Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

Home » Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease affecting millions of people yearly. Understanding this disorder is the first step to recovering from it.

Defining Alcohol Use Disorder

To better understand alcohol use disorder, we’ll start with the alcohol use disorder definition. Alcohol use disorder, also known as AUD, is a chronic medical condition involving heavy, frequent, or continuous alcohol use. Individuals living with alcohol use disorder are unable to stop themselves from drinking. Even when they want to cut down or quit, they can’t. And even when drinking is the direct cause of negative consequences in their life. 

Alcohol use disorder is one of the most common addictions in the US. Data published by the NIH shows that 14.1 million adults ages 18 and older (5.6 percent of this age group) had AUD in 2019. A study out of Harvard shows that an estimated 10% of adult men and 5% of adult women have an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol use disorder is a spectrum disorder, which can range in severity from mild to severe and develop over time or incredibly rapidly. With the disorder’s severity range, the alcohol dependence and resulting alcohol withdrawal symptoms will also be on a spectrum of seriousness or severity. 

No single factor causes or leads to developing an alcohol use disorder, but many factors and influences have an impact. While science is still examining what exactly catalyzes an alcohol use disorder, there are three general categories that the factors fall into genetics & heredity, environmental factors in childhood, and attempts to dull or escape uncomfortable or even painful emotions and thoughts.

Understanding Drinking Patterns

Let’s look at drinking patterns to understand better what constitutes an AUD. Drinking patterns are based on the standard drink: a 5% ABV 12-ounce beer, a 12% ABV 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce serving of a 40% ABV spirit. This is important because while these are the standard drinks, they don’t generally reflect serving sizes in many establishments. 

The corresponding drinking patterns are as follows:

  • Low-risk drinking – no more than three drinks in a day or 7 per week for women, and no more than four drinks in a day or 14 per week for men
  • Moderate alcohol consumption – 1 drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men
  • Binge drinking – 4-5 drinks within 2 hours
  • Heavy drinking – binge drinking on five days out of the past 30

Alcoholism or Heavy Drinking?

As we mentioned earlier, alcoholism is a spectrum disorder, so it can be challenging for many to determine if they or someone they know has developed an alcohol use disorder or is simply engaging in heavy drinking. There are mild, moderate, and severe classifications of an alcohol use disorder, and to determine what level someone is at, they need to check off some essential criteria as “yes” or “no” in the context of whether the statement describes them. 

Some of the criteria include the following:

  • They want to reduce or even stop drinking but cannot do so alone.
  • Being unable to control the amount of alcohol consumed effectively.
  • Committing a significant amount of time to get, use, or recover from alcohol.
  • Having constant, constant urges to drink alcohol.
  • Being unable to maintain performance or obligations at school, home, or even work due to drinking.
  • Reducing and eventually giving up on hobbies and other activities they once enjoyed in favor of using alcohol.
  • Continuing to drink alcohol despite the obvious and severe problems it causes in relationships, school or work performance, and even social and physical health problems.
  • Drinking in situations where alcohol is not served or is potentially dangerous, such as shortly before or while driving, operating heavy machinery, or even going swimming. 
  • Building a tolerance to alcohol so that more significant amounts or frequent drinking is needed to get the same effect. 
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms begin when alcohol hasn’t been consumed for several hours.

The Disease of Alcoholism

The disease of alcoholism and alcohol addiction, in general, is treated with a variety of different treatment programs and treatment methods. When an individual enters treatment, they will create a treatment plan tailored to their needs with their doctor or healthcare professional.

Treatment programs commonly used to address alcohol abuse are inpatient detox services and outpatient continuing care programs. Inpatient programs involve the patient living at the treatment center until the completion of the program and can be found in both short-term and long-term. Outpatient programs allow patients to live independently while traveling to the treatment center a few times each week to participate in treatment and therapy.

Common treatment methods for the disease of alcoholism include behavioral therapies, medication, and support groups. Therapies can include a variety of psychotherapies as well as various therapeutic activities, like music, art, yoga, and more. 

Medications are frequently used to help facilitate a smoother detox process by making it more comfortable for the individual. Support groups are also crucial to many treatment plans. They help provide a sense of community for those in recovery. They also create a space to share safely and openly with others with similar struggles. 

Stages of Alcoholism

Just like many other addictions or compulsions, alcoholism is a disorder that develops in stages over time. Here’s more about the various stages of alcohol use disorder.

At-Risk Stage

This is the first stage. Anyone who has gone out to have a beer with co-workers will fall into this category. In this stage, individuals drink to unwind or to feel better. This is the first opportunity to begin building that tolerance for alcohol. 

Early AUD

Early alcohol use disorder is the stage that indicates an individual has progressed to the early stages of alcoholism and alcohol abuse. This stage will be marked by an increased tendency of the individual to isolate themselves and to ramp up drinking alone or in secret. 

Another sign of early-stage alcoholism is the occurrence of blackouts, where the individual cannot create or recall memories from a drinking period. Individuals in this stage will spend considerable time thinking about drinking or obtaining alcohol.

Mid-Stage AUD

Mid-stage alcoholism is indicated by the problems presented in early-stage AUD continuing to worsen and spiral out of control. When an individual enters mid-stage alcoholism, alcohol use has grown beyond the control of the individual. It has advanced to causing difficulties in daily life. 

Individuals in this stage will see alcohol-related problems manifest in work environments, family settings, financial management, physical health, and mental health. If someone with mid-stage alcohol use disorder is admitted to the hospital for scans and tests, damage can be seen to many of the organs and systems of the body.

Late-Stage AUD

Late-stage alcohol use disorder occurs when alcohol use has become the primary focus of the individual’s life. This prioritization will even extend to putting alcohol ahead of food, relationships & intimacy, major health concerns, and most forms of happiness. 

This is the most severe stage of AUD. It is the stage that signals the individual is nearing the end of their life. Late-stage alcoholism is marked by despair, potentially irreversible cognitive and physical brain damage, and extensive organ damage. Individuals in late-stage AUD will often not have long to live.

When to Get Help for Alcoholism

If you or someone you care about is battling alcohol abuse, the mere thought of getting help can be intimidating. Some people may not even be clear about when to seek help. 

One of the primary indications that someone needs help is beginning to experience withdrawal symptoms.  This happens when they haven’t had a drink in a while. Another solid sign that professional treatment may be needed is if there are more than one or two “yes” answers to the alcoholism criteria we listed above. 

The first step in getting help for alcoholism is to reach out to NYC Addiction Resources to find a treatment center nearby that can offer the programs and treatments that are a good fit for your recovery needs. After that, the only thing left to do is speak with admissions. Then you can start your journey to recovery with a solid foundation of professional help.