“Alcohol use disorder” is the term used to describe a pattern of problematic alcohol use. Those afflicted with this disorder may be preoccupied with drinking alcohol, may continue to drink it even when problems occur, may need to drink more to achieve the same effects, and could experience withdrawal symptoms if drinking stops. Some people refer to alcohol use disorder as alcoholism. Problematic drinking may become worse over time, leading to many health issues.
Most people are able to use alcohol moderately without causing harm to their health or their personal lives. But alcohol use disorder affects roughly 18 million adults in the United States. For these people, drinking alcohol results in serious negative consequences. Alcohol use disorder can be mild or severe.
The causes of alcohol use disorder are not completely known. However, researchers do know that those who develop the disorder undergo chemical changes in their brains that increase the pleasurable feelings associated with drinking alcohol. These brain changes make the affected person want to drink more, even when it has negative consequences. Initial pleasurable feelings wane, and the addicted person will continue drinking just to prevent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
Risk factors for developing alcohol use disorder include having low self-esteem, experiencing depression or anxiety, feeling stressed, having a mental illness such as schizophrenia, and having a parent or other close relative with the disorder. Researchers are learning that both genetic makeup and environment have an influence on the risk for alcoholism.
Symptoms of alcohol use disorder include being unable to control alcohol intake, having a higher tolerance for alcohol, drinking alone, neglecting diet or personal hygiene, becoming angry when questioned about drinking, missing personal or professional engagements, making excuses for drinking, and continuing to drink even when problems develop. Common physical symptoms include cravings for alcohol, lapses in memory, tremors the morning after drinking, and withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.
Impact on Health
Consuming alcohol causes depression of the central nervous system, which results in sedation. When consuming alcohol, people will develop slurred speech and lack of muscle coordination. Decreased social inhibitions often result in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex, and sexual abuse is also more likely while drinking. Over time, serious health problems can develop, such as liver disease, heart and digestive problems, complications with diabetes, sexual dysfunction, eye problems, and birth defects if alcohol is ingested during pregnancy. Issues may also include a weakened immune system, an increased risk of some cancers, neurological issues, and bone damage.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosing alcohol use disorder usually involves a professional administering a health assessment that asks questions about the person’s drinking habits. This evaluation includes questions about behavior patterns, feelings, thoughts, and symptoms. A doctor might also perform a physical exam to look for indications of alcohol abuse. Other diagnostic tests might check for underlying health problems that frequently accompany alcohol abuse, such as high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, liver disease, digestive problems, and bone damage. Upon diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, a patient might receive treatment that includes supervised detoxification in a rehab center, psychological counseling, oral or injected medications, and a long-term treatment plan for sobriety.
How to Talk to Teens About Alcoholism
Talking to youngsters about alcohol and other drugs is important for helping them to understand and avoid these dangers. Kids may decide to try alcohol at a young age, so it’s almost never too soon to begin talking about it. Talk about how alcohol affects people, why people often drink, what can happen when you drink, and how people become addicted to alcohol. Talk about peer pressure and potential situations that could occur that might involve the temptation to drink. Institute clear rules about drinking, and explain the importance of calling home if a drinking or drug situation arises. Also, make it clear that you are available to listen and help if your child has questions or concerns.
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