Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is a disease that changes the way the brain works. It causes negative emotions, impulsive behavior, cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Treatment for alcohol addiction includes supervised detox, counseling and therapy, and support group participation.

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Alcohol is one of the most popular addictive substances in the world. Some people can control how much they drink, but others have risk factors that prevent them from drinking responsibly. When these people become addicted to alcohol, they’re often referred to as alcoholics.

Fast Facts: Alcohol

Addiction Liability
Very High
Scientific Name
Street Names
Booze, Chug, Juice, Good Stuff
Side Effects
High Blood Pressure, Ulcers, Reproductive Problems, Vision Problems, Suppressed Immune System, Brain Damage, Birth Defects, Cancer Risk
How It's Used
Psychological Dependence
Very High
Physical Dependence
Very High
Legal Status
Legal for Ages 21 and Up

Some alcoholics appear to be high-functioning. Although they’re addicted, they can hold a steady job and take care of their daily responsibilities. But most alcoholics experience negative consequences because of their drinking.

People with mild alcohol problems may be able to quit drinking on their own or with the help of support groups. However, people who are addicted to alcohol require treatment. Recovery from alcohol addiction is achievable with assistance from doctors, therapists, peers, friends and family members.

Dr. Kevin Wandler of Advanced Recovery Systems describes the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction. He discusses the roles that tolerance and withdrawal play in alcohol addiction.

Causes of Alcohol Addiction

Most addictive substances, including alcohol, affect the pleasure and reward center in the brain. Alcohol manipulates this system, which drives us to repeat behaviors that we enjoy. When people become addicted, their brains are chemically rewired to desire alcohol.

Some people are more likely to become addicted to alcohol because their brains are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Individuals with certain types of mental health disorders may also be more likely to become addicted to alcohol. These conditions are known as co-occurring disorders when they exist alongside alcohol addiction.

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Biological Causes

Prolonged or repeated alcohol abuse can change brain chemistry and cause alcohol addiction. The disease of alcoholism disrupts normal judgement and self-control. It makes people crave alcohol and believe that they must go to any length to drink.

Alcohol addiction is the same thing as alcoholism and alcohol use disorder. These terms can be used interchangeably. Alcohol abuse refers to drinking alcohol in an unsafe manner. Alcohol dependence is a related physical condition that causes withdrawal symptoms when alcohol isn’t present in the body, but it isn’t the same thing as alcoholism.

Learn more about the disease of alcoholism

“Alcohol was always a part of my life starting from when I was a child. I’m from an Irish-Catholic family. We have alcoholics all through our family tree.”

Susan Broderick, in recovery from alcohol addiction since 2001

Social Causes

Because drinking is a regular part of society, alcohol addiction is relatively common. Most Americans try alcohol before they’re 21. Youth observe adults drinking alcohol socially, and many believe that it’s safe because their parents do it.

Grade in Which Alcohol Was First Consumed

graph of when students first consumed alcohol Source: 2016 Monitoring the Future Survey

About 80 percent of Americans ages 12 and older have consumed alcohol at least once in their lifetime, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Find more facts and stats about alcohol

Doctor talking to patient

Effects of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction causes physical, psychological and social side effects. The most common signs of alcoholism include continuing to drink despite negative consequences and prioritizing drinking over anything else. The disease can also be diagnosed based on other behaviors and health effects.

  • ekg icon

    Health Effects of Alcohol

    Alcohol causes a range of health effects. Short-term side effects of alcohol abuse include alcohol poisoning and blacking out. Long-term health effects of alcohol include depression, anxiety and a variety of diseases and disorders.

    Learn more about the effects of alcohol

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    Social Effects of Alcohol

    Friends and family members of alcoholics also face the consequences of their loved one’s disease. Alcohol addiction causes legal, financial and relationship problems. Alcoholics often struggle to have healthy relationships with loved ones.

    Learn more about the effects of alcoholism on families

  • risks icon

    Risks of Mixing Alcohol

    Some people who are addicted to alcohol mix the substance with other drugs. But alcohol can cause dangerous interactions with over-the-counter drugs and some everyday substances, such as caffeine. When people mix alcohol with illicit or prescription drugs, the interactions can be life-threatening.

    Learn more about the dangers of mixing alcohol

“It’s pretty clear when someone’s life becomes unmanageable or when there are consequences that are occurring from use.”

Quiz: Am I an Alcoholic?

Determine if you are an alcoholic or how much alcohol is affecting your life by taking the 11-question quiz.

Take the Quiz

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol addiction is a self-diagnosable condition. But many people struggle to recognize the symptoms. You can determine if you have a mild, moderate or severe alcohol use disorder by taking a simple quiz.

Alcohol rehab helps people overcome alcohol withdrawal in a safe setting. Health professionals ease the experience with around-the-clock care and monitoring. Once people detox from alcohol, counseling and therapy are vital for preventing relapse. These services can teach people how to live without alcohol.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Multidimensional family therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Motivational incentives

Counseling and therapy help people find motivation for entering rehab, garner positive reinforcement and learn to overcome underlying causes of alcohol addiction. Rehab facilities may also offer medications that help people abstain from drinking.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three medications for assisting treatment for alcoholism:

  • Acamprosate can relieve withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and depression.
  • Disulfiram discourages drinking by causing sweating, flushing and nausea when a patient drinks alcohol.
  • Naltrexone blocks cravings and mental side effects caused by alcohol, such as euphoria or intoxication.

Physicians and addiction specialists can also prescribe a variety of medications, such as anticonvulsants and anti-nausea drugs, to treat symptoms of withdrawal, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Recovery group meeting

Alcohol Addiction Recovery

After rehab, individuals should continue to access support groups and recovery resources. Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most well-known support groups for people in recovery from alcohol addiction.

Sober living homes, vocational training and family counseling can aid a person’s transition back to society after treatment. These resources increase a person’s ability to find purpose, connect with the community and rebuild relationships.

You can find hope and motivation for recovery by reading stories of real people who have overcome alcohol addiction.

Tash Moore, a recovered alcoholic and social media management professional

Tash Moore

A group of friends got Tash to try her first drink, but depression and insecurities fueled her addiction to alcohol. She tried quitting cold turkey, but withdrawals sent her to the hospital. Learn how therapy helped her finally enter sobriety.

Dan Renaud, a recovered addict and program director of River Oak Center

Dan Renaud

At age 21, Dan had been drinking for more than six years. He turned to the only resource that was available in the 1980s: Alcoholics Anonymous. See how Dan is helping teens avoid the mistakes he made growing up.

Susan Broderick, a recovered alcoholic and head of research at Georgetown University's National Juvenile Justive Prosecution Center

Susan Broderick

Susan Broderick came from a family of alcoholics. Despite her animosity toward her parents’ drinking habits, Susan followed in their footsteps. Learn how Susan has maintained recovery from alcohol addiction despite numerous obstacles.

Alcohol addiction is one of the most common chronic diseases in the United States. Nearly every person knows someone affected by alcohol. Alcoholics can take several paths to recovery. Treatment, support, faith and persistence can help any person live in sobriety.

Joey Rosenberg
Joey Rosenberg Editor,
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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