Is Alcoholism A Chronic Disease?
Alcoholism and loss of control over one’s drinking is classified as a chronic brain disease. It can lead to serious long-term legal, relational, financial, physical, and mental health consequences for those who struggle with this condition.
Why Alcohol Use Disorder Is A Chronic Disease
According to the CDC, chronic diseases are defined as medical conditions that last for at least one year or longer, require ongoing attention, and limit daily activities.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a diagnosis that encompasses different levels of alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence. AUD is considered a chronic disease for a few reasons, including that it likely:
- develops over a period of time
- is not communicable (contagious)
- does not resolve spontaneously
- interferes with day-to-day activities
- is influenced by genetic factors (family history) and environmental factors
- intensifies over time and may lead to other harmful conditions, including death
- may be managed and treated, but not simply “cured”
Other Chronic Diseases
Other examples of chronic diseases include:
- heart disease
- chronic lung disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- chronic kidney disease
- liver disease and cirrhosis
- eating disorders
Many of these chronic conditions are among the most costly and deadly public health problems in the United States.
Chronic diseases can often be traced back to a handful of preventable risk factors, such as substance abuse (medications, illicit drugs, tobacco, and use of alcohol), poor diet and nutrition, and limited physical activity.
Treating AUD As A Chronic Disease
While there is no cure for AUD, a wide variety of alcohol addiction treatment methods have been developed that take into account the chronic, relapsing nature of this condition.
Long-Term Treatment Approach
A long-term approach to recovery is critical for treating AUD and other forms of substance abuse, drug addiction, and dependence.
Many individuals who receive treatment may experience repeated stints of rehab or hospitalization, periods of abstinence, and periods of relapse in an ongoing cycle throughout their treatment careers.
Medical Support For Withdrawal
AUD treatment mirrors drug abuse treatment and likely begins with detoxification, a potentially dangerous process in which a person stops drinking and allows the substance to work itself out of the body, triggering alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Detox is best attempted with medical supervision within an approved treatment center.
A variety of evidence-based treatments and therapies are available to help individuals understand their condition and develop the necessary determination, perspective, and coping strategies to help better manage cravings and relapses.
These treatments may include:
- motivational enhancement therapy/motivational interviewing
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- marital and family counseling
- group therapies
- contingency management
- alternative therapies (e.g. nature therapy, exercise, art therapy, yoga, meditation)
- participation in self-help peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery
Longer Lengths Of Treatment
For severe cases, inpatient treatment should be provided as long as necessary or possible, as 90-day programs have been shown to be more effective than 60-day programs, which are more effective than 30-day programs.
Likewise, longer-term outpatient treatment can give individuals a better chance of maintaining their progress, especially if either form of treatment can be continued with aftercare/follow-up services and/or participation in a peer support group.
Dual Diagnosis Treatments
Alcohol abuse often contributes to or develops alongside a variety of other health conditions including mental disorders and mental illnesses.
Accordingly, proper treatment takes these co-occurring disorders or comorbidities into account through dual diagnosis treatment. Healthcare providers work to improve multiple facets of an individual’s day-to-day experience and overall well-being by addressing both conditions.
These treatments may involve specialized forms of therapy and counseling, physical therapy, prescription medications, or other forms of treatment.
Use Of Approved Medications
While they should not be considered a cure, several medications have been developed and approved by the FDA to help support recovery from AUDs, including:
- acamprosate (Campral): used to rebalance brain chemistry that has been disrupted by alcohol abuse and withdrawal
- naltrexone (Vivitrol): first used in the treatment of substance use disorders like opioid addiction, this medication disrupts the sense of “reward” that comes with drinking alcohol, especially binge drinking or heavy drinking
- disulfiram (Antabuse): a medication that interferes with specific liver enzymes, resulting in pain and discomfort following even a small amount of alcohol consumption
These medications can be used for long periods of time without issue, and have been shown to greatly increase positive outcomes when used in combination with other evidence-based therapies and treatment approaches.
Alcohol Research & Health - Treating Alcoholism As a Chronic Disease
American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) - ASAM Definition of Addiction
American Psychiatric Association (APA) - Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - About Chronic Diseases
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) - Facts About Alcohol
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