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Alcoholism | Causes, Signs & Treating Alcohol Abuse

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  • What is Alcoholism?
  • Find Alcohol Treatment Centers Near You
  • What are the Causes of Alcohol Addiction?
  • Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Alcoholism Treatment & Rehab: Is There a Cure?
  • What Medications Are Used To Treat Alcohol Use & Abuse?
  • Getting Help for Alcoholism
  • Aftercare and Long-Term Health After Rehab for Alcoholism
Jump to Section
  • What is Alcoholism?
  • Find Alcohol Treatment Centers Near You
  • What are the Causes of Alcohol Addiction?
  • Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Alcoholism Treatment & Rehab: Is There a Cure?
  • What Medications Are Used To Treat Alcohol Use & Abuse?
  • Getting Help for Alcoholism
  • Aftercare and Long-Term Health After Rehab for Alcoholism

Alcoholism, clinically referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a common, chronic, and sometimes-progressive medical condition that involves the compulsive consumption of alcohol. Such maladaptive patterns of drinking can lead to several serious social, familial, and physical consequences. Fortunately, there are highly-effective and diverse alcoholism treatment programs available to people with mild-to-severe AUDs.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a term used interchangeably with severe alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes alcohol use disorder (AUD) as a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive drinking, loss of control over the use of alcohol, and the experience of negative emotions when not using alcohol.1 In many instances, the terms alcoholism and AUD are used somewhat interchangeably.

Some of the signs, symptoms, and behavioral changes used to make a diagnosis of an AUD include:2

  • Cravings or strong urges to drink.
  • A persistent desire but an inability to stop drinking.
  • Recurrent drinking in dangerous situations, such as driving a car.
  • Giving up on once-important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of alcohol use.
  • Alcohol tolerance or the need for increasing amounts to achieve a desired level of intoxication.
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, tremors, or seizures after stopping drinking.

In 2018, an estimated 14.4 million Americans over the age of 18 had AUD.3 In addition, around 401,000 youth, ages 12 to 17, also met the criteria to be diagnosed with AUD.3

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      What are the Causes of Alcohol Addiction?

      Many may wonder what causes alcoholism to develop, but there is no simple answer to this question. The development of AUD is thought to be influenced by a mixture of multiple factors, including genetics and environment.

      Past studies have supported a potential link between a genetic vulnerability to depression and AUD development.5 Others have suggested a heritable component to drinking at a young age and a subsequent higher risk of developing AUD.6 In addition, experiencing early childhood trauma could increase the risk of developing alcoholism.7

      Other factors involved in the development of an AUD are still being explored. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that a person’s home environment could affect their risk of becoming an alcoholic.8

      For example, if someone is raised in a household with inadequate parental supervision, they may have easier access to alcohol.8

      At the same time, someone with a parent who abuses alcohol, such as an alcoholic father or mother, may be more prone to developing an AUD later on. The community environment can also affect a person’s risk for AUD.8 If a community doesn’t strongly enforce laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors, then minors can easily obtain and use alcohol.8 The home environment can also serve as a protective factor. For instance, should a person be raised with strong parental involvement, including their support and proper supervision, then the likelihood of that person developing a drinking problem during adolescence may be much lower.8

      Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

      Yound-beautiful-woman-in-depre-82877243A diagnosis of alcohol use disorder may be given to people with problematic patterns of drinking behavior that have a significant negative impact on their day-to-day lives. For example, many people tend to binge drink if they have an alcohol use disorder. There are many signs and symptoms of AUD, several of which we mentioned earlier.

      Not every problem drinker suffers from alcoholism, or severe alcohol use disorders. Instead, the breadth of someone’s alcohol use disorder is actually determined by a set of eleven diagnostic criteria that are used to diagnose AUDs.

      Healthcare professionals, including physicians, psychologists, and other qualified behavioral health practitioners may make an AUD diagnosis based on the presence of these signs and symptoms. Should should a person meet at least 2 of the following diagnostic criteria within a 12-month period, they may have AUD:2

      • Drinking more alcohol than you originally intended to or drinking more frequently than you had planned.
      • Experiencing cravings to use alcohol.
      • Experiencing signs of physical withdrawal when alcohol is withheld.
      • Giving up things that you previously enjoyed, such as sports and hobbies, to consume alcohol.
      • Spending a great deal of time and money acquiring, using, and recovering from using alcohol.
      • The inability to fulfill roles at work, school, or home because of alcohol use.
      • Tolerance to alcohol, which means that a person has to keep drinking more and more to feel the effects of alcohol.
      • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop using alcohol.
      • Using alcohol even if it makes a mental or physical problem worse.
      • Using alcohol even though it causes family or other interpersonal conflicts.
      • Using alcohol when it is dangerous to do so, such as drinking and driving.

      Alcoholism Treatment & Rehab: Is There a Cure?

      Although there is no definitive, one-size-fits-all cure for alcoholism, there are still many options to treat alcoholism. For most people, detox is the first step in treating alcoholism. For people with significant levels of physiological alcohol dependence, attempts to abruptly stop drinking alone could prove dangerous, as serious complications, including withdrawal seizures, may occur.9 A supervised medical detox period may be needed to keep a person safe and comfortable throughout withdrawal.

      If you or someone you know is currently attempting to quit using alcohol, help is only a phone call away. At American Addiction Centers (AAC) we can answer questions you have and share more information about our treatment options. Give us a call today at .

      For people at high risk of severe withdrawal, several days of inpatient treatment—either in a hospital based setting or longer-term rehabilitation facility able to medically manage acute alcohol withdrawal—may be needed to stabilize a person in early recovery. After successful withdrawal management through medical detox, a period of more comprehensive rehabilitation may begin. The various treatment settings for different alcohol recovery programs include:10

      • Residential treatment, which can be a short-term program lasting a few months, or a long-term program lasting up to a year or more. Residential treatment typically follows inpatient treatment and is appropriate for those who previously attended an inpatient and/or outpatient program, but who need continued supervision to maintain sobriety.
      • Outpatient treatment, where a person comes to treatment for a few hours at a time, 2 to 3 times per week, but can continue living at home. This type of treatment may be the first stage of treatment for someone with a less severe AUD. However, it might be the second stage of treatment for someone who has completed treatment in an inpatient facility.

      Whether treatment is provided on an inpatient or outpatient basis, many substance use treatment programs will employ a combination of several treatment approaches. Some of the different types of treatment may include:11, 12, 13

      • Behavioral therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement. Both of these approaches focus on helping a person with AUD think differently about the disorder. Motivational enhancement is focused on getting a person to engage with their treatment and overcoming barriers to changing behaviors. CBT focuses on identifying maladaptive behaviors and developing new coping skills to better maintain sobriety and avoid relapse.
      • Family therapy, including helping a family set boundaries and behaviors, which can enhance recovery for the family member with AUD.
      • Treatment for dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders, which involves an integrated treatment strategy for both AUD and a mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. The treatment of both conditions helps to sustain recovery from both disorders.
      • 12-step or other mutual support group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which emphasizes recognition of AUD and ongoing support and recovery.

      What Medications Are Used To Treat Alcohol Use & Abuse?

      Some people with AUD benefit from the use of medication-assisted treatment, which may help to support a person in recovery by minimizing cravings and decreasing the risk of relapse to problematic drinking. In combination with behavioral therapies, there are several drugs used for this purpose, including:14

      • Campral, also known as acamprosate, acts on the GABA and glutamate neurotransmitter systems. Campral helps to control the insomnia, anxiety, and restlessness that often accompany alcohol withdrawal. It can help people maintain longer-term recovery, especially in those people who are severely alcohol dependent.
      • Disulfiram (Antabuse) deters drinking in patients highly motivated to quit. If a person takes disulfiram and then uses alcohol, the result is flushing, nausea, and heart palpitations.
      • Naltrexone, which acts on the opioid receptors in the brain to block the reward of drinking and potentially reduce cravings for alcohol. An extended-release form (Vivitrol) only has to be administered by injection once a month.
      • Topiramate is sometimes used off-label to help decrease continued drinking behavior in recovering individuals.

      Getting Help for Alcoholism

      Doctor hands writing on a clipboard.

      If you are seeking treatment, resources are available. AAC has facilities across the U.S. and treatment programs that are tailored to each patient. If you or a loved one has questions about treatment, you can call us at .

      You can also learn more about our:

      Aftercare and Long-Term Health After Rehab for Alcoholism

      After a person with AUD completes rehab, they need ongoing support. Many treatment programs offer groups to their clients that continue to meet and provide mutual support. This way, as time goes on, past patients can maintain a strong support network and ideally lessen their chances for relapse. Aftercare and long term care planning can help people avoid their potential for relapse on alcohol.

      At AAC, there is a thriving network of alumni that provide ongoing support. AAC alumni who are unable to attend in-person group sessions can participate in free virtual support meetings.

      As an important component of many aftercare plans, regular meeting attendance with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) further promotes an environment of support for recovery. AA has a long-standing network of group meetings in almost every community in the U.S.

      Although alcoholism is a chronic disease, millions of people have achieved long-lasting sobriety. No matter how severe your situation is, or how many times you have undergone treatment, recovery is possible, and help is available starting today.


    1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction. Alcohol use disorder.
    2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
    3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (2020). Alcohol facts and statistics.
    4. American Psychological Association. (2020). Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.
    5. Nurnberger Jr, J. I., Foroud, T., Flury, L., Meyer, E. T., & Wiegand, R. (2002). Is there a genetic relationship between alcoholism and depression?. Alcohol Research & Health, 26(3),
    6. Agrawal, A., Sartor, C. E., Lynskey, M. T., Grant, J. D., Pergadia, M. L., Grucza, R., … & Heath, A. C. (2009). Evidence for an interaction between age at first drink and genetic influences on DSM?IV alcohol dependence symptoms. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 33(12), 2047-2056.
    7. Farrelly, C. M. (2017). The role of trauma In alcoholism risk and the age of alcoholism onset.
    8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Risk and protective factors.
    9. Trevisan, L. A., Boutros, N., Petrakis, I. L., & Krystal, J. H. (1998). Complications of alcohol withdrawal: pathophysiological insights. Alcohol Health and Research World, 22(1),
    10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research based guide: Types of treatment programs.
    11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: Behavioral therapies.
    12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Common comorbidities with substance use disorders.
    13. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
    14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment. Pharmacotherapies: Alcohol addiction.


Last Updated on April 13, 2021
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