Massachusetts Center for Addiction

Alcoholism (Alcohol Use Disorder)


Alcohol Use Disorder, or AUD, is a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It’s a medical condition that can range from mild to severe based on the number of symptoms one experiences.

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 28.6 million adults in the United States had AUD. These numbers make it a significant public health concern.

Understanding the Complexity of Alcoholism

AUD is far more complex than dependence on alcohol. It involves a variety of biological, genetic, and environmental factors that contribute to its development. The impact of alcohol use disorder extends beyond the individual. It affects families, relationships, workplaces, and communities.

Alcohol addiction alters brain function. It acts as a depressant and enhances the effects of certain neurotransmitters. This leads to feelings of relaxation and euphoria. Over time, the brain adjusts to the constant presence of alcohol. This accelerates dependence and fosters alcohol addiction.

Tolerance and Dependence

With prolonged and heavy drinking, individuals develop tolerance. They need larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effects. This can lead to physical dependence. The body adapts to the continuous presence of alcohol and reacts with withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), or alcoholism, shows up in various ways, affecting a person’s physical health, behavior, and mental state. Here’s a closer look at these signs:

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

  • Overall health starts to decline.
  • Experiencing blackouts, where you can’t remember events.
  • Slurred speech, making it hard to understand what you’re saying.
  • Not taking care of personal hygiene as well as before.
  • Noticeable changes in weight, either losing or gaining a lot.

Behavioral Signs of Alcoholism

  • Ignoring responsibilities, like at home or work.
  • Pulling away from friends and family.
  • Showing violence or aggression.
  • Running into legal problems related to drinking.
  • Spending a lot of time getting alcohol, drinking, or getting over the effects of alcohol.

Psychological Signs of Alcoholism

  • Constantly thinking about alcohol.
  • Finding it hard to stop drinking once you start.
  • Feeling a strong need or urge to drink.

Causes and Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder

Many factors, including genetics and your environment, influence the development of AUD. About 60% of the risk comes from genetics, meaning people with family members who have struggled with alcohol are more likely to develop AUD themselves. Environmental factors, like being around alcohol from a young age, experiencing a lot of stress, or feeling pressure from friends, also play a big role.

Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders

Co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder are also associated with a higher risk of AUD. These individuals may use alcohol as a coping mechanism for their mental health issues. This increases their likelihood of developing AUD.

For more information on the risk factors for developing AUD, visit our page on the risk factors for alcoholism.

Effects of Alcoholism on the Body

Alcoholism affects the body in many harmful ways. Here are a few of the negative effects of alcoholism on your health:

Liver Damage

Heavy drinking can seriously harm the liver. It can cause conditions like alcoholic hepatitis. This causes severe inflammation and liver damage. Fibrosis is another condition caused by alcoholism. Fibrosis causes scar tissue buildup that impedes liver function. In severe cases, you may develop alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic cirrhosis is advanced liver damage with extensive scarring that may lead to liver failure).

Cardiovascular Problems

Drinking a lot over time can lead to heart issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It can also weaken the heart muscles, which might result in heart failure.

Neurological Issues

Alcohol can damage the brain, leading to problems with memory, mood, and behavior. This damage can cause cognitive issues, from mild forgetfulness to severe dementia, affecting a person’s ability to perform daily tasks.

Gastrointestinal Disorders

Alcohol misuse can damage the digestive system, causing stomach ulcers, acid reflux (where stomach acid moves up into the esophagus), and even increase the risk of cancer in the stomach and colon.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Drinking too much alcohol can prevent the body from absorbing and using important nutrients properly. This can lead to deficiencies, such as a lack of vitamins like folate and B1 (thiamine), causing symptoms like fatigue, weakness, and severe memory problems known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Getting Help for Alcoholism

Getting over alcoholism means realizing you need help and looking for the right treatment. There are many options, like programs where you stay at the treatment center or ones where you can live at home. The important thing is to choose the treatment that works best for you.

Recognizing the Need for Help

Recognizing the need for help is the first step in the recovery journey. Unfortunately, many people with AUD hesitate to seek treatment because they may not recognize that they have a problem. An intervention from loved ones can help individuals recognize and accept that they need professional help.

Inpatient Rehabilitation Programs

Inpatient rehab programs provide strong support and are great for people with serious AUD or those who need a lot of structure to beat their addiction. These programs usually include detox, individual and group therapy, learning about addiction, and planning for aftercare.

During inpatient rehab, you live at a treatment facility for a period of time. Inpatient alcoholism treatment typically lasts 2-4 weeks. During this time, you’ll have access to clinical and medical 24 hours a day.

Outpatient Rehabilitation Programs

Outpatient rehab programs offer a balance of treatment and flexibility. This treatment option is fitting for individuals who do not require round-the-clock care but still need support and guidance in their journey to sobriety.

Massachusetts Center for Addiction offers comprehensive outpatient programs that are tailored to each individual’s needs. These programs provide various services, including individual counseling, group therapy sessions, family therapy, and medication-assisted treatment to address the various aspects of addiction.

Support Groups and 12-Step Programs

Mutual support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be invaluable in your recovery. These groups provide a platform for individuals to share their experiences, seek support from others who understand their struggles, and work through the 12 steps of recovery together.

Living Beyond Alcohol Use Disorder

At the Massachusetts Center for Addiction, we’re dedicated to helping you overcome alcoholism and providing support every step of the way. Our expert team is ready to assist you with comprehensive treatment options tailored to your unique needs.

Your journey toward recovery can start today. Remember, you’re not alone, and it’s never too late to seek help. Call us now at 844-486-0671 and take the first step towards a healthier, sober life. We’re here for you.