the influence can result in serious injuries and even death. Alcohol Abuse During Pregnancy: Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can be harmful to both the mother and the baby. Drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects, miscarriage, and developmental issues in the child later in life.

Daily Limits for Drinking Alcohol to Avoid Alcohol Problems

While it is important to understand what alcohol abuse is and how it can harm your life, it’s also important to understand how much alcohol is too much. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a branch of the Mental health Services Administration, recommends that adult men drink no more than two standard drinks per day and that adult women drink no more than one drink a day. A standard drink is: 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content) 8 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content) 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (40% alcohol content) Some people metabolize alcohol differently than others, so there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for alcohol consumption. Keep in mind that even if you do not feel the effects of alcohol when you drink, you can still be dangerously drunk. This is especially true if you have a high body weight, are a woman, or are taking certain medications.

Binge Drinking: the Most Dangerous Type of Excessive Drinking

There are many different ways to drink too much, but most of them fall into two categories: binge drinking and heavy drinking. Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks during a single sitting for an adult woman and five or more in a single sitting for an adult man, while heavy drinking refers to drinking too much on a regular basis. Binge drinking is the most common type of excessive drinking, and it is especially dangerous because it is often associated with risky behavior like driving after drinking too much or other risky activities. Like excessive drinking in general, binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning (which can be fatal), have negative effects on your health in the long run, and damage your personal relationships.

Tips for Controlling Alcohol Use

If you think you might have a drinking problem, the first thing that you should do is be honest with yourself and with your doctor. In order to get a diagnosis for an AUD, you need to be open and honest about your alcohol use and the consequences that it has caused in your life. There are many ways that you can get help for an alcohol use disorder. A lot of people go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which offers group therapy as well as one-on-one counseling. Other people go to inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment programs. You may also want to consider joining a support group where you can meet other people who are going through the same things that you are. If you don’t have access to a support group, you can find online forums where people are discussing the challenges that they are facing with their alcohol use.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

The short-term effects of alcohol abuse vary between individuals and will depend on factors such as your age, weight, gender, and metabolism. Short-term effects of alcohol abuse can include:

  • Unsafe sexual activity
  • Poor decision-making
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Decreased social connection
  • Decreased productivity
  • Worsened academic performance
  • Increased risk for injury
  • Increased risk for sexually transmitted infections
  • Increased risk for unplanned pregnancies
  • Increased risk for legal repercussions
  • Increased risk for health issues
  • Increased risk for eating disorders

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

The long-term effects of alcohol abuse can be serious. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to changes in brain chemistry that are difficult to reverse. Alcohol abuse also puts your health at serious risk. The long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Changes in brain chemistry
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Liver disease
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Changes in hormone levels
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in social relationships
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Changes in productivity
  • Changes in sexual function
  • Legal repercussions
  • Financial problems
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Eating disorders
  • Psychological issues
  • Suicidal ideation

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse

If you think you may be struggling to control alcohol intake, there are some signs and symptoms that you should look out for. If you’re drinking too much, you may find yourself drinking alone, or experiencing negative consequences in your life as a result of your alcohol use. If you think you’re drinking too much, it’s important to seek help before things get worse. Some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include the following:

  • Feeling guilty about your drinking
  • Changes in social relationships
  • Changes in diet
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in hygiene
  • Feeling depressed or anxious
  • Feeling irritable
  • Missing work or school
  • Experiencing blackouts
  • Experiencing hallucinations
  • Feeling too fatigued to complete daily tasks
  • Using alcohol as a coping skill
  • Using alcohol to deal with health issues
  • Feeling unsafe when drinking
  • Facing legal consequences as a result of your alcohol abuse

What Is the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence?

While alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are related, they are not the same thing. The main difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is that people who abuse alcohol do not have a medical condition that requires treatment, while people who are dependent on alcohol do. Individuals who are dependent on alcohol show signs of withdrawal when they don’t drink, they have a strong desire to drink, they drink large amounts more than once per week, their health is negatively impacted by excessive alcohol consumption, their ability to work is affected by their drinking habits, and/or their personal relationships have been seriously affected.

How Addictive is Alcohol

While many people don’t see alcohol as being addictive, it is possible for people to become dependent on alcohol over time. Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the United States, and it is the most commonly abused substance among teens and young adults. If you notice that you are consuming alcohol more frequently or in larger quantities than you had planned to, you may be developing an alcohol use disorder. While not everyone who drinks ends up with an AUD, you should take action if you notice signs of an AUD in yourself.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

If you have an AUD and decide to quit drinking, you will most likely experience some level of alcohol withdrawal. However, you can minimize the severity of withdrawal symptoms through medical intervention, especially if you have an AUD. There are several different types of withdrawal symptoms, but the most common include:

  • Abdominal cramps: Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, which produces more of a substance called bilirubin. This can cause the liver to produce more of a yellowish substance called ascites, which can leak out of your liver and cause abdominal cramps.
  • Nausea and vomiting: The yellowish substance (ascites) is also likely to cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Sweating: When your liver processes alcohol, it produces more heat as a result. This can cause you to sweat more than usual.
  • Tremors: When you are sweating a lot, you may also be shaking. Insomnia: Alcohol can disrupt your sleep cycle and make it harder for you to fall asleep.
  • No appetite: When you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal, your body may not have enough energy to process hunger normally.
  • Anxiety: When you have been regularly drinking heavily, the amount of the chemical serotonin in your brain has likely been reduced.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a set of symptoms that occur after you stop drinking alcohol after drinking heavily or drinking heavily for a long time. AWS is more commonly referred to as “the shakes,” but it is a lot more serious than just being cold and having a slight tremor. When you have AWS, your body is going through a very serious and painful detox that can be dangerous. That’s why it’s important to get help if you think you might have AWS. There are treatments that can help make the symptoms milder and easier to manage.

Co-occurring disorders

People who struggle with an addiction to alcohol often suffer from other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. While this can complicate the treatment process, it is not uncommon, and it is referred to as co-occurring disorders. An AUD and co-occurring disorders can make each condition more difficult to treat, and they can complicate each other. Because of this, people with co-occurring disorders often have a more difficult time getting sober and staying sober than people without co-occurring disorders. When selecting a treatment program, you may want to consider one with experience treating people with co-occurring disorders.

Mixing Alcohol with Other Drugs

If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, you should avoid using other drugs. Drugs, including prescription medications, can interact negatively with alcohol. This can cause you to experience the effects of both drugs much more strongly than usual. In some cases, this can lead to accidental overdose. An alcohol overdose can lead to an emergency situation and even death.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

A medical (or “clinical”) term for “alcoholism” is alcohol use disorder (AUD). Most people use these terms interchangeably, though some healthcare providers prefer one term over the other. This diagnosis is only given to people who experience the following symptoms:

Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you go too long without alcohol

Recognizing the negative effects of your alcohol abuse and alcoholism on your life but being unable to curb or change your habits

Continuing to drink in spite of recurrent problems related to your alcohol use

Spending a lot of time acquiring or drinking alcohol, or recovering from its effects

Craving or wanting alcohol in situations where you wouldn’t expect to or when you know you shouldn’t drink alcohol

Having cravings for alcohol that are difficult to control

Giving up important activities because of your use of alcohol

Is Alcohol Addiction a Mental Disorder in the DSM?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a standardized list of mental health disorders used by doctors and researchers. Any mental health disorder included in the DSM must have the following characteristics: The disorder must have harmful consequences for the person who has it. The symptoms must be long-lasting. The disorder must be expected to be responsive to treatment. In the DSM 5, alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder are separate disorders. Both are listed as mental disorders, but they are different disorders. People who are diagnosed with alcohol abuse do not meet the criteria for an AUD but still experience negative consequences related to their drinking.

Risk factors for Alcohol Abuse

As with most mental health disorders, risk factors for alcohol abuse vary from person to person. Some risk factors include:

  • Being under the age of 21: The younger you are when you start drinking, the more likely you are to develop a problem with alcohol.
  • Having a family history of alcoholism: People whose families have a history of alcoholism are more likely to develop an AUD themselves.
  • Having a mental health disorder: People with mental health disorders are more likely to develop another mental health disorder, including an AUD.
  • Being in a situation where you are drinking more often or in larger quantities than you planned: If you find yourself drinking more often or in larger quantities than planned while you are at a party or out with friends, this can be a warning sign that you have a problem.

How do I get help for Alcohol Abuse?

If you think that you might have a problem with alcohol abuse, the first thing that you should do is get educated. Reading up on the topic can help you to identify the signs of a problem and determine if it is something that you need to address. Use that information to talk to your doctor about your concerns. Your doctor can recommend different treatment options for alcohol abuse, including attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other group therapy sessions. If you don’t think that an AUD is appropriate for you, it can be helpful to find a therapist to talk to about your concerns. A therapist can help you to get a better understanding of your habits and decide how to proceed from there. With enough time, it is possible to fully recover from alcoholism and lead a happy and fulfilling life in sobriety.

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

RADT
David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen
IMG-1545

LMFT
Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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