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Alcoholism (Alcohol Use Disorder): Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment

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Alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly referred to as alcoholism, is a chronic disease that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by excessive alcohol consumption, causing symptoms that affect the body, thoughts, and behavior.

In this article, we will explore the defining characteristics of alcohol dependence, the risks of excessive alcohol use, and the various treatment options available for those struggling with alcoholism.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition that occurs when an individual experiences significant difficulties related to alcohol consumption. These difficulties can manifest in several ways, including:

  • Drinking more than intended
  • Loss of control over the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Desire to stop drinking, but inability to do so
  • Excessive time spent getting or using alcohol, or recovering from its effects
  • Craving, or preoccupation with drinking
  • Problems stemming from alcohol use; ignoring those problems; drinking despite obvious hazards, including physical danger
  • Retreating from important work, family, or social activities and roles
  • Tolerance – The need to drink more and more alcohol to feel the same effects, or the ability to drink more than other people without getting drunk
  • Withdrawal symptoms – After stopping or cutting back on drinking, symptoms such as anxiety, sweating, trembling, trouble sleeping, nausea or vomiting, and in severe cases, physical seizures and hallucinations. The person may drink to relieve or avoid such symptoms

A person with alcohol use disorder has come to rely on alcohol physically, psychologically, and/or emotionally. The brain adapts to the presence of alcohol and undergoes persistent changes. When alcohol use suddenly stops, the body is not accustomed to being alcohol-free. The internal environment changes drastically, causing symptoms of withdrawal.

Understanding the Risks of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder can lead to several physical, emotional, and social problems, including:

Physical Health Risks

  • Liver disease: Long-term excessive alcohol consumption can damage the liver, leading to liver cirrhosis, which can be fatal.
  • Cardiovascular disease: Heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of developing heart disease, including high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, and stroke.
  • Cancer: Prolonged alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing various cancers, including liver, breast, mouth, and throat cancer.
  • Digestive problems: Alcohol use can lead to inflammation of the pancreas, causing digestive issues, including severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Emotional and Social Risks

  • Mental health disorders: Alcohol use disorder can contribute to several mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and personality disorders.
  • Relationship problems: Alcoholism can strain relationships, leading to divorce or separation from friends and family members.
  • Financial problems: Alcohol addiction can lead to financial difficulties, including job loss, missed bill payments, and debt.

Alcoholism Risks Summary

Alcoholism is a chronic condition characterized by compulsive alcohol consumption. It can lead to numerous risks that affect physical and mental health, relationships, finances, and social life. Seeking professional help and support from loved ones can help manage the condition and reduce associated risks.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is a treatable condition. There are several evidence-based treatment options available for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction, including:


Detoxification, also known as detox, is the first step in treating alcohol addiction. Detoxification involves stopping alcohol use and allowing the body to eliminate the alcohol from the system. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and dangerous, so detox should be conducted under medical supervision.

Inpatient Rehabilitation

Inpatient rehabilitation, also known as residential treatment, involves living in a treatment facility for a set period while receiving comprehensive addiction treatment. Inpatient rehab provides a safe and supportive environment for individuals to focus on their recovery.

Outpatient Rehabilitation

Outpatient rehabilitation involves attending therapy sessions and support groups while living at home. Outpatient rehab is an excellent option for individuals who cannot commit to inpatient rehabilitation or who have work or family responsibilities that require them to stay at home. Outpatient rehab is also a more cost-effective option compared to inpatient rehab.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) involves using medications, such as naltrexone or acamprosate, to reduce the cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol addiction. MAT is often used in conjunction with therapy and support groups.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals identify negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to their addiction. CBT focuses on developing healthy coping strategies and reducing triggers that can lead to relapse.

Support Groups

Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provide a supportive community of individuals who understand the challenges of alcohol addiction. Support groups can be an excellent source of encouragement and accountability throughout the recovery process.

Key Takeaway

The benefits and risks of alcohol consumption vary depending on the individual and their personal circumstances. Moderate alcohol consumption may offer some health benefits, particularly related to heart disease, but these benefits must be weighed against potential risks, such as increased chances of developing certain cancers or alcohol-related accidents.


Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition that affects millions of people worldwide. While alcohol addiction can lead to several physical, emotional, and social problems, it is a treatable condition. Several evidence-based treatment options are available for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction, including detoxification, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, medication-assisted treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and support groups.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, it is essential to seek professional help. Recovery is possible, and with the right treatment and support, individuals can overcome alcohol addiction and lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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