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Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcoholic beverages are commonly served at various social events such as parties, get-togethers, celebrations, and even funerals. However, it can be difficult to determine when alcohol consumption becomes problematic. Excessive alcohol intake is one of the most frequently misused substances in the United States, and it can be more hazardous than people realize.

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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (aka Alcohol Addiction)?

Also known as alcohol addiction or alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a clinically-recognized medical condition.

A doctor or healthcare professional can diagnose AUD when at least 2 of the following conditions occur over 12 months:

  • Excessive drinking (either in amount or over a long period)
  • Inability to cut down on alcohol use
  • Excess time spent acquiring alcohol, drinking alcohol, or recovering from drinking
  • Strong cravings
  • Missed obligations (family, work, social)
  • Continued drinking despite negative effects
  • Losing interest in important activities due to alcohol use
  • Drinking when it is physically dangerous
  • Continued drinking despite physical or psychological harm from alcohol use
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur when alcohol use is stopped

AUD is a hereditary disorder, which means a person with a family history of alcoholism is more likely to develop AUD due to excessive drinking. AUD can also range in severity from very mild to severe.

However, like many substance use disorders, AUD is a treatable health condition. AUD is usually treated with a solid support system, detoxification, behavioral therapy, and additional care to encourage successful recovery.

Alcohol Abuse Versus Addiction

It’s important to know and understand the differences between alcohol abuse vs. alcoholism.

While an estimated 29.5 million Americans experienced alcohol addiction in 2022, not everyone develops substance abuse problems due to alcohol abuse. However, a person’s risk of developing AUD does increase over time.

Abuse of alcohol is defined as “consumption of alcohol beyond the recommendations for moderation.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines moderate drinking as 1 alcoholic beverage per day for women (aged 21+) and 2 per day for men (21+).

  • Heavy drinking is categorized as having 15+ drinks weekly (men) or 8+ drinks weekly (women).
  • Binge drinking, on the other hand, is a pattern of alcohol consumption where the drinker’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.08% or greater, which is often the result of consuming 5+ drinks within a short period of time (roughly 2-4 hours).

Do I Have An Alcohol Problem?

Understanding the warning signs of alcohol abuse and its consequences can help you identify whether your relationship with alcohol may indicate a drinking problem.

If any of the following are true for you, it may be time to talk to your doctor or similar healthcare provider for some support:

  • Drinking without concern for the consequences
  • Obsession or not being able to stop thinking about drinking
  • Alcohol cravings
  • Being regularly drunk or hungover
  • Failed attempts to cut back on or quit drinking
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What Are the Effects of Alcohol?

Generally speaking, drinking alcohol results in intoxication or “getting drunk.”

Some short-term effects of alcohol are relatively minor, while others can pose a greater risk to the drinker’s health—especially if more alcohol is consumed in a short period of time.

Short-term effects of alcohol consumption include:

  • Warm sensation in face or limbs
  • General relaxation/sedation
  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Delayed reaction time
  • Loss of balance
  • Memory loss (aka “blackouts”)
  • Alcohol poisoning (medical emergency)
  • Risk-taking behaviors such as driving drunk or having unprotected sex
  • Injuries and death due to drownings, falls, car accidents, etc.

Additionally, even short-term alcohol consumption when pregnant can cause issues for the developing fetus and can result in fetal alcohol syndrome.

Many long-term risk factors of alcohol consumption can affect the user’s physical and mental health. These long-term effects increase the longer someone consumes alcohol regularly.

Long-term effects of alcohol misuse can include:

The CDC recommends only moderate drinking to avoid most short- and long-term effects of alcohol use.

If you or a loved one becomes concerned about your drinking habits or the amount of alcohol you regularly consume, speak with your healthcare provider about solutions to help you change your habits.

Alcohol Overdose

An alcohol overdose (a.k.a. alcohol poisoning) happens when enough alcohol enters the bloodstream and begins to cause life-threatening health conditions. Too high of a blood alcohol content (BAC) can cause critical bodily functions to stop—including breathing, temperature regulation, and heart rate.

Alcohol overdose can cause irreversible health problems, including permanent brain damage and even death.

Alcohol overdose symptoms include:

  • Excess drowsiness or loss of consciousness
  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Slower heart rate
  • Very low body temperature
  • Seizure

Due to the dangers of alcohol overdose, the CDC recommends drinking only moderately—which equals roughly 1 beverage per day for women and 2 daily for men (aged 21+).

Alcohol Withdrawal

When someone develops a tolerance to alcohol, quitting alcohol use can cause various side effects and withdrawal symptoms. Depending on the severity of use (including duration and amount of alcohol consumed), withdrawal symptoms may vary in intensity.

Alcohol withdrawals can lead to seizure and death, so health professionals recommend a medical detox under professional supervision rather than quitting “cold turkey.”

Alcohol Use Statistics

A reported 29.5 million people met the diagnostic criteria for having AUD in 2022—about 1 in every 10 people aged 12 and older.

Roughly half of Americans aged 12 or older reported alcohol use in the last 30 days, according to a 2022 report by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

  • An estimated 5.8 million (or 15.1%) of underage drinkers—from adolescents aged 12 to adults aged 20—reported drinking alcohol within 30 days of the survey.
  • In 2022, roughly 44.5% of drinkers reported binge drinking within the past 30 days, and about 26.3% said they engaged in heavy drinking within that same month.

Excessive alcohol use is the third leading cause of death in the United States, following tobacco use (first) and poor diet/inactivity (second).

  • About 100,000 people die annually from alcohol abuse
  • 32% of those who died from alcohol abuse experienced alcohol poisoning
  • Alcohol accounts for 6% of deaths worldwide

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Thankfully, with the medical knowledge we have after years of studying alcohol abuse and addiction, treatment options for alcohol addiction are wide-reaching.

Alcohol Detoxification

Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous without appropriate medical intervention. In moderate to severe cases of AUD, medical detox is necessary to help you safely get all alcohol out of your system.

Medical detox can occur at a residential facility, a separate treatment facility, or even at home, depending on the severity of your alcohol addiction.

Your vitals will be monitored during medical detox, and you may receive prescription medications to help you with cravings or withdrawal symptoms.

Medication-Assisted Treatment for AUD

During your alcohol treatment and recovery, your doctor might prescribe medication to help you.

Some medications decrease withdrawal symptoms, while others minimize cravings or change how consuming alcohol would affect you—thus helping to remove the temptation to relapse.

The most common prescription medications used to treat AUD are:

  • Acamprosate (Campral®) — reduces withdrawal symptoms
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse®) — increases sensitivity to alcohol, making users physically ill if they drink
  • Naltrexone (Vivitrol®) — reduces cravings, blocks the effects of alcohol

While medications can improve an individual’s chance of recovery, they work best when paired with evidence-based treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Alcohol Rehab Programs

Treatment programs for alcohol addiction are similar to other kinds of substance abuse treatment. There are both inpatient and outpatient programs available; the choice will likely depend on your level of substance abuse as well as your lifestyle.

For instance, inpatient rehab may be ideal for someone struggling with severe AUD. In contrast, an outpatient program such as a PHP (partial-hospitalization program) may work better for an individual with work or family commitments.

In addition to receiving physical healthcare through your chosen treatment program, behavioral therapy will also play a large role in your recovery. Behavioral therapy is designed to help you maintain your sobriety and avoid relapse during your initial rehabilitation and afterward.

Recovery from alcohol abuse is a lifelong journey, and many people have celebrated continued years of success. You can absolutely join them with the right support and a commitment to your well-being.

Post-Treatment AUD Support Programs

After completing your initial treatment program, you will likely want to join a peer support group or recurring meetings to help you maintain your abstinence from alcohol.

Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery have regular, local meetings throughout the US to provide addiction support.

Psychiatry and other therapy can also help rebuild healthy behaviors and habits after your initial treatment phase.

Whatever option you choose, you must have some support after rehabilitation to help you maintain success.

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What Can I Do If My Loved One Is an Alcoholic?

Many resources are available to the loved ones of those who struggle with alcohol misuse of all kinds. The impact that AUD can have on friends and family members is significant, and while the drinker may eventually seek treatment, many times, their loved ones also require healing and support.

Groups such as Al-Anon are designed especially for friends and family members of alcoholics. These support groups unite people with similar experiences and provide a space to heal from these negative experiences.

No matter what your relationship is with alcohol, recovery is possible and happens every day.

Find Alcohol Treatment Programs Near You

If you or your loved one is ready to stop drinking, there are lots of options available to help you quit safely.

If you’re not sure where to start, the SAMHSA online treatment locator provides free information for all types of alcohol-related addiction treatment throughout the United States. You can also call their free helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for confidential referrals to addiction recovery resources in your area.

Many treatment options are available for people who want to change their drinking habits, and recovery is within your reach.

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FAQs About Alcohol Addiction

What causes alcohol addiction?

Alcohol addiction doesn’t have one singular cause, but several risk factors can increase a person’s chance of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Risk factors for AUD include:

  • Family history of alcoholism or other substance use disorder
  • History of mental illness or mental health struggles
  • Drinking at a young age
  • Trauma, grief, or other difficult experiences
  • Social and cultural influences (i.e., growing up around excessive drinking, normalization of overdrinking, etc.)
  • Steady drinking over a long period of time

What is the difference between alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence?

Alcohol dependence is the body’s physical reaction to alcohol consumption (sometimes called “physical addiction”), while true alcohol addiction is a mental condition.

Alcohol dependence occurs when a person’s body develops a tolerance for alcohol, and they need to consume more of it to feel its effects. Physical dependence can result in cravings and can cause users to experience withdrawal symptoms if they go too long between drinking sessions.

On the other hand, alcohol addiction (also known as alcohol use disorder or AUD) happens when a person becomes unable to control themselves in relation to alcohol.

A person with alcohol addiction may prioritize alcohol, continue drinking despite negative consequences, and/or become consumed by acquiring, drinking, and recovering from alcohol.

Why are alcohol withdrawals dangerous?

In short, alcohol withdrawals are dangerous because they can cause seizures, stroke, and death.

Alcohol is a sedative, causing certain brain activity to slow down. If a person’s body gets used to having alcohol regularly, the brain will counteract the sedative effects by increasing brain activity.

However, if alcohol is suddenly removed from the equation, the brain can’t acclimate right away. The increased brain function can lead to seizures and other deadly side effects.

Therefore, anyone quitting alcohol should consult with a doctor or healthcare professional to ensure their safety during the detox process.

What is the percentage of alcoholics in America?

The most recent data from the NSDUH (2022) indicates that 1 in 10 Americans ages 12 and older—so roughly 10%—qualify for alcohol use disorder (AUD).


What is the best treatment for alcohol addiction?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for treating alcohol addiction. However, a combination of behavioral therapy, medication, and rehabilitation (inpatient or outpatient) can often be the ideal solution for someone recovering from alcohol use disorder.

In addition, support groups and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery provide essential accountability and support for individuals throughout all stages of their addiction recovery journey.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2024, February 29). Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  4. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2022, May 18). Alcohol Use Disorder. Mayo Clinic.
  5. Medications for Substance Use Disorders. SAMHSA. (2024, February 1).
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018, January 17). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (third Edition). National Institutes of Health.
  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, September 25). Treatment and Recovery. National Institutes of Health.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023a). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023b). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023c, January). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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