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What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction touches the lives of millions of Americans each year. Alcohol addiction is a mental health condition that leads to an overwhelming compulsion to drink alcohol regardless of known harmful physical, emotional, or personal consequences.

When alcohol is no longer consumed for pleasure, alcohol addiction develops. Alcohol addiction is characterized by a physical and psychological need to drink. Once an alcohol addiction has grown, the physical cravings for alcohol are often so intense and debilitating. Consequently, someone with an addiction to alcohol finds they must drink (almost) constantly to avoid experiencing physical symptoms connected to not having alcohol in their body. When you are addicted to alcohol and try to reduce or stop drinking, withdrawal symptoms will occur. Depending on the severity of your addiction, withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous and even life-threatening, highlighting the importance of seeking the support and guidance of a professional addiction treatment team. 

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol Addiction Statistics

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances in the United States. Each year, alcohol addiction and alcohol-related causes are responsible for one out of every twenty deaths worldwide. It is estimated that nearly 90,000 people in the United States lose their lives to alcohol-related causes each year. Of those, more than thirty die from the effects of alcohol poisoning.1

The same report estimates that nearly 8% of American adults (over 18 million people) have an alcohol use disorder, yet fewer than 7% will ever seek or receive potentially life saving addiction treatment. One of the leading causes of alcohol addiction in the United States is a family history of problem drinking. It is estimated that as many as half of the American adults with a substance use disorder have a first-degree relative with a history of alcoholism or alcohol-related disorders. 

How Many Drinks Constitutes Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction treatment professionals use several “tools” to identify problem drinking or alcoholism. In general, "at-risk" or problem drinking is defined as "drinking more than seven drinks per week (or three per occasion) for women; and more than fourteen drinks per week (four per occasion) for men.” Heavy drinking is defined as drinking more than three or four drinks per day for women and five or six for men.2

Alcohol Addiction Causes and Risk Factors

Like many mental health conditions, current research has not uncovered a specific factor or state that causes alcoholism. Instead, studies suggest alcohol addiction or the risk of developing an addiction to alcohol is increased by the presence of or combination of several factors. 

Genetic Risk Factors

While no identified gene increases one's risk for alcoholism, some studies suggest several genes within our genetic code may lead to an elevated risk. In addition to genetic contributions, a family history of problematic drinking or alcoholism may put one at a high risk of developing alcohol addiction. This can occur due to exposure to alcohol in the home environment or to early experimentation with drinking.3

Mental Health Risk Factors

Underlying or co-occurring mental health struggles are another factor that may lead to an elevated risk of developing alcoholism. Research into the causes of alcohol addiction suggests up to 30% of people who seek help for a mental health condition also display signs of alcohol addiction. Experiencing symptoms from both illnesses is a dual diagnosis and often occurs due to using alcohol to reduce the severity and impact of mental health symptoms.4

Social Risk Factors

Social factors such as peer pressure and stressors may also lead to alcohol addiction. Work, home, and social-related stress can increase one's desire to drink to help calm the body and mind. People in specific career fields with high-stress requirements are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder due to using alcohol to reduce stress. Peer pressure and social drinking are other significant challenges (especially for teens and young adults). Movies and media glorify drinking, and young adults want to "fit in" with peers, so they will often drink in social settings. Early experimentation with alcohol can increase one’s risk for struggles with addiction in the future.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

When someone is struggling with an addiction to alcohol, it can lead to significant and noticeable physical and psychological effects. Abuse and dependency can quickly evolve into a severe and life-threatening addiction when alcohol abuse is allowed to continue without help from an alcohol addiction program. Recognizing common alcohol addiction symptoms can help ensure early access to alcohol addiction rehab. 

Physical Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Some of the most common physical signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction include slurred speech, poor coordination, slow reaction times, hangovers, and alcohol poisoning. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to several medical complications without treatment, including liver damage, malnutrition, high blood pressure, increased risk for heart attack or stroke, alcohol seizures, poor hygiene, weakened immune system, and cognitive impairments. 

Psychological and Social Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Long-term addiction to alcohol can lead to psychological and behavioral or social changes such as
drinking in secret or alone, denying a problematic relationship with alcohol, withdrawing from friends and family, problems at work or home, new or worsening legal issues, choosing to drink over other responsibilities, and drinking at unusual times.

Alcohol abuse can lead to physical and functional changes in the brain. This may include irritability, memory impairments, blackouts, and poor judgment in the short term. Long-term effects can be more severe and, in some cases, permanent. The most common long-term impacts are new or worsening mental health symptoms, alcohol tolerance, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms. 

Alcohol Addiction Diagnosis

Unfortunately, few of the visible alcohol addiction symptoms are diagnostic, although recognizing the signs of alcohol addiction can ensure you or a loved one get help at an alcohol addiction treatment center.

How is Alcohol Addiction Diagnosed?

When you seek help to overcome addiction, medical and mental health providers will conduct a range of assessments to assess the presence and severity of alcohol addiction. In addition to a comprehensive psychological assessment, lab tests and physical exams are typically part of the diagnostic process. 

Lab Tests

Blood and urine tests can check for the presence of alcohol in specific body fluids. The levels (or volume) of alcohol in the blood or urine can help providers determine the severity of misuse and the level of alcohol still in your system. A physical exam will evaluate your physical health. By examining how your body systems function, providers can assess whether alcohol abuse has impacted the health of vital organs and body systems.

Psychological Evaluation

As part of a psychological evaluation, your provider will learn more about your current relationship with alcohol and alcohol addiction rehabilitation programs like Anew Treatment Center. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) lists eleven criteria that mental health and medical professionals use to assess the presence and severity of alcohol addiction (alcohol use disorder).5

Alcohol Addiction Criteria

It is important to note that it is unnecessary to experience all eleven alcohol addiction symptoms to be diagnosed with alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. In the addiction treatment environment, two or three signs of alcohol addiction are interpreted as a mild alcohol use disorder; four or five are considered moderate, and six or more are considered severe. Regardless of the severity level, it is crucial to seek treatment at an alcohol addiction treatment program to ensure you can safely and successfully detox and get sober.

Side Effects of Alcohol Addiction

As noted above, the effects of alcohol addiction on the brain and body can be short or long-term. Engaging in long-term, excessive drinking is not necessary to experience notable side effects from alcohol use or alcohol abuse. Depending on what you drink or how much you drink (especially in a single sitting), the impact of alcohol use can be immediate or persist throughout your lifetime. 

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Addiction

Drinking can have immediate physical and psychological effects. The effects will vary depending on how much you drink, your size, and your biological gender. Common short-term effects of drinking include coordination problems, impaired reflexes, vision changes, sleepiness, flushing, slurred speech, and vomiting. In some cases where excessive alcohol is consumed quickly in one sitting, severe effects such as coma, respiratory problems, blackouts, and even death can occur. Short-term effects of alcohol use on the brain can also occur. These can include relaxation, reduced inhibitions, mood changes, and problems concentrating. 

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Addiction

Long-term alcohol dependence and addiction can lead to serious, sometimes irreversible effects on the brain and body. The results of alcohol on the brain lead to physical and functional changes in how the brain works. The psychological effects of alcohol on the brain can lead to brain shrinkage, diseases of the brain, and changes to how the brain processes and releases chemicals vital to emotions, including pleasure and joy. Long-term alcohol addiction causes significant physical challenges, including diseases of the liver, stomach, throat, and other body systems, including the reproductive system.5

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol Addiction Withdrawal and Detox

Again, withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person, but in most cases, the withdrawal timeline occurs in three stages.

How Long Does It Take to Detox from Alcohol?

The first stage begins within six hours after your last drink and lasts for approximately twelve hours. People often experience anxiety, headaches, stomach problems, nausea, appetite changes, and difficulties sleeping during this stage.

Approximately twelve hours after your last drink, withdrawal escalates to stage two. Stage two lasts for approximately thirty-six hours ending about two days after your last drink. During stage two, withdrawal symptoms become more severe and challenging to manage without addiction treatment support. In addition to previously mentioned symptoms, other symptoms that may develop include seizures and hallucinations. 

When is the Most Dangerous Part of Withdrawal?

The final stage of withdrawal, or stage three, is the most dangerous. Some of the withdrawal symptoms that occur during this stage can be life-threatening if immediate medical intervention is not available, underscoring the importance of detoxing at a treatment facility where medically assisted detox is available. Stage three begins approximately forty-eight hours after your last drink and ends (usually) one to two days later. Common symptoms of stage three include elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, confusion, auditory hallucinations, delirium tremens (DTs), and even death.6

The shaking and tremors experienced by someone undergoing detox are often known as delirium tremens or DTs. Delirium tremens are often present in individuals suffering from extreme alcohol withdrawal. Unfortunately, they can result in seizures, making them one of the more life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. DTs are, unfortunately, relatively common. Some statistics show they occur in approximately one out of every twenty cases of alcohol withdrawal. They are most common among those severely addicted to alcohol and have experienced alcohol withdrawal in the past. 

Alcohol Detox Symptoms

DTs usually begin within two to three days after an individual stops drinking. If someone chooses to undergo detox without medical supervision (cold turkey) and begins to exhibit signs of delirium tremens, it is essential to get medical help immediately. Symptoms of delirium tremens include more than just shaking and trembling. The most common symptoms are fatigue, fever, hallucinations, intense confusion, and fever. In addition, severe and life-threatening seizures can also occur. 

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

Alcohol addiction rehab programs consist of several steps. Usually, the first is the intake and assessment process referenced above. Intake is crucial as it provides an opportunity for your treatment team at Anew Treatment Center to learn more about your specific treatment needs and goals. The illness of addiction affects everyone differently. Therefore, developing a treatment program that helps you overcome addiction and maintain lasting sobriety requires understanding what you need to heal and get well. 


After intake, the next step in an alcohol addiction treatment program is alcohol detox. Alcohol detox involves the decision to stop drinking. During detox, you provide your body the opportunity to cleanse itself of the effects of alcohol as it learns how to carry out necessary functions without alcohol. Depending on the severity of your addiction, the detox process may take three to five days or up to two weeks. Although often unpleasant, detox is essential to help you wean off alcohol and get sober in a safe and supported treatment environment. 

Behavioral Therapies

At an alcohol rehab program where medically assisted detox is provided, you can expect full medical supervision throughout the detox process. Depending on the program and your treatment needs, this may include administering alcohol addiction medication to help you manage complex or intense withdrawal symptoms. As a part of medically assisted or medically supervised detox, our highly skilled team of medical and mental health professionals is continually available to monitor your vital signs, including temperature, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Ongoing monitoring is critical in ensuring your safety and reducing the chances of an acute medical emergency.


A medically assisted alcohol detox program aims to provide holistic guidance and support. Detox is both a physical and emotional challenge. Members of your treatment team at Anew Treatment Center will assist with physical and emotional needs while providing nutritional and medicinal support during the earliest and most challenging days of treatment. It is important to remember that medication for alcohol addiction is inappropriate in all cases. Your treatment team will work with you to determine how or if medications may help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms during detox.

Support Groups

Once you have detoxed from alcohol, you will transition into a therapeutic program designed to help you learn more about alcohol addiction and any underlying mental health struggles that may inhibit your ability to maintain lasting sobriety after completing treatment. At an alcohol addiction rehab, you will participate in evidence-based behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy. You will participate in various therapy settings during therapy sessions, including individual, group, and family counseling sessions.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Anew Treatment Center

The support and guidance provided at an alcohol rehab program are vital factors in achieving lasting sobriety for millions of Americans who struggle with an alcohol use disorder. The challenge for many who have acknowledged an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and are ready to seek help by going to rehab is deciding which alcohol addiction treatment program is best for them. As you learn more about available treatment options, you will find various inpatient and outpatient treatment options. 

Residential Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program

There are various reasons people choose inpatient (residential) alcohol addiction treatment. Seeking treatment for alcohol addiction is vital to your safe and successful recovery. A recent study indicated that those who did not seek help at an alcohol addiction rehab to overcome their addiction were less likely to achieve three (or more) years of sobriety. Additionally, the same study indicated that 62% of those who completed an alcohol addiction treatment program at a center like Anew Treatment Center remained in recovery for three years or more after treatment.7

Although each alcohol addiction treatment program varies from others somehow, certain standard features contribute to why residential treatment is so effective. These include medically supported detox and withdrawal services, individual therapies at frequent intervals, 24-hour support, post-treatment skill development and follow-up care, family and group counseling services, and distance.

Outpatient Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program

Outpatient treatment programs provide the opportunity to get help overcoming alcohol addiction without the residential component of inpatient treatment. Outpatient programs at Anew Treatment Center provide intensive alcohol addiction treatment on an outpatient schedule, allowing you to attend therapy and peer support sessions while remaining at home with family and loved ones. 

Overcoming Alcohol Addiction

Finding Help

The first step towards achieving and maintaining lasting recovery from alcohol addiction is seeking help at a treatment program like Anew Treatment Center. No matter your treatment needs or goals, members of our admissions and treatment teams are here to help you get started on your sobriety journey. Contact us today to learn more about our programs, including detox and dual diagnosis treatment.

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