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Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, is a disease that affects people of all walks of life. Experts have tried to pinpoint factors like genetics, sex, race, or socioeconomics that may predispose someone to alcohol addiction. But it has no single cause. Psychological, genetic, and behavioral factors can all contribute to having the disease.
It’s important to note that alcoholism is a real disease. It can cause changes to the brain and neurochemistry, so a person with an alcohol addiction may not be able to control their actions.
Alcohol addiction can show itself in a variety of ways. The severity of the disease, how often someone drinks, and the alcohol they consume varies from person to person. Some people drink heavily all day, while others binge drink and then stay sober for a while.
Regardless of how the addiction looks, someone typically has an alcohol addiction if they heavily rely on drinking and can’t stay sober for an extended period of time.
Alcohol addiction can be difficult to recognize. Unlike cocaine or heroin, alcohol is widely available and accepted in many cultures. It’s often at the center of social situations and closely linked to celebrations and enjoyment.
Drinking is a part of life for many people. When is it common in society, it can be hard to tell the difference between someone who likes to have a few drinks now and then and someone with a real problem.
Some symptoms of alcohol addiction are:
As an addiction tends to get worse over time, it’s important to look for early warning signs. If identified and treated early, someone with an alcohol addiction may be able to avoid major consequences of the disease.
If you’re worried that someone you know has an alcohol addiction, it’s best to approach them in a supportive way. Avoid shaming them or making them feel guilty. This could push them away and make them more resistant to your help.
Alcohol addiction can result in heart disease and liver disease. Both can be fatal. Alcoholism can also cause:
If someone with an alcohol addiction takes dangerous risks while drinking, they can also put others at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drunk driving, for example, takes 28 lives every day in the United States. Drinking is also associated with an increased incidence of suicide and homicide.
These complications are reasons why it’s important to treat alcohol addiction early. Nearly all risks involved with alcohol addiction may be avoidable or treatable, with successful long-term recovery.
Treating alcohol addiction can be complex and challenging. In order for treatment to work, the person with an alcohol addiction must want to get sober. You can’t force them to stop drinking if they aren’t ready. Success depends on the person’s desire to get better.
The recovery process for alcoholism is a lifetime commitment. There isn’t a quick fix and it involves daily care. For this reason, many people say alcohol addiction is never "cured."
A common initial treatment option for someone with an alcohol addiction is an outpatient or inpatient rehabilitation program. An inpatient program can last anywhere from 30 days to a year. It can help someone handle withdrawal symptoms and emotional challenges. Outpatient treatment provides daily support while allowing the person to live at home.
Many people addicted to alcohol also turn to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). There are also other support groups that don’t follow the 12-step model, such as SMART Recovery and Sober Recovery.
Regardless of the type of support system, it’s helpful to get involved in at least one when getting sober. Sober communities can help someone struggling with alcohol addiction deal with the challenges of sobriety in day-to-day life. Sober communities can also share relatable experiences and offer new, healthy friendships. And these communities make the person with an alcohol addiction accountable and provide a place to turn to if there is a relapse.
Someone with an alcohol addiction may also benefit from other treatments including:
A doctor may prescribe drugs to help certain conditions. For example, antidepressants, if someone with an alcohol addiction were self-medicating to treat their depression. Or a doctor could prescribe drugs to assist with other emotions common in recovery.
Therapy is useful to help teach someone how to manage the stress of recovery and the skills needed to prevent a relapse. Also, a healthy diet can help undo damage alcohol may have done to the person’s health, like weight gain or loss.
Alcohol addiction may involve several different treatment methods. It’s important that each person get involved in a recovery program that will support long-term sobriety. This could mean an emphasis on therapy for someone who is depressed, or inpatient treatment for someone with severe withdrawal symptoms.
For more information about alcoholism or to help a loved one find options for help, it may be best to talk to a doctor. They can refer you to local programs, such as treatment centers or 12-step programs. Also, the following organizations may be helpful:
Early treatment of alcoholism is most effective. Addictions that have gone on longer are harder to break. However, long-term addictions can be successfully treated.
Friends and family members of people who have an alcohol addiction can benefit from professional support or by joining programs like Al-Anon.
Someone with an alcohol addiction who has remained sober for months or years may find themselves drinking again. They may binge drink once or drink for a period of time before getting sober again. But a relapse doesn’t indicate failure. It’s important that the person get back on track and resume treatment.
Ultimately, sobriety is the responsibility of the person who has the alcohol addiction. It’s important to not enable destructive behaviors and to maintain appropriate boundaries if the person with the alcohol addiction is still drinking. This can mean cutting off financial assistance or making it difficult for them to fulfill the addiction.
As a loved one of someone with an alcohol addiction, try to be encouraging and provide emotional support.
Written by: Mara Tyler
Medically reviewed on: Jun 08, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CARN-AP, CASAC, MAC
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