Having a drink on special occasions, such as while planning a barbeque in the backyard, is generally considered perfectly normal. A couple of friends can get together and have a drink without any problems. But when a person starts to drink more frequently and at increasingly dangerous levels, alcohol can become an issue.
Alcoholism is often associated with criminal activities, homelessness, and similar situations. This, however, does not always fit the description of an alcoholic. In fact, anyone may be at risk if they drink too much. Being able to recognize the signs and take appropriate actions early on can avoid fitting into what is known as the stereotype of alcoholism. In this post, we look at an important question that people should ask: How do I know if I’m an alcoholic?
What Exactly is an Alcoholic?
Alcoholism and alcoholic are two terms that refer to the chronic use of alcoholism. It generally starts with casual drinking. From here, the person starts to binge drink – which means they increase the frequency of drinking sessions as well as the volume. During each session, the person drinks more alcohol than the previous one.
Eventually, binge drinking becomes a problem.
The individual starts to abuse alcohol – and after this, the person develops alcoholism. At this point, complete dependence on alcohol is experienced. The person is unable to cope without alcohol in their system. When the alcohol starts to leave their system, the person will experience withdrawal symptoms, which can cause several adverse effects, including aggressive behavior.
Alcoholism and binge drinking are both becoming more serious concerns. According to statistics by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism2, about 26.45% of the American adult population engages in binge drinking on one or more occasions every month.
The same report finds that an estimated 6.6% of adults in the US engage in what would be considered “heavy drinking” at least on one occasion each month.
In a 2018 study, it was found that an estimated 14.4 million US adults suffer from alcohol use disorder. This figure calculates to approximately 5.8% of the adult population in the country. More men were found to experience alcohol use disorder than women. Among men, there was a 7.6% prevalence, while a lower prevalence of 4.1% was reported among the female population.
The risk of serious complications associated with alcoholism increases the more a person drinks. Casual drinking is usually unlikely to cause adverse effects in the body. When the individual starts to drink more, they are at risk of damaging their body. Every year, about 88,000 adults die because of an alcohol-related event. This includes several events, including direct damage in the body caused by alcohol, as well as accidents where alcohol was involved.
Alcoholism Versus Casual Drinking
Having a drink now and then is generally not considered problematic. Many people enjoy a drink during occasions where they get together with a few friends. This could be a camping trip, or perhaps a weekend at the lake with friends. Having a glass of wine with dinner is also not considered an issue, as long as the number of drinks consumed remains moderate. In these scenarios, the consumption of alcohol will be considered casual drinking.
It is important to realize the difference between alcoholism and casual drinking. There is also a category that generally falls between these two, which is considered binge drinking.
Let’s consider the difference between these three terms:
- Casual Drinking: This is when someone is in full control over their own alcohol consumption. The person would only drink on special occasions and does not exceed the recommended maximum number of drinks, generally understood as five. The person will usually not drink every day. If they do, they will limit themselves to a single drink each day.
- Binge Drinking: The term refers to more frequent alcohol consumption, but not to the point where it has a serious effect on the person’s life. The individual may consume more than five drinks at a time, but only periodically. They may even have a drink nearly every day, but they limit the number of drinks they have and are not dependent on it.
- Alcoholism: This is usually where binge drinking becomes heavy drinking and then turns into an addiction. The person feels like they are unable to function when there is no alcohol in their system. Addictive behaviors start to develop. The person may also go to extreme measures to get alcohol – including criminal activities, if needed.
When a person develops alcoholism, it is harder for them to stop abusing this substance. Thus, it is always useful to identify the issue of binge drinking and avoid waiting until it turns into a chronic disease.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
Alcoholism tends to affect people differently. In fact, alcoholics have been classified into multiple subtypes or groups. The term “alcoholism” is often associated with homeless people. This is what is known as a stereotype but is not accurate. Alcoholism affects people of all ages, genders, and statuses – anybody can be at risk of abusing alcohol.
Both loved ones and the individual themselves need to ensure they are able to recognize signs of alcoholism. The chronic consumption of alcohol can wreak havoc on the body. The longer the person is exposed to chronic alcohol consumption, the more damaging effects they will experience. When signs of alcoholism are identified early on, and action is taken, the chances of a successful recovery is better.
The symptoms of alcoholism can differ from one patient to the next. There are general symptoms that people should be on the lookout for, however. These include3:
- The person may start to have more drinks with every session. They may also drink more frequently. While the person usually had a few drinks on weekends, this may become a habit during the week too.
- The person would build up a tolerance to alcohol. This means it will take them longer to experience the effects of alcohol – what most people know as “being drunk.”
- The increased tolerance to alcohol would also mean the individual is less likely to experience a hangover the next morning. They will be able to have a higher number of drinks the previous night and wake up feeling normal.
- The individual may start to drink at times where it may seem inappropriate. This may include drinking early in the day, or soon after getting up. There are cases where people who develop alcoholism may even drink at their workplace.
- Some people start to avoid environments where there may not be alcohol. They would rather prioritize visiting restaurants, and other facilities that the person knows have alcohol or allow drinking.
- There may be cases where the person loses interest in their regular friends. Instead, they may start to befriend people who have the same habits of heavy drinking.
- Many people who develop alcoholism will gradually start to avoid making contact with people who are close to them, such as friends and family.
- In some scenarios, the person may hide their alcohol. This is another common sign of alcoholism, and something that loved ones should take notice of. Some people with alcoholism also tend to hide that they are drinking, with the goal of avoiding people noticing that they are drinking.
- Problems at the job are common in people with alcohol use disorder. The person may be in constant trouble at work; they might also lose their job.
- Legal issues are also not uncommon in these individuals. Arrest is relatively common among people who develop alcoholism, which can be a result of various scenarios such as violence or theft.
- The person would start to depend on alcohol to function normally. If they are unable to have alcohol, then they feel like they are unable to do their job, take care of their family, or do anything else.
There are a few physiological and psychological symptoms that often develop in people with alcoholism too. Lethargy is very common. The person may sleep more than usual and fail to comply with their responsibilities at work and at home.
Alcohol is a depressant, which is why looking out for the development of depression is important too. When alcoholism develops, it is very common for the patient to become depressed. Additional issues with the emotional well-being of the patient are also likely to develop.
Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism on the Body
Alcoholism is both an acute and a long-term issue. There are immediate effects that alcohol has on the body. This can create issues with both the addict and their loved ones. Additionally, consistent exposure to alcohol can lead to serious long-term health effects.
Becoming “drunk” is the major acute concern about alcoholism. This causes an increased risk of accidents if the person drives in a car.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention4, a death caused by a driver under the influence of alcohol occurs every 50 minutes. This equals about 29 deaths every day. The statistics only account for people driving under the influence of alcohol in the United States. Worldwide, the statistics become even more alarming.
In many cases, alcoholism leads to violent behavior. This is both an acute and a long-term effect. Violent behavior includes anger and sometimes even verbal or physical aggression. These behaviors could end up in domestic violence and cause relationship problems.
Over the long run, alcoholism can cause problems with the patient’s health. Some of the complications that have been associated with alcoholism include:
- Some patients experience a loss of bone tissue.
- Vision-related issues can develop.
- Alcohol can suppress the immune system. This makes the person more likely to experience disease and infection. The body is unable to fight against illnesses effectively when the immune system is compromised.
- A lot of people who become alcoholics develop sexual problems. One study5 shows that alcoholism causes a significant increase in the risk of erectile dysfunction among male patients. This accounts for men who are regular and heavy drinkers.
- Ulcers can develop in the stomach. This can lead to serious infections, as well as a risk of internal bleeding.
- Patients with diabetes are also at risk of experiencing severe complications caused by alcohol.
These complications can be effectively prevented when the patient approaches a treatment facility at an early stage of alcoholism. Some of the complications can be treated during an alcohol use disorder program. The patient should realize, however, that there are scenarios where damage is long-term and permanent. In such a case, treatment can help the person avoid further complications, but existing damage cannot be reversed.
How The CAGE Assessment Helps In Determining Possible Alcoholism
A lot of people are unsure of how to determine if they have a problem with drinking. Alcoholism is very common, yet only a very small number of people are treated. This means those who remain untreated are very likely to continue drinking; the problem only becomes worse as the body continues to build up a tolerance to alcohol.
There are a few different assessments generally used to help determine if a person may be an alcoholic. Some of these assessments are used as diagnostic criteria when a patient approaches a treatment center. Others can be used by the patient to help them determine if they might have a problem.
The CAGE assessment is particularly popular6. It consists of four questions that the patient should ask themselves. If the patient answers two to four of these questions as “yes,” they are advised to consult a professional, as there would be a high risk of alcoholism.
The questions that form part of the CAGE assessment include:
- Have you felt that you need to cut down on drinking?
- Have you been criticized for your drinking and felt annoyed with the people who made the comments?
- Have you experienced guilty feelings due to your drinking habits?
- Have you started to drink (even just one drink) the moment you woke up in the morning?
If a person says yes to one of these questions, there is a low risk that they could be developing alcoholism. However, when more than just one question has a yes answer, it means the patient is sitting with a problem. If all four questions are answered as yes, then the patient is advised to consult a professional as soon as possible.
What Symptoms Develop During Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal can sometimes be serious, but it is something that an alcoholic will generally have to go through during treatment. There are two sides to alcohol withdrawal.
An addict will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to gain access to alcoholic beverages. In these cases, the individual will want to resume drinking, which is why they may become violent, aggressive, and even end up stealing to get access.
On the other side, we have alcohol withdrawal during detoxification. This is the reason why patients are usually admitted to a detoxification department when they start with a treatment program. During detoxification, there is continuous supervision provided to the patient. Treatment will focus on helping to reduce the effects that alcohol withdrawal will have on the person.
In some cases, the patient may develop what is known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This can lead to more severe withdrawal symptoms. It usually occurs when a person stops drinking cold turkey, especially if they were a heavy drinker before.
There is not a fixed time when the symptoms will start to occur. In some patients, withdrawal symptoms start to develop as soon as just six hours after the last drink. In other cases, it can take a couple of days for symptoms to start appearing.
Here are a few of the common symptoms that generally develop during withdrawal:
- The patient may feel nauseous. They may also vomit in some cases.
- There is a risk of tremors, as well as excessive sweating.
- The patient’s heart rate may increase. There are also cases where the patient’s blood pressure levels may rise.
- Irritability is very common.
- The patient may experience insomnia. This can deprive them of sleep. When the patient is able to sleep, they could have unpleasant nightmares.
- Anxiety is a common side-effect that happens during withdrawal.
- Headaches are possible.
- Some patients experience confusion.
Another risk that needs to be noted here is delirium tremens. This is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal. It can happen in those individuals who had a more severe case of alcoholism. This is a dangerous type of withdrawal and needs to be attended to immediately.
Signs of delirium tremens can include:
- Agitation and confusion that are extremely severe.
- A high fever may develop.
- Visual and auditory hallucinations are common.
- Some patients experience tactile hallucinations.
- There have been reports of seizures too.
What Treatment Options Are Available?
While the prevalence of alcoholism remains high, treatments continue to advance. Through more advanced treatment options, alcoholism can be dealt with more effectively. The major problem, however, is that most patients do not opt for treatment. Studies suggest that only an estimated 7.9% of US adults with alcohol use disorder gain access to treatment services2.
Treatment depends on the patient. An intake counselor needs to see the patient and discuss their addiction. An assessment is made to help the intake counselor understand how serious alcohol use disorder is. It is important for the risk of serious side-effects to be considered.
The patient is provided with a personalized treatment plan. In mild cases, an outpatient program may be offered. The patient is given access to group therapy sessions, with AA meetings being the most common. Here, patients are able to share their stories and gain inspiration from others who were able to recover successfully in the past.
Research has shown that the majority of patients who receive treatment are able to recover successfully. Treatment will help the patient achieve a state of complete sobriety – ongoing support is then offered to ensure the person does not experience a relapse in the future.
There are currently three specific treatments that are used in alcoholism:
- Behavioral therapies can be used to help in changing the way the person behaves and thinks toward alcohol.
- Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, provide the patient access to peer support.
- In some cases, medicated treatment is used. Pharmaceutical drugs can be given to the patient to help minimize the severity of the withdrawal symptoms they experience. This is often the case with more severe alcoholism cases.
Seeking Professional Help for Alcoholism
Many people find themselves feeling powerless against alcoholism. Some studies have even suggested that alcoholism should be looked at as a disease, a chronic disease, to be more specific7. In these cases, individuals often find themselves unsure of where they can turn to. Even when they are looking to stop their addiction, quitting alcohol, when alcoholism develops, can be tough.
Professional assistance needs to be considered. There are professional centers that are able to help the individual cope with their alcoholism, get them through the detoxification process, and ensure the patient is able to achieve sobriety.
A chronic alcohol abuse treatment center for men in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, can give the patient access to a personalized treatment program. And a 24/7 alcohol medical detox program in North Texas, like the one offered at Stonegate Center, will usually be the first key to a successful recovery. During this program, the patient stops using alcohol and staff then helps the patient with the initial withdrawal symptoms they experience.
It is important to consider factors like the severity of the disorder and gender when looking at a treatment center. An alcohol rehab center for women near Fort Worth, such as Stonegate Center Hilltop, can help female patients feel safer during treatment, for example.
1 LiveScience. (2013) Alcohol Releases the Brain’s ‘Feel-Good’ Chemicals. [online] Available at: https://www.livescience.com/36084-alcohol-releases-endorphins-brain.html#:~:text=Drinking%20alcohol%20triggers%20the%20release,to%20a%20small%20new%20study.
2 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use in the United States. [online] Available at: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
3 Healthline. (2017) Alcohol Addiction. [online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/alcohol#complications
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Motor Vehicle Safety. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html
5 International Journal of Impotence Research. (2018) Alcohol intake and risk of erectile dysfunction: a dose-response meta-analysis of observational studies. [online] Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30232467/#:~:text=The%20results%20of%20our%20meta,0.86%3B%20P%20%3D%200.000)
6 Occupational Medicine. (2014) The CAGE questionnaire. [online] Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25146056/
7 Alcohol Research & Health. (2011) Treating Alcoholism As A Chronic Disease. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625994/