Causes & Effects of Alcohol Addiction

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Learn about alcohol addiction and abuse

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the United States and in many other nations. As the intoxicating ingredient in wine, beer, and liquor, alcohol has a prevalent presence in many cultures and communities, and is incorporated into a wide range of religious and secular rituals. However, the virtual omnipresence of alcohol does not mean that consuming this substance is a risk-free behavior. While many people are able to drink alcoholic beverages without incurring temporary or long-term damage, many others experience significant problems that are directly and indirectly related to their alcohol use.

Abusing alcohol, even once, can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing. When alcohol abuse becomes a common behavior, the number and intensity of possible detrimental effects can increase significantly. Possible negative outcomes from alcohol abuse include health damage, cognitive impairments, injury due to impaired functioning, and addiction. Alcohol addiction, which is also referred to as alcohol use disorder, alcohol dependency, and alcoholism, is among the most common substance use disorders, and can be extremely difficult to overcome.

Depending upon the nature and severity of a person’s problems with alcohol, attempting to stop drinking can be a painful and potentially dangerous experience. Thankfully, with effective professional help through a reputable comprehensive treatment center, an individual can overcome the compulsion to abuse alcohol and can make the lifestyle changes that will support long-term sobriety.


Alcohol addiction statistics

Alcohol abuse has been identified as the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for more than 88,000 annual deaths. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that 86 percent of U.S. adults have abused alcohol at least once in their lives, and more than half of all U.S. adults have consumed this substance at least once in the previous 30 days. According to the American Psychological Association, or APA, between 8 and 9 percent of adults in the U.S., including about 12 percent of men and 5 percent of women, will struggle with alcohol use disorder in a given 12-month period. The APA also reports that alcohol use disorder is most common among young adults, ages 18 to 29, and least common among senior adults, ages 65 and above.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for alcohol addiction

The following are among the many factors that can influence a person’s risk for alcohol use and addiction:

Genetic: People who have a parent or sibling with an alcohol use disorder have a significantly greater risk of developing alcohol use disorder than do individuals whose family history does not include alcohol dependence. The genetic influence on the development of alcohol use disorder is supported by research involving children whose birth parents were dependent upon alcohol, but who were adopted at birth and raised by parents who did not struggle with alcohol abuse.

Environmental: The availability and cultural acceptability of alcohol increases a person’s risk for abusing and becoming dependent upon this substance. High stress, early exposure to alcohol, and associating with individuals who abuse alcohol may also increase a person’s risk for alcohol abuse and addiction.

Risk Factors:

  • Cultural acceptability of alcohol abuse
  • Early exposure to alcohol
  • Age (alcohol abuse is most common among young adults)
  • Gender (alcohol abuse is more common among men than women)
  • Family history of alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Prior substance abuse
  • Certain mental health disorders
  • Impulsivity
  • Insufficient stress management capabilities
  • Peer use of alcohol

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction

The following are among the more common symptoms that may indicate that a person has been abusing or has become dependent upon alcohol:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Spending considerable time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of alcohol
  • Pattern of unexplained absences from work, school, or other responsibilities
  • Abusing alcohol even after experiencing negative consequences related to prior alcohol use
  • Using alcohol in situations where it is clearly dangerous to do so
  • Reducing or abandoning important activities in order to acquire, use, or recover from alcohol
  • Trying and failing to end one’s use of alcohol

Physical symptoms:

  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Strong cravings for alcohol
  • Tolerance (needing increased amounts of alcohol to become intoxicated)
  • Involuntary repetitive eye movements
  • Muscle weakness
  • Paresthesia (tingling sensation in fingers or toes)
  • Insomnia

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Impaired judgment
  • Memory problems
  • Needing to ingest increased amounts of alcohol to become intoxicated

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Drastic changes in mood
  • Uncharacteristic anger and/or aggressiveness
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation


Effects of alcohol addiction

Long-term alcohol abuse may lead to various negative effects, including the following:

  • Ulcers
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Gastritis
  • Heart problems
  • Increased risk of developing certain cancers
  • Injuries due to impaired cognition and motor functioning
  • Diminished academic performance
  • Substandard occupational performance
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Family discord
  • Damaged or failed interpersonal relationships
  • Financial setbacks
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Dual Diagnosis

Risk of dual diagnosis among people who are addicted to alcohol

Individuals who develop alcohol use disorder may be at an increased risk for certain additional disorders. When a person struggles with multiple disorders like this, clinicians often use the term dual diagnosis. The following are among the more common disorders that can accompany alcoholism:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety disorders

The risk of dual diagnosis among people who develop alcohol use disorder highlights the importance of getting comprehensive help. Many people don’t realize they’re struggling with multiple disorders until they begin to receive care. Failing to properly identify and address dual diagnosis concerns can undermine your ability to achieve successful long-term recovery from alcohol addiction.

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of alcohol withdrawal and overdose

Effects of alcohol withdrawal: People whose bodies have become dependent upon alcohol may experience several distressing symptoms when they attempt to stop drinking. The following are among the more common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome:

  • Powerful cravings for alcohol
  • Profuse perspiration
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Twitches, tics, and/or tremors
  • Visual, tactile, or auditory hallucinations
  • Seizure

Effects of alcohol overdose: Anyone who demonstrates the following symptoms after consuming alcohol may have overdosed and is in need of immediate medical attention:

  • Confusion
  • Impaired motor functions
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Slowed, shallow, or otherwise irregular breathing
  • Rapid, faint, or otherwise irregular pulse
  • Hypothermia
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish tint to skin near lips and/or fingertips
  • Seizure

Additional Facts

How is alcohol made?

Alcohol is made by fermentation, the process in which yeast breaks down sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As carbon dioxide bubbles out into the air, the resulting solution is a mixture of alcohol and water. The various sources of sugar used during fermentation result in different forms of alcohol: the sugar from grapes is used to make wine, malted barley is used to make beer, and sugar cane or molasses makes rum.

To create stronger drinks, an additional process, distillation, is required. Distillation requires heating the drink until ethanol evaporates. The ethanol gas is caught and cooled so it condenses into a stronger concentration of ethanol liquid. Distilled spirits, or “hard liquor”, include drinks such as vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey. The strength of alcohol is measured by the percentage of alcohol per volume.

How do people get high on alcohol?

Alcohol causes relaxation and feelings of well-being. Although many think that an occasional drink will do no harm, regular drinking over time can lead to gradual tolerance, physical dependence, and addiction. The recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption is two to three standard drinks per day for men and one to two for women. (A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.3 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.) Any more than these levels place you at a higher risk for developing drinking problems.

Binge drinking, or consuming more than five standard drinks in a single setting, will cause notable physically and psychological effects, including a high, but binging places the drinker at a high risk for overdosing.

What should I not mix with alcohol?

Alcohol should not be mixed with the following substances:

  • Depressant drugs such as Xanax and Valium: Xanax and other sedative drugs slow down the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), which is similar to the effects of alcohol. The additive effects of alcohol and depressant drugs overwhelm the brain and result in overdose. Other sedative drugs include Ambien, Ativan, Rohypnol, Librium, and Klonopin.
  • Opioids such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, or heroin: Opioids and alcohol both depress the part of the brain that controls the basic functions of life—breathing, body temperature, reflexes, blood pressure, and other vital functions.Together, these two classes of drugs produce a synergistic effect, which means that the combined effect is more powerful than the separate effects combined, and can easily stop the natural drive to breathe.
  • Stimulants such as Cocaine, Meth, and Ritalin: Stimulants like cocaine or meth and depressants like alcohol have opposite effects on the body. They send mixed messages to your heart and other vital organs and may cause organ failure. The effects of stimulants also mask the overdose effects of alcohol, creating the illusion of normalcy despite dangerously high alcohol blood levels.

What are the short-term effects of alcohol?

Short-term effects of alcohol include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Relaxation
  • Feelings of pleasure
  • Distorted vision
  • Impaired judgment and slowed thinking
  • Decreased perception and coordination
  • Unconsciousness
  • Blackouts (memory lapses where the drinker cannot remember events that occurred while under the influence)

What are the long-term effects of alcohol?

Long-term effects of alcohol include:

  • Liver failure
  • Brain damage
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome and other birth defects during pregnancy
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Malnutrition
  • Weight gain
  • Risk of cancer in the mouth and throat
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk for stroke and heart-related diseases
  • Tolerance and physical dependence
  • Addiction

What are the overdose effects of alcohol?

Overdosing on alcohol can cause

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slow and irregular breathing
  • Pale and clammy skin
  • Seizures

How long does alcohol stay in my system?

The length of time alcohol stays in your system will depend on your body’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which you can find out using a blood alcohol calculator. However, alcohol metabolizes alcohol at a constant rate of 0.015 BAC per hour, regardless of weight or gender. You can calculate the approximate time it takes for alcohol to get out of your system by dividing your BAC by 0.015.

Note that eating, sleeping, or drinking caffeine will not speed up this process. Only time can sober you up.

How long do the effects of alcohol last?

Alcohol’s short-term effects last until it is completely metabolized by the body. This may take from minutes to hours, depending on your blood alcohol concentration (see question above). But the long term effects of alcohol may last a lifetime (see the long term effects). For example, an accumulation of fat in the liver can be observed after just one episode of heavy drinking.

How much alcohol can I take before I risk overdosing?

The amount of alcohol it takes to overdose depends on your gender, age, weight, and how long you have been drinking. Other factors, such as a pre-existing illness (diabetes, heart disease) and the amount of food you consumed before drinking will also influence the outcome. Generally, binge drinking (consuming more than 5 drinks in a single setting) is the most common cause of overdose.

Overdose becomes possible when blood alcohol levels reaches 0.28. In other words, the majority of people will be at risk for overdose after consuming 21 standard drinks in 6 or fewer hours.  (A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.3 ounce of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

Alcohol is absorbed quickly, but it takes a lot more time for your body to get rid of it. It takes your liver an hour to process the alcohol in one drink. During binge drinking, blood alcohol levels spike in a short time, and the effects of alcohol can overwhelm the body, sedating critical areas of the brain, and cause overdose.

How do I know if I’m addicted to alcohol?

Below are common signs of addiction:

  • Needing more of the alcohol to achieve the same effect (tolerance)
  • Drinking more alcohol than intended
  • Continuing to drink despite the negative consequences
  • Depending on alcohol to relax or enjoy yourself
  • Neglecting daily responsibilities due to drinking
  • Others have expressed concern about your alcohol use
  • Feelings of guilt after drinking

Can alcohol kill you?

Alcohol is one of the nation’s–and the world’s–leading causes of death. As mentioned above, overdose effects of alcohol include more than just a bad hangover, but fatal effects such as coma and seizures. Half of drinkers who reach blood alcohol levels of 0.4 will die, but many alcohol deaths occur on the road or through long-term health problems, such as liver disease.

  • According to the Center for disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 24,000 alcohol-induced deaths each year that are not traffic fatalities or homicides, and over 15,000 are caused by liver disease.
  • World-wide, alcohol causes more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence, according to the World Health Organization.
  • Approximately 2.5 million people die each year from alcohol related causes.
  • Alcohol is a causal factor in 60 types of diseases and injuries.
  • Alcohol made up one third of all traffic fatalities in 2010.
  • Alcohol related car accidents kill more people between the ages of 17 and 34 than any other cause.


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