Alcohol Use Disorder

Updated: 7-30-2019

Alcohol use disorder is a pattern of alcohol consumption that results in the inability to control drinking, the development of tolerance and dependence, and problems associated with use despite the recurrence of adverse consequences.

Sometimes referred to as alcoholism, alcohol abuse, or binge drinking, alcohol use disorder includes any alcohol consumption that put the safety of the drinker and others at risk or leads to other problems related to alcohol.

Moreover, if a person’s drinking habits have resulted in repeated problems in daily functioning, some level of alcohol use disorder is likely to be present.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder can be anywhere from mild to severe based on the number and seriousness of symptoms experienced.

Signs and symptoms may include but are not limited to the following:

  • The inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumed.
  • Recognizing the desire to cut back on drinking and making unsuccessful attempts to do so (relapse.)
  • Spending a significant amount of time drinking, being preoccupied with obtaining alcohol and drinking or recovering from alcohol use.
  • Feeling strong cravings or urges to drink alcohol.
  • Neglecting critical obligations such as school, work, or home life due to alcohol use.
  • Continuing to drink alcohol despite the mental, physical, social and interpersonal problems that result from its use.
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities once considered enjoyable or important.
  • Consuming alcohol in hazardous situations such as drinking and driving.
  • Binge drinking – a pattern of alcohol use in which the drinker consumes 4-5 units (women and men, respectively) in a two-hour time frame.
  • Extended periods of intoxication.
  • Withdrawl symptoms upon cessation.

Critically, alcohol use disorder (AUD) leads to the development of tolerance, meaning the user has to consume more alcohol more frequently to achieve the desired effect (increased exposure = decreased response.) This increasing use in response to tolerance increases the risk of all alcohol-related problems in both the short- and long-term.

AUD is also often characterized by dependency. Dependency occurs when the brain gets accustomed to repeated alcohol exposure and cannot function normally without it. Also, withdrawal symptoms emerge when the user stops drinking or drastically cuts back.


Alcohol intoxication is the result of blood alcohol concentration (BAC), or the amount of alcohol is in a user’s bloodstream. As the concentration level increases, so does the extent of impairedness.

The BAC legal limit in most states is .08%. A BAC of over .3% is life-threating for some people and a BAC over .4% can be lethal.

Intoxication results in adverse mental changes and physical actions, such as mood swings, inappropriate or aggressive/violent behavior, slurred speech, impaired judgment/decision-making, reduced attention, memory, and coordination. Memory loss can be partial or total (blackouts).

Intoxication in severe cases can result in alcohol poisoning, central nervous system depression, coma, long-term brain damage, and death.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

A drinker who ceases consumption after an extended period of significant alcohol use can suffer from alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), a condition characterized by unpleasant and occasionally life-threatening symptoms. AWS can onset after just hours of the last drink or may take several days to manifest.

Signs and symptoms of AWS include but are not limited to the following

  • Sweating and chills
  • Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Dehydration and weakness
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations

Major Health Conditions Associated With Alcohol Use Disorder

1. Liver Disease

Alcohol Use Disorder

Excessive alcohol use can result in fatty liver disease (increased fat in the liver) and inflammation (hepatitis.) Over time, damage may be irreversible and lead to scarring of liver tissue, or cirrhosis.

2. Digestion Issues

Excessive alcohol intake can result in gastritis (stomach inflammation) and ulcers. It can also block the absorption of B-vitamins and other nutrients and lead to pancreatic inflammation.

3. Heart Problems

Heavy drinking can result in hypertension (high blood pressure) and an increased risk of heart failure or stroke. Binge drinking can cause a dangerous heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat.)

4. Diabetic Complications

Alcohol also impedes the release of glucose from the liver and increases the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar.) This result can be extremely dangerous for people with diabetes.

5. Birth Defects

Using alcohol while pregnant increases the risk of miscarriage and fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition characterized by physical, mental, and emotional development problems that can last a lifetime.

6. Neurological Complications

Heavy alcohol use can impact the central nervous system, causing pain and numbness in hands and feat, disordered thinking, and dementia. Excessive drinking has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

7. Increased Cancer Risk

Long-term heavy alcohol consumption has been associated with a higher risk of several cancers, including those of the breast, colon, esophagus, liver, mouth, and throat.

8. Bone Damage

Alcohol use may also impede the development of new bone and lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures or break. It can also damage bone marrow and cause low blood platelet count that results in increased bruising and bleeding.

9. Interactions With Drugs and Medications

Mixing alcohol with other depressants such as opioids or benzodiazepines can result in unpredictable effects and can be far more dangerous to one’s health than drinking is on its own. Many victims of alcohol poisoning and overdoses were found to have multiple psychoactive substances in their systems.

Causes and Risk Factors

Certain biological, psychological, environmental and social factors have been associated with an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, such as being exposed to alcohol at an early age.

Also, drinking excessively over a prolonged period or regular binge drinking can result in problems related to alcohol use or AUD.

Additionally, people who have a parent(s) who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction are more likely to have an AUD themselves. This fact may be due to genetic factors, influenced by their childhood family environment, or both.

Social factors may also play a role. Researchers have found that people in communities and environments where alcohol use/abuse is accepted or glorified have a higher risk of developing an AUD.

Finally, people with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder also commonly have problems with substance abuse. Having the experience of childhood trauma and/or mental and emotional problems may increase one’s risk of drug or alcohol use.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

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Because AWS is one of the few withdrawal syndromes that can result in death, persons seeking treatment should first undergo a clinical detox.

During this process, which may take several days, alcohol and other toxins are cleansed from the person’s body under the around-the-clock supervision of medical personnel.

After detox, persons with AUD should participate in an addiction treatment program at our center for a period of at least 30-60 days. Program formats include both inpatient and intensive outpatient therapy. Inpatients stay at our center 24-7 while outpatients participate in treatment several times per week.

Both residential patients and outpatients have access to psychotherapy, group therapy, family counseling, 12-step programs and holistic activities such as art and music therapy. Outpatients are free to live at a private residence or may take advantage of referral to one of our approved sober living homes.

After discharge, former patients can enjoy participating in alumni activities and make use of the services of our aftercare coordinator.

If you or your loved one is suffering from substance abuse, please seek help as soon as possible.

READ THIS NEXT: Is Alcohol a Depressant or Stimulant?

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