What is alcohol addiction?
Alcoholism is a disease that occurs when an individual consumes alcohol over a long period of time, and eventually develops a physical and mental addiction as well as a range of associated health issues. Alcoholism itself is a disorder of the brain’s reward system characterised by the compulsive, uncontrollable desire drink alcohol, despite any negative consequences that might occur as a result.
Addiction is not the same as dependence – which is predominantly physical – however, the two are frequently closely connected, and alcohol addiction almost always leads to alcohol dependence.
When discussing alcohol addiction, it is important to understand that it’s not a choice. Individuals suffering with alcoholism have little or no control over their actions because, much like other chronic disorders, it’s an illness that requires treatment.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction
People suffering with alcohol addiction often go to great lengths to cover up the true nature of their alcohol use and can become defensive when questioned about it. However, symptoms can manifest both behaviourally and physically, so if you’re worried about yourself or someone you know, it’s important to be vigilant when it comes to spotting the signs.
Behavioural signs of addiction
Some of the most common behavioural symptoms of alcohol addiction include:
- No interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Feeling irritable or tired
- Appearing intoxicated more frequently
- Lying about drinking
Physical signs of alcohol addiction
Meanwhile, some of the more noticeable physical symptoms of alcohol addiction include:
- Drastic weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Cirrhosis of the liver
Effects of alcohol abuse
Drinking excessively (above 12 units per day) and abusing alcohol over a long period of time can take a huge toll on your physical and mental health. There are a number of short- and long-term risks associated with alcoholism, and while most of the short-term side effects are obvious to spot, many long-term effects might not manifest until much later into your addiction.
Short-Term Health Risks
These symptoms can occur almost immediately and are the result of drinking large amounts of alcohol at one time:
- Car accidents, drownings, and burns as a result of impaired vision and compromised co-ordination.
- Risky behaviour such as unprotected sex due to lowered inhibitions, which can result in sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.
- Violence, suicide and sexual assault.
Long-Term Health Risks
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
- Damage to vital organs including the brain, heart, pancreas and central nervous system.
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, and colon.
- Vulnerable to infections and other illness as a result of a weakened immune system.
- Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
- Social, financial and family problems including damaged relationships and unemployment.
What is alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is a result of an excessive amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. This level of toxicity causes the brain and its basic functions – such as heart rate and breathing – to shut down. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal if not treated immediately, so spotting symptoms can be lifesaving.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include loss of consciousness, seizures, vomiting, difficulty breathing, extremely low body temperature and if left untreated could lead to permanent brain damage or death.
Dangers of mixing alcohol
Combining alcohol with other illicit or prescription drugs is extremely dangerous and, on some occasions, even fatal. It is not uncommon for people who abuse stimulants like cocaine, to drink alcohol as a way of taking the edge off and reducing the shakiness.
However, alcohol often interacts with other drugs to produce new and significantly more dangerous substances in the body, and not only to they enhance the side effects of alcohol they can also conceal them. In these cases, people are far more likely to participate in risky behaviour, thus putting themselves and others in danger.
Alcohol Abuse vs Alcohol Dependence
Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are often used interchangeably but they don’t necessarily describe the same type of behaviour. Alcohol abuse refers to any type of unhealthy drinking behaviours. This could include binge drinking, drinking to the stage of blacking out, alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence.
Alcohol dependence refers to the development of a physical and often psychological reliance on alcohol which occurs when you have been drinking high volumes of alcohol for a sufficient period of time. Eventually your body and brain get used to the presence of alcohol in your system and won’t be able to function properly without it. If you stop drinking suddenly – especially after years, or even months, of heavy alcohol abuse – this can trigger a series of withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol addiction stats
Figures from alcoholchange.org.uk show:
- 3.3m alcohol related deaths worldwide each year – that is 6.5% of all deaths
- Alcohol is linked to more than 60 medical conditions including liver disease, at least six forms of cancer and depression.
- Alcoholism is the 3rd leading preventable cause of death in the UK.
- Every day 20 people die because of alcohol addiction
Recent statistics from a report released by the NHS found that alcohol abuse is on the rise in the UK:
- 358,000 admissions to hospital in 2018/19 where the main reason was due to drinking alcohol
- 6% higher than 2017/18 and 19% higher than 2008/09
- 5,698 alcohol-specific deaths in 2018
- Men and women aged 55 to 64 had the highest proportions usually drinking over 14 units in a week
- 38% of men and 19% of women aged 55 to 64 usually drank over 14 units in a week
How addictive is alcohol?
Alcohol has the potential to be extremely addictive so many people, however studies have found that other factors such as genetics can also come into play when determining how different people react to alcohol. Alcohol addiction occurs on two levels: physical and psychological.
Drinking alcohol encourages the brain to release of chemicals called dopamine and endorphins. These act as a natural painkiller and are responsible for producing feelings of pleasure, which is why so many of us choose to have a drink as a way of unwinding at the end of a long day, or while we’re out socialising with friends.
Although alcohol is considered a simple chemical, it can bring about very complex changes in the brain. As mentioned above, a person’s predisposition to alcohol addiction can depend on a number of different factors such as social, biological and psychological causes. So, while there is potential to develop a serious addiction when consuming large amounts of alcohol, the severity ultimately depends on the individual.
How to get help with alcohol addiction
If you’re suffering with alcohol addiction and wish to get treatment, the first thing you must do is reach out. Your GP will be able to advise you on the treatment options available, from detox, residential rehab, outpatient rehab and therapy and support groups. Alternatively, you may find it useful to call one of many addiction helplines or contact a treatment facility directly.
Alcohol Rehab treatment
While there are various options available when it comes to treating alcohol addiction, undergoing treatment in a residential rehab facility remains the most effective and presents a much higher chance of maintaining sobriety. Due to the potential risks posed by the cessation of alcohol, it is highly recommended that any treatment takes place under the care of an experienced team of professionals.
Alcohol addiction treatment options include, alcohol detox, alcohol rehab and alcohol counselling. However, it’s worth noting that residential rehab facilities provide each of these services during the course of your stay without having to spend your time
Alcohol addiction withdrawal and detox
If you’ve decided to opt for inpatient alcohol rehab treatment you will need to complete a detox before proceeding with counselling and therapy. A detox is necessary because of the potential risks associated with alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and you should never attempt to quit without some form of medical supervision. Once you’ve been admitted to rehab, a doctor will assess you and prescribe the necessary medications to help alleviate some of the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol addiction treatment and rehab
Alongside a medical detox, most rehabs also offer a period of intensive addiction therapy, in conjunction with other holistic treatments such as meditation, yoga as well as fitness and dietary management. While counselling and therapy is sometimes offered on an outpatient basis, it’s important to know that not all facilities provide this option, and if you’re suffering with alcohol dependence and a severe addiction, you should only consider inpatient rehab. One of the main benefits of attending a residential facility is that it provides you with a safe and comfortable environment in which you can focus on your recovery.
Alcohol addiction detox medications
There are various medications prescribed to help you cope with the withdrawal stages of alcohol addiction treatment, including Librium and Diazepam. While some of these medications are prescribed to prevent drinking altogether, others are used to relieve unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and ensure your safety during the process. However, many of these medications can be obtained illegally and it must be undersood that taking any addiction medication without the proper medical supervision is extremely dangerous and could lead to devastating consequences.
There are many self-assessments available online that can help you determine whether you require treatment for alcoholism. While there is no specific diagnostic test for alcoholism, other abnormalities may indicate health issues caused by drinking, and may indicate a serious problem.
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A page revised the 6 of July of 2021, by Danielle Byatt, a Level 4 addictions counselling, Level 5 in Leadership & Management, BA applied social work. and Treatment Director at Step by Step Recovery.
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