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What Are Alcohol Disorders and How Do They Damage Your Body?

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Chances are, you know someone who has a drinking problem. For people without the genetic, environmental or emotional tendency to abuse alcohol, having a few drinks is no big deal. But if you’ve ever been close to someone who suffers from alcohol use disorder, the cost of that abuse is high.

What is an alcohol use disorder? 

An alcohol use disorder is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use. It contains the conditions that some people call alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction and alcoholism.

The 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported 133.1 million current alcohol users ages 12 or older; 45.1% were binge drinkers in the past month. The percentage of past month binge drinkers was highest among:

  • 29.2% of young adults aged 18 to 25
  • 22.4% of adults aged 26 or older
  • 3.8% of adolescents aged 12 to 17

That same year 5.9 million people aged 12 to 20 were past-month alcohol users. Estimates of binge alcohol use and heavy alcohol use in the past month among underage people were 8.3% and 1.6%.

Alcohol abusers often don’t admit that they have a problem. Instead, they embrace common myths about alcohol abuse to remain in denial, saying, “I can’t be an alcoholic because I …

  • Hold down a job
  • Just drink beer
  • Don’t drink every day
  • Can stop whenever I want to

Unfortunately, none of these statements are valid for a person with a drinking problem.

The toll alcohol takes

Alcohol abuse takes a heavy toll in the form of physical, emotional and psychological costs. Abusing alcohol can shave 10 years off a person’s life. The physical repercussions may include blackouts and memory difficulties leading to alcohol dementia, heart disease, hypertension, liver disease and osteoporosis.

Beyond the health concerns, the emotional effects can range from divorce to domestic violence, unemployment and homelessness. For loved ones and friends, watching a person spiral downward into alcoholism is devastating.

And alcohol kills. More than 140,000 people (approximately 97,000 men and 43,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually. Alcohol is the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, behind tobacco, poor diet, physical inactivity and illegal drugs. In 2021, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities added up to 13,384 deaths and continued to rise.

Red flags and warning signs

Is your alcohol use keeping you in a “CAGE”? The CAGE is a screening tool used for identifying hazardous drinking. Two positive responses are considered positive tests and indicate that a clinician needs further assessment.

  • Have you felt the need to cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Eye opener: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

The problem drinker has an unhealthy focus on drinking, can't control the habit and uses it without concern for consequence. There's a significant issue if two or more of these behaviors are common in adolescents.

  • Abrupt changes in mood and personality
  • A sudden decline in attendance or performance at school
  • Impaired relationships with family and friends
  • Lying and stealing
  • A suspicious new crowd of friends

Getting help

The good news is that alcohol abuse can be conquered through psychotherapy, medication management and social interventions such as 12-step programs. Programs range from inpatient detox and rehab to partial hospitalization to an intensive outpatient program that includes family treatment and aftercare services. The best approach is multidisciplinary, with board-certified psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers taking a holistic approach to helping the person get their life back on track.

Most alcohol use disorder patients don’t get help alone. Usually, it takes the encouragement and tough love of a spouse, family member or employer to get them into treatment. In more severe cases, an intervention team of friends and loved ones confront the person with a plan outlining the consequences of their continued alcohol abuse.

Ideally, once a person gets sober, they continue to engage with his treatment team for at least a year. This safety net can prevent relapses and help maintain balance as recovery becomes a day-to-day reality.

If your drinking is causing problems, you have a drinking problem. Get help now so you can live the life you deserve, free of addiction.

Learn more about the Ochsner Recovery Program 

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