Although alcohol is legal for adults ages 21 and older in the United States, it is also one of the most abused and addictive intoxicants available. Millions of people struggle with alcohol use disorder, but even beyond that, there are millions more people who put themselves at risk for alcohol poisoning by binge drinking and develop chronic illnesses from heavy drinking. Recovering from alcohol abuse of any kind is essential as health consequences can be treated and even reversed; however, it is important to get help overcoming alcohol abuse or addiction because it is dangerous to pursue alone.
A healthy liver can process about one serving of alcohol per hour. Consuming more than the liver can handle leads to intoxication; over time, this can cause harm to the body and mind. Binge drinking involves consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one occasion, which usually lasts a few hours (like an evening with friends). Heavy drinking means a person consumes more than one alcoholic beverage per day, which can change body chemistry enough to increase the risk of some chronic health problems, like liver damage or cancer.
Alcohol Abuse in the United States
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), problem drinking that becomes compulsive, causing physical dependence, is alcohol use disorder. This condition is colloquially called alcoholism, and it is a form of addiction. NIAAA found that in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2015:
- Just over 56 percent of people surveyed consumed alcohol in the past month.
- About 16 million people in the US had AUD.
- More men than women struggled with AUD: about 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women.
- Around 623,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 struggled with AUD.
- About 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related medical complications.
- Around 31 percent of overall driving fatalities involved alcohol.
- About 48.5 percent of liver disease deaths were caused by alcohol abuse.
- Alcohol was involved in 47.9 percent of cirrhosis deaths.
- Excessive alcohol consumption caused 76.5 percent of cirrhosis cases.
How Does Alcohol Abuse Lead to Physical Dependence?
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to physical dependence, but several underlying factors contribute to whether or not a person is at risk of developing alcohol use disorder or becoming dependent on alcohol. Suffering from a mood disorder, like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or bipolar disorder, puts a person at greater risk for alcohol use disorder because many people with these undiagnosed conditions use substances, especially alcohol, to self-medicate their intense emotions. People who have a family history of alcohol abuse or close family members with mental illnesses are at greater risk for developing substance abuse problems, especially alcohol abuse. There is some indication that genes contribute to alcohol addiction risk, but environment appears to contribute more to the development of this condition.
- Alcohol Rehab Programs
- Energy Drinks and Alcohol
- Coping with Withdrawals from Alcohol
- Binge Drinking and Alcoholism
- Stats on Drunk Driving
- Outpatient Program Options
- Preventing Alcohol Relapse
Detoxing Alone Is Dangerous
People who realize they struggle with alcohol consumption may attempt to control their drinking; if they are unable to stop drinking or continue to drink compulsively, this indicates an alcohol use disorder. Sometimes, people attempt to overcome heavy drinking or AUD alone; not only is it more difficult to detox alone without support from doctors and loved ones, but it can be dangerous.
Alcohol withdrawal has several side effects, which are not only uncomfortable but life-threatening. Withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Delirium tremens
The condition delirium tremens (DT) is dangerous. Symptoms include extreme confusion, hallucinations, fever, and seizures. The death rate among people who develop DT through alcohol withdrawal is between 1 percent and 5 percent.
The risk for DT or alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is greater among those who have struggled with AUD or heavy drinking for several years. However, it is possible that anyone suffering AUD can develop these harmful conditions, which is why it is important to consult a doctor to start safely detoxing from alcohol. The goals of medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms are:
- Reducing uncomfortable symptoms
- Preventing complications
- Helping the person get on track to overcoming the addiction
Detoxing with a Doctor
Working with a physician who specializes in treating alcohol use disorder and heavy drinking helps a person overcome their physical dependence on this intoxicating substance. A medical professional can prescribe medicines based on a person’s history of drinking and their ongoing symptoms. Mild withdrawal for many kinds of drug addictions may involve over-the-counter medications, like ibuprofen to manage pain, anti-nausea medicines or heartburn medicines, and even vitamins or herbal supplements. Detoxing from alcohol may also involve prescription medication to prevent complications. Some prescriptions used to treat alcohol use disorder or heavy drinking include:
- Benzodiazepines: Used most of the time to treat anxiety, insomnia, or panic disorders, benzodiazepines act on a similar area of the brain as alcohol. A doctor may prescribe these drugs to ease withdrawal symptoms and then begin to taper the person off benzodiazepines, as these drugs can also become addictive.
- Naltrexone: This medication blocks the effects of opioids, but it has also been shown to reduce a person’s compulsive abuse of, and cravings for, alcohol. When naltrexone is prescribed in the treatment of alcohol abuse, it is most often prescribed at the end of detox or after detox is complete because it helps maintain abstinence.
- Acamprosate: Like naltrexone, acamprosate also reduces cravings for alcohol, which helps maintain abstinence after detox.
Seizure disorders and delirium tremens associated with alcohol abuse may need consistent monitoring, requiring hospitalization or inpatient rehabilitation. Sometimes, seizure disorders induced by alcohol will not go away, and the person will continue to need medical intervention. However, working with a doctor to detox safely is the best process for overcoming the body’s dependence on alcohol.
Treatment for AUD, heavy drinking, or binge drinking does not end with detox; instead, the person should enter a rehabilitation program to get the therapy they need to understand their addiction. The therapeutic and social support from a rehabilitation program will help the person change their behaviors and stay sober.
Detox alone won’t cure you
Detox, while essential to many addiction recovery treatment plans, is only a first step. After detox, the body is no longer compelled to drink as it once was, but the alcoholic will still have the urge — and that’s the very nature of this disease. By combining detox with alcohol rehab, the alcoholic learns how to overcome the desire to drink. In time, recovery offers real, sustained happiness that’s far greater than what can be found inside a bottle.