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Alcohol Use Disorder | Signs, Risk Factors, & Treatment

Drinking occasionally is considered normal, but having too much to drink regularly can lead to a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

This type of alcohol problem is a medical diagnosis that requires substance abuse treatment. Knowing the signs and symptoms of AUD, as well as its causes and treatment options, can help ensure that you or your loved one gets help.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is an alcohol problem that can develop when you drink too much, too often. 

AUD can severely impact different parts of your life, such as your relationships and your job. If you have trouble trying to stop drinking alcohol, even when you know it’s a problem, you might be at an increased risk of developingAUD.

Keep in mind that you’re not alone if you have an alcohol problem. Alcohol use disorder affects roughly 15 million people in the United States, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 

This number includes around 5.3 million women and 9.2 million men who struggle with alcohol abuse, as well as 401,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 years old.

Signs Of Alcohol Use Disorder

Being familiar with the signs of AUD and alcohol abuse can help you figure out if you or a loved one need substance abuse treatment. 

Some of the common signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • drinking alcohol longer than you planned to, or drinking larger amounts than intended
  • maintaining drinking habits even though it causes problems in your life
  • increasing the amount of alcohol you drink in order to get the same effects
  • having alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink, such as restlessness, sleep problems, sweating, shakiness, or mood changes
  • avoiding activities that you used to enjoy so that you can be drinking alcohol instead
  • being unable to limit drinking alcohol even when you want to
  • having cravings for alcohol, and routinely binge drinking
  • having legal problems or other issues in your personal and professional life due to drinking
  • engaging in high-risk behaviors during or after drinking, such as driving or drug use
  • continuing to drink even if you’re having symptoms of mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, or other health problems related to your alcohol intake

If any of the above signs and symptoms ring true for you or a loved one, a health professional should conduct a substance abuse assessment to determine if there is a diagnosis of AUD.

How Is Alcohol Use Disorder Diagnosed?

Diagnosing alcohol use disorder involves seeing your doctor for a physical exam and testing as needed, such as lab tests. You can expect your doctor to ask you questions about your drinking habits, patterns, and behaviors.

Diagnosing this disorder may also involve a psychological evaluation. Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose alcohol use disorder. 

The DSM-5 includes certain criteria that might indicate an alcohol use disorder diagnosis, such as having alcohol dependence or experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Meeting at least two of the 11 criteria listed during the past year results in an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.

What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder?

Heavy drinking on a regular basis, especially over a long period of time, can cause you to develop alcohol use disorder. 

This happens due to changes that occur in your brain from long-term alcohol use. For example, you might have alcohol dependence that makes it hard to stop drinking, or have trouble controlling your behavior after drinking alcohol.

Certain risk factors can also put you at an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Keep in mind that this disorder can develop even in young adults, such as in the teen years or early 20s, especially when routine alcohol consumption is present. 

Risk factors that contribute to an increased risk of alcohol use disorder include:

  • binge drinking or drinking alcohol for extended periods of time
  • a family history of alcohol abuse or substance use disorder
  • a mental health problem, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or depression
  • spending time with friends who drink too much
  • a history of trauma
  • drinking alcohol as a young adult

Health Effects Of Alcohol Use Disorder

Problem drinking that occurs year after year can cause an array of physical and mental health problems, including:

  • liver disease
  • blackouts that increase risky behaviors
  • heart issues
  • increased blood pressure
  • depression or anxiety

To avoid the long-term health problems associated with alcohol abuse, professional treatment programs are recommended for a diagnosis of AUD.

Alcohol Treatment Options 

Different treatment options for alcohol use disorder are available. The type you might benefit from the most depends on different factors, such as how long you’ve had alcohol problems, whether you have any co-occurring health problems, and your severity of alcohol dependence. 

Treatment approaches for alcohol use disorder range from detox programs that help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms to inpatient or residential programs where you receive evidence-based treatment at a 24-hour facility. 

Support Groups & Pharmacotherapy

Alcohol treatment services may also include support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Pharmacotherapy, or medication-assisted treatment, is also available to help reduce cravings and alcohol dependence.

Medications that are available to treat alcohol use disorder include:

  • acamprosate
  • disulfiram
  • naltrexone

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol use disorder, please contact Ark Behavioral Health to learn more about our treatment options.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions
Michigan Health - Do You Have a Drinking Problem? 11 Warning Signs to Know
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Alcohol Use Disorder
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - Alcohol Abuse

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