How Addictive Is Alcohol, and What Other Risks Does It Pose?
Most adults have tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that more than half of those in the U.S., aged 12 and older, were considered current drinkers; this amounts to almost 140 million people.
Within the United States, alcohol is the most frequently used addictive substance. It is consumed legally in a wide variety of settings and often part of social situations and gatherings. Not everyone who drinks alcohol will become addicted to it, and most people who drink do so responsibly.
Patterns of heavy drinking on a regular basis are problematic and can lead to addiction. Alcohol changes the way the brain regulates moods and responds to pleasure. With repeated interaction, the brain’s hard-wired circuitry can actually be altered
The NSDUH reports that in 2016, just over 15 million Americans — or 1 in 18 adults aged 18 and older — struggled with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), or addiction involving alcohol. This is a chronic and compulsive disease signified by a lack of control over alcohol consumption.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publishes that alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and around 88,000 Americans die every year from alcohol-related issues.
In addition to fatality, alcoholism can lead to a host of emotional, behavioral, financial, occupational, interpersonal, and physical health problems. Many of the issues related to alcohol abuse can be managed and even reversed with comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment and sustained abstinence.
How Much Alcohol Does It Take to Get Addicted?
Most people who consume alcohol do so in amounts and ways that is not problematic, but patterns of regular excessive drinking increase the risk for addiction. Per NIAAA, low-risk drinking for men involves drinking no more than 4 drinks per day and no more than 14 drinks per week; for women, this is no more than 3 drinks per day and no more than 7 per week.
A standard drink is classified as:
- One beer (12 ounces at 5 percent alcohol)
- One glass of wine (5 ounces at 12 percent alcohol)
- One serving of malt liquor (8 to 9 ounces at 7 percent alcohol)
- One shot of distilled spirits (1.5 ounces at 40 percent alcohol, which is 80 proof)
Staying within these low-risk drinking limits is generally considered safe and usually won’t lead to addiction. Binge or heavy drinking on a regular basis can, however.
Binge drinking is defined as drinking 5 drinks for a man, or 4 for a woman, in a two-hour period, or bringing your BAC (blood alcohol content) up to 0.08 g/dL. Binge drinking five or more days in a month is considered heavy drinking.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that drinking 15 or more drinks per week for a man, or 8 or more drinks for a woman, is classified as heavy drinking. Patterns of heavy drinking can lead to alcoholism.
Risks for addiction can vary from person to person. For example, people have different metabolic rates; therefore, one person may process alcohol faster than another and be able to drink more with less effect, and vice versa. Body weight, sex, race, and other biological aspects can play a role in this.
There are also some additional factors that can increase the odds that someone will struggle with addiction.
- Underage drinking: The brain and body are not fully formed in the teen and early adulthood years. Any alcohol consumption prior to the legal drinking age of 21 is considered risky.
- Genetics: Alcohol addiction is heritable. The journal Psychological Medicine reports a genetic link about half of the time, which means if a family member struggles with addiction, there is a greater chance that you will too.
- Presence of a mental health or medical condition: A co-occurring disorder can increase the odds for alcohol addiction.
- Using other drugs concurrently: Other drugs can interact with alcohol and exacerbate the potential risk factors, including the rate of addiction.
- Environmental factors: Chronic and high levels of stress can increase drinking rates and therefore the odds for addiction.
Alcohol Poisoning and the Hazards of Addiction
When you drink alcohol, it enters the bloodstream and makes chemical changes in the brain. Some of the brain’s chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, that work to regulate movement functions, emotions, sleep abilities, memory, impulse control, problem-solving abilities, and decision-making processes are impacted.
This can make it difficult to understand the consequences of your actions. It also lowers your inhibitions and makes you more likely to take bigger risks. This can increase the likelihood of being injured, getting into an accident, or entering situations that can be dangerous and have lasting consequences.
The more you drink, the more these risk factors increase. Unsafe sex can lead to unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of a sexual or infectious disease, for example.
More than one person dies every hour in the United States as a result of an alcohol-impaired driver, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes. Alcohol impairs judgment, slows reaction time and reflexes, and makes it hard to concentrate and think clearly.
Too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it lowers body temperature and blood pressure, while it also slows down breathing and heart rate.
The following are signs of an alcohol overdose:
- Uncoordinated gait
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weak pulse
- Bluish color to the nails, lips, and skin
- Cold and damp skin
- Significant mental confusion
- Extreme drowsiness and potentially passing out
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Tremors or seizures
- Dulled responses
Any of these signs are considered a medical emergency, and immediate professional help is needed. NIAAA warns that alcohol poisoning can cause a person to choke, lose consciousness, or slip into a coma. It can be life-threatening and cause lasting brain damage.
Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol addiction means that a person drinks more often and more regularly. They are therefore at a higher risk for alcohol poisoning, but alcohol is also a substance that your brain adapts to with regular use. This is called tolerance.
When tolerance forms, it will take more alcohol to get drunk or to create the pleasant buzz that is often desired. Drinking more and drinking more often can cause alcohol dependence. This is a physical manifestation. When dependence sets in, alcohol withdrawal symptoms commonly occur when alcohol wears off.
Alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to life threatening. The NICE Clinical Guidelines explains that alcohol withdrawal symptoms are generally mild to moderate; however, about 5 percent of the time, delirium tremens (DTs) can occur, which can be fatal. DTs includes hallucinations, delirium, agitation, confusion, fever, irregular heart rate, and seizures.
There are other signs of alcohol withdrawal.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Racing heart and high blood pressure
- Mental “fogginess”
- Insomnia and sleep difficulties
- Cravings for alcohol
- Suicidal ideations and significant mood swings
Alcohol withdrawal can start within a few hours of stopping drinking, but DTs may not show up for a day or two. When alcohol addiction is present and chronic alcohol use is a factor, withdrawal should be managed through a medical detox program.
Stopping alcohol use cold turkey after a significant dependence is built can be dangerous. Medical intervention is needed to manage the potential side effects.
Effects of Long-Term Alcohol Use
- High blood pressure
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver disease and liver inflammation, including cirrhosis
- Heart arrhythmias
- Increased risk for head, neck, throat, colorectal, and breast cancer
- Weakened immune system
Alcohol can also cause brain damage and the onset of a degenerative brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke’s encephalopathy occurs due to a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the brain that can be triggered by long-term and excessive alcohol consumption, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports. Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes mental confusion, low blood pressure, vision problems, and a lack of muscle coordination.
It can also progress into Korsakoff’s syndrome, which can lead to amnesia, disorientation, and issues learning and remembering new information. Korsakoff’s syndrome can significantly impair a person’s ability to function normally and may not be entirely reversible with abstinence.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy may be treated and managed prior to progression into Korsakoff’s syndrome if alcohol use is stopped and medical intervention occurs.
Alcohol addiction can also cause severe dehydration and other nutritional deficits that can lead to weight problems and diabetes.
Ultimately, alcoholism can cause serious health problems, some of which are not reversible. The longer alcohol is consumed at high levels, the more significant these issues can become.
Alcohol addiction can also cause many behavioral and interpersonal issues. Trouble at home and with loved ones due to an inability to consistently fulfill obligations as well as difficult mood swings and even a potential complete shift in personality can be the result of alcohol addiction. Financial struggles can be a consequence due to decreased workplace production and even possible loss of employment related to alcohol abuse. Individuals may run into trouble with the law or face criminal charges related to actions that occur while under the influence of alcohol.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) warns that alcohol use can raise the risk for death involving suicide, homicide, car accidents, and injuries.
How to Avoid These Risks
Chronic alcohol abuse raises all the risks and consequences associated with alcohol intoxication. Alcohol addiction can significantly interfere in a person’s daily life as well as the lives of everyone around them, including family and friends.
The best way to avoid these risks is to address drinking issues. This involves professional help.
In a complete treatment program, you can address all issues related to alcohol abuse. This can help you to stop drinking and improve your overall quality of life.
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Drinking Levels Defined. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Alcohol Use: Facts & Resources. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The Heritability of Alcohol Use Disorders: a Meta-Analysis of Twin and Adoption Studies. (April 2015). Psychological Medicine.
Impaired Driving: Get the Facts. (June 2017). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose. (October 2018). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Alcohol Use Disorders: Diagnosis and Clinical Management of Alcohol-Related Physical Complications. (2010). NICE Clinical Guideline Center.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page. (June 2018). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
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