Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are two of the most common forms of addiction in the United States. They’re also very much debated among both experts and the layperson. What is alcohol abuse and what is alcohol addiction? Are they the same?
There’s no need to differentiate between alcohol abuse and alcoholism on the Addictive Addiction website. The point is, and what we understand, that you understand that you or someone you know may have a problem with alcohol. You have questions, and we have answers. Here are the answers to the questions we most frequently receive about alcohol addiction.
How Common is Alcohol Abuse?
It’s difficult to determine how many people suffer from alcohol addiction or how many people abuse alcohol. Alcohol is a legal substance, much like nicotine (and to some extent, sugar), and it’s not uncommon for its use to be purely social. You’ve seen it happen, and you’ve likely done it yourself; friends meet for supper and a glass of wine, or you unwind in the evening with a Jack and Coke.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 56% of all adults reported consuming alcohol within the past month. Does that mean that over half of Americans are alcoholics? Absolutely not. It’s estimated, however, that about 27% of adults in America abuse alcohol. Unfortunately, it’s a prevalent problem, and sometimes difficult to diagnose.
Why do People Drink Alcohol?
Why do people drink alcohol if it leads to addiction? Alcohol is a depressant, and many drinkers use the substance as a way to relax. Many alcoholics report that alcohol allows them to forget their troubles; that is, when they drink alcohol they don’t worry about what will happen next.
Those who consume alcohol but don’t abuse it report similar effects. Users claim that the substance allows them to become more relaxed and engaged in social settings, or to “depressurize” when drinking at home.
How Much Alcohol is Too Much?
Like most aspects of alcohol abuse, it’s difficult to quantify alcoholism. But the NIAAA has set guidelines which can be used as an indicator of a problem with alcohol addiction. They recommend that women drink no more than 3 drinks a day or 7 in a week. They advise that men not exceed over 4 drinks in a day or 14 in a week. Exceeding this number of drinks may signify a problem, or identify a user as “at-risk” for alcohol dependence.
Signs of Alcoholism
The signs which point to alcoholism are similar to those of other addictions. If you experience any of the following signs of alcoholism, we would encourage you to seek help; you may have an alcohol addiction.
- Blackouts or short term memory loss
- Drinking secretly so as not to expose your habits to friends or family
- Choosing to drink instead of spend time with family
- Choosing alcohol over work or school commitments
- Purchasing alcohol despite it causing financial difficulties
Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of symptoms of alcohol abuse. If you suspect you have a problem, please look for help.
How Quickly Does Alcohol Dependence Develop?
It’s extremely unusual for an addiction to alcohol to develop after just one drink. In fact, a first-time drinker may feel quite ill after drinking and not desire alcohol for quite some time.
Alcohol is both a physiological and a psychological addiction. It can be caused by a need to unwind and a subsequent dependence on the substance to do so. It can be caused by pre-existing psychological disorders. And it can even be caused by genetics.
Alcohol addiction doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, your frequent drinking will cause your body to develop a tolerance to alcohol, and you’ll in turn require more alcohol to get the same effect. Your brain may adapt to alcohol, as well. You may be able to speak coherently or walk without stumbling after you’ve consumed significant amounts. Your brain has come to expect the substance, and as a result you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms.
Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Damage it Causes
Alcohol doesn’t only affect the drinker. It will also affect friends and family members, co-workers and the community. Of these, the most severely impacted are the children of alcoholics. There have been studies conducted on the adult children of alcoholics, and it’s been recorded that they share many personality traits. These include:
- The fear of emotions. These adults have seen emotions at their most raw. As a result, they fear emotions and the expression of emotions.
- Fear of loss of control. The loss of control in a situation may cause these adults to feel anxious or to lash out.
- Compulsive behaviors. Adult children of alcoholics may become workaholics or become inept in relationships.
- Alcoholism. Children of alcoholics are much more likely to abuse the substance themselves.
There are other symptoms which children of alcoholics may display. These are only a few, and we’ve included them here to demonstrate that alcohol use and abuse will affect those you love the most.
What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Alcohol addiction will affect children of alcoholics even before birth. Many studies have been conducted to determine the effects of alcohol on the human fetus. Women who drink during pregnancy put their children at risk of developing this disorder. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is not reversible.
In utero, a fetus shares space with the placenta. The placenta is like the digestive system of that fetus – it delivers nutrients (and oxygen) to the fetus, and it removes waste products from fetal blood.
The health of the placenta will be greatly affected by what the pregnant woman chooses to consume during pregnancy. Doctors advise that even ibuprofen may cause the placenta to lose efficacy. Alcohol is much worse. Alcohol is passed through the placenta to the fetus. That is to say, if you’re drinking alcohol, the fetus is, too. This greatly increases the risk of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome’s onset.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms
So what is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and what are the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome symptoms? To begin, your baby may be born with malformations, particularly of his face. The symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are both physical and developmental, however.
- Small head and brain size
- A short, upturned nose
- Small eyes
- Deformity of extremities
- Slow cognitive growth
- Poor coordination
- Heart conditions
- Hyperactivity and increased chance of ADHD diagnosis
- Slow language development
While it may not be immediately evident that a baby suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the effects of the substance have long lasting and sometimes debilitating effects on a child as he grows.
Drinking Alcohol while Breastfeeding
The effects of drinking while breastfeeding are somewhat debated, as the effects are less severe than drinking while pregnant. But there are, in fact, implications to drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.
Alcohol will affect babies’ ability and desire to eat and sleep. While babies may fall asleep faster after mom has consumed alcohol, they’re more likely to wake up sooner. Similarly, babies will consume about 20% less food in the 4 hours following mom’s drink.
Babies whose mothers drink while breastfeeding may also struggle with motor development. Doctors advise that a mother not resume drinking in moderation until baby is at least 3 months old.
It’s said that alcoholism itself is a disease. But it can also cause very harmful and sometimes fatal diseases. Of course, alcohol addiction will increase the likelihood of an automobile or other accident. In 2015 10,265 vehicle deaths occurred which were directly related to alcohol. Those accidents accounted for almost one third of all traffic related deaths in the US.
Alcohol consumption and alcohol addiction will also increase the likelihood of injury to oneself and others. These incidents range from workplace accidents to drowning. The contraction of STDs is also more common amongst those addicted to alcohol. This is because alcohol addiction may cause risky sexual behaviors. Multiple partners with no protection and using alcohol with other substances. Sexual assault is also a factor.
But in addition to the immediate causes of death and injury caused by alcohol addiction, the disorder will have long term effects on the body. Alcohol addiction is thought to increase the likelihood of cancer in an alcoholic. There are also increased risks of stroke, heart attack, and a number of alcohol related diseases.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a disease caused by long term drinking. It is an inflammation of the liver which is sometimes irreversible. It’s possible that quitting alcohol will reverse the condition, but this is not always the case.
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Alcoholic liver disease encompasses several disorders, including the hepatitis mentioned above. Chronic hepatitis and fatty liver are also caused by alcohol abuse.
Alcoholic neuropathy is sometimes reversible, but can be quite frightening to its sufferers. This is the tingling, numbness or lack of feeling in limbs and extremities.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is the long term damage that alcohol will have on the human heart. Alcohol is toxic to the muscles of the heart, and will eventually lead to heart failure.
There are various stages of alcohol overdose, and it’s important to know what to look for. First, alcohol is a depressant, which means that the breathing and heart rate of the drinker will slow considerable. The gag reflex may be hindered, and alcohol may cause the drinker to vomit. If left unwatched, these symptoms can be fatal.
Usually while heavily drinking, a person will become very tired. He will probably black out, and will likely soon be unconscious. The amount of alcohol in the blood will continue to increase even as the person is asleep, so if you suspect that someone is suffering an alcohol overdose, please seek medical attention immediately.
Key Signs of an Alcohol Overdose
Key signs of an alcohol overdose include the following:
- Mental confusion and slurred speech
- Inability to wake up, or coma
- Irregular or extremely slowed breathing
- A low body temperature, signifying hypothermia
Am I an Alcoholic?
We briefly covered the signs of alcoholism earlier. But you may still be wondering if you need to seek help for your alcohol addiction. It’s important that you be honest with yourself, and realize that alcohol addiction can be treated. Treatment for alcoholism doesn’t only include inpatient facilities, either. Many recovering alcoholics have cited much success through counseling and support groups.
If you find yourself exhibiting any of the symptoms of alcohol addiction, consider registering for services. There are many free or low cost options available in most states, and many are very effective at treating addiction.
Do I Need Treatment for Alcoholism?
For more information on the treatment of alcohol, please refer to our Alcohol Treatment page. We cover both in- and outpatient options, and will help you decide which path to treatment is best for you.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol abuse has devastating long term effects. Alcohol addiction affects not only the drinker, but his friends, family and even his children. It’s important to realize that while drinking for some is a social act, for others it’s a means of escape from reality.
We don’t have to tell you that there are healthier ways to escape if you need a break. Stress management tools and distraction can be quite effective in overcoming alcohol addiction. It’s worth it to consider these other options; the long term effects of alcohol are severe and can lead to permanent brain damage or even death.