Alcohol Use Disorder: Symptoms and Ways to Treat It

Written by
Jacquelyn Buffo @ 8fit
Written by
Jacquelyn Buffo @ 8fit
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Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the clinical term given to problematic drinking. AUD is characterized by severe and compulsive alcohol consumption, negative emotional states when not drinking, and loss of control over alcohol consumption. AUD makes your life one never-ending pursuit of the next drink.

To be diagnosed with AUD, you must meet specific criteria as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5). Under the DSM-5, there are 11 criteria listed, and if you have met any two criteria within the past 12 months, you can be diagnosed with AUD. Depending on the number of criteria met, AUDs can be diagnosed as mild, moderate, and severe.

The 11 criteria are as follows:

  • Have you, on more than one occasion, wanted to stop or limit the amount you drank but you couldn’t?

  • Have you found that being intoxicated or sick from drinking impaired your ability to take care of your responsibilities at home, be with your family, or do your job or schoolwork?

  • Have you had times when you ended up drinking longer or drinking more than you intended?

  • Have you spent a lot of time being sick from consuming alcohol?

  • Do you experience cravings for alcohol or have a strong urge to drink?

  • Have you continued to drink despite alcohol causing problems in your relationships with family and friends?

  • Has drinking ever made you get into unsafe situations where you were at risk of getting hurt (operating machinery, driving, unsafe sexual practices)?

  • Have you stopped or cut way back on activities that you once enjoyed in order to drink?

  • Have you experienced an increase in anxiety and depression due to drinking and continued to drink anyway? Have you continued to drink after having a blackout?

  • Have you ever experienced withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, irritability, depression, nausea, or sweating after the effects of the alcohol have worn off?

  • Do you find that the normal number of drinks has less of an impact on you now?

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Alcohol is prevalent in modern-day society. On television, we see ice-cold beers on the most beautiful beaches, and major celebrities are often promoting their newest liquor company. There is no denying that alcohol is prevalent and often glorified in the media today. What the media may be slower to show are the statistics on alcohol consumption and on alcohol use disorder. 

For instance, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 86.3 % of adults in the United States report that they drank alcohol at some point in their lives in 2017; 26.4% of adults 18 and over reported that they had engaged in binge drinking within the past month; and 6.7% of people reported that they had used alcohol heavily within that month. Binge drinking is a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption within a two-hour period. For males, this is five or more drinks in two hours; for females, four or more within the same span of time.

Further statistics from the research in 2017 shows:

  • 14.1 million people ages 18 and older have an AUD. This is 5.7% of people in this age group.

  • 9 million men and 5.1 million women in the age group have an AUD.

  • 6.5% of adults with an AUD received treatment.

  • Approximately 443,000 adolescents (12-17 years old) had an AUD.

  • 5.2% of adolescents who had an AUD obtained treatment.

Signs and Symptoms

The 11 criteria for AUD diagnoses are indicators that you may suffer from an alcohol use disorder. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, alcohol use disorder causes a negative emotional state comprising anxiety and irritability when you aren’t drinking, physical and mental craving for alcohol, and an inability to control or stop drinking once you have started.

From a physical and behavioral perspective, symptoms of alcohol use disorder can look like:

  • Failing to meet responsibilities at work, home, school and with your family members

  • Social isolation and withdrawal

  • Intense mood swings

  • Cirrhosis of the liver or a fatty liver

  • Financial issues

  • Conflict in relationships with family members and friends

  • Neglecting personal hygiene tasks such as showering, eating, and sleeping adequately

Societal Impact

The impact of alcohol use disorder is vast and, at times, irreparable. The consequences can affect you on an individual level as well as on a societal level. Roughly 88,000 people die a year from alcohol-related issues, which makes alcohol the third leading cause of death in the country. In 2014, it was reported that alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases and injuries, including liver cirrhosis and several types of cancer.

More research needs to be conducted. However, as of 2010, the economic toll of alcohol abuse rose to $249 billion dollars. This number is based on loss of revenue in the workplace, insurance and healthcare costs, losses from motor vehicle accidents as a result of drinking and driving, and legal and criminal justice fees.

Ways to Treat Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, treatment options are available. The first step is to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider. Your provider can give you an evaluation to assess whether you have an alcohol use disorder, and, if so, the severity of your disorder. Based on that, you and your doctor will create a treatment plan that is tailored to your specific needs.

It’s important to remember that you should not stop drinking alcohol without the advice of a medical professional. Alcohol withdrawal can come with serious and even fatal side effects. In fact, every 1 in 20 people who stop drinking alcohol suddenly experience delirium tremors—severe and dangerous changes to your blood pressure and circulation that occur as the brain struggles to readjust. This state can lead to serious issues, such as stroke, heart attack, and even death.

Medication and talk therapy are common treatment options. Inpatient treatment, such as residential and detoxification programs, are common initial treatment options. Intensive outpatient and outpatient programs are popular treatment options as well that usually occurs after the detoxification stage.

Worried about money? Here's what to do if you can't afford therapy.

Whatever course of treatment you decide to take, it is essential that you talk to a medical professional beforehand. Support groups and self-help applications are also available such as Alcoholics Anonymous to assist you in whatever way possible.

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