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Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Complications, and Recovery

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In the U.S., 220 million people age 17 and older reported having consumed alcohol in their lifetime according to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). 

The United States Census Bureau estimates that in 2018, there were more than 327 million people residing in the nation. 

Given today’s current population and the prevalence of alcohol use among Americans, it’s not surprising to learn that more than 18 million people aged 18 and older had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism in 2017.

The 2017 NSDUH also states that 24.5% of the population aged 12 and older reported binge drinking in the past month, with 1 in 6 adults binge drinking around 4 times per month.
Alcohol Addiction

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is defined as 4 or more drinks for females and 5 or more drinks for males on at least one day in the past month. Heavy alcohol use is defined as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.

If you or a loved one is considering quitting drinking, seeking professional help can make all the difference. Our admissions navigators are available to speak with you about treatment options 24/7. Call our hotline at 1-866-708-9024  or fill out the form at the bottom of this page to start your journey toward recovery today.

What is a Standard Drink?

Some people may be unaware that their “regular” amount of alcohol consumption may already be approaching problematic levels. It’s feasible that some of these Issues with gauging drinking are added to by the fact that it’s somewhat difficult to understand what a standard drink is and how much drinking is considered “moderate. In the United States, a standard drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol which is found in:
  • 12-ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).
  • 8-ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content).
  • 5-ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).
  • 1.5-ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., vodka, whiskey, gin, rum)

What is heavy drinking

Heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men or 8 drinks or more per week for women. According to the NIAAA, binge drinking entails a pattern of alcohol consumption that results in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels of 0.08 g/dL and above. For adult men, that’s usually around 5 drinks in a couple of hours, and for adult women, it’s generally about 4.

Defining Alcohol Use Disorder

AUD or alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing disease that is diagnosed based on an individual meeting certain criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). To be diagnosed with AUD, individuals must meet any two of the below criteria within the same 12-month period:
  • There have been several times when you drank more than you intended or for longer than you intended.
  • You spend a lot of time drinking, and/or feeling sick the next day because of drinking.
  • You tried to stop drinking more than once, but you were unable to do so.
  • You experienced cravings for alcohol.
  • Drinking or being sick from drinking interfered with work, family responsibilities, school, or social engagements.
  • You continued to drink despite consequences at work, at school, with family, etc.
  • You cut back on hobbies or activities that were important to you, so you could drink instead.
  • You continued to drink despite changes to mood, such as depression or anxiety, or drinking too much began to affect other aspects of your mental or physical health. Alternately, you suffered more than one memory blackout.
  • You drank even though doing so increased your chances of getting hurt, such as drinking before driving.
  • You continue to drink even though you feel like you need to drink more to achieve the original effects.
  • You experienced withdrawal, including physical symptoms, when you did not drink

How Quit

While no single form of rehabilitation will be an appropriate fit for everyone, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) outlines several principles of effective treatment for treating drug and alcohol addiction.7 Many alcohol addiction treatment programs operate with similar principles. In general, treatment for AUD will include:


When making attempts to quit drinking, a medical detox is often the starting place on the road to recovery. Detoxing from alcohol can be unpleasant the associated acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be life-threatening when left unmanaged. However, proper medical management can help ease any discomfort and/or address serious complications that may occur.

The process involves medical supervision and medication to help you stay as safe and comfortable as possible while dealing with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. At a medical detox facility, you can expect to receive 24-hour supervision, monitoring and, when needed, appropriate medical intervention.


Depending on your needed level of treatment, you may be treated in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Inpatient rehabilitation programs include both short- (28 or 30 days) and longer-term (90+ days) programs. In an inpatient or residential setting, patients live at the treatment facility while receiving round-the-clock supervision and support from staff and their peers.

In outpatient programs, those working toward recovery live at home or other outside residences while receiving addiction treatment. Though these programs only require attendance during treatment sessions, they may vary in intensity and time commitment. Programming can range from hour-long sessions a few times a week to several hours per day.

Regardless of setting, all treatment plans offer a variety of recovery programming such as individual and group counseling, coping skills education, and relapse prevention techniques.

Individuals may also participate in behavioral therapies (i.e., Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Motivational Enhancement Therapy) designed to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviors, promote stress management and effective coping mechanisms, and decrease relapse risks.


Following the successful completion of a rehabilitation program, it is important to find avenues of continued support to improve chances of avoiding relapse and remaining sober. For many, maintaining sobriety is a lifelong process that requires commitment, self-compassion, and patience—all of which may benefit from ongoing support via aftercare services. According to the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 84% of treatment facilities offer aftercare services, and those that don’t will typically help alumni devise an aftercare plan prior to program completion. Some of the more commonly utilized aftercare services include 12-Step meetings (AA), regular sessions with a counselor or therapist, sober living residences, and non-12-Step groups like SMART Recovery.


When you quit drinking after years of misusing alcohol, not only will your body begin to reverse the effects of excessive alcohol, you will simply feel better, too.

One of the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder is giving up the social activities and hobbies you once enjoyed to focus on drinking. A sober life means having more time to rediscover yourself and your passions and build a new, exciting alcohol-free life.

Health Risks of Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking can take a heavy toll on your physical and mental health, upping your risk of the following conditions:
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Anxiety
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
  • Cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Digestive issues
  • Fibrosis
  • Hearing loss
  • High blood pressure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Sexually transmitted disease
  • Stroke
Research shows that some of the damage caused to your brain, liver, cardiovascular system, and gut will begin to slowly heal as you stop drinking and enter recovery from an alcohol use disorder.

As the alcohol leaves your system and you begin to establish some healthy habits, you will begin to feel better—perhaps better than you have in years. Especially after you get past the temporary discomfort of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, you'll notice increasing improvements in your physical and mental health.

Health Benefits of Recovery

The good news is there are many benefits of recovery from alcohol use disorder that will help you move forward with a healthier lifestyle.

Better-Looking Skin

Did you ever hear the term "alcoholic face?" This is the phrase used to describe the negative effects alcohol abuse can have on your skin, including:
  • Broken capillaries on your face and nose
  • Dehydration
  • Inflammation
  • Jaundice (with chronic, long-term abuse)
  • Reduced collagen levels (which results in loose, saggy skin)
Heavy alcohol consumption has also been linked to the inflammatory skin disease, psoriasis. When you stop drinking, you gradually restore elasticity to the skin, and redness and yellowing of the skin and around the eyes slowly disappears.

Improved Sleep

Alcohol abuse and poor sleep are closely linked. This is because alcohol interferes with your sleep-wake cycles, making it more difficult to fall asleep (and stay asleep) throughout the night. It also relaxes the muscles in the throat, making you more prone to sleep apnea and snoring.

While you can expect some sleep troubles in early recovery, the longer you abstain from alcohol (and relearn good sleep hygiene), the greater improvements in your sleep quality. 

Healthier Weight

Alcohol robs your body of essential nutrients and it also derails your metabolism. In addition, alcohol is filled with sugars and empty calories. If you binge drink, you can easily consume 600 calories or more in just one night.

The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse defines binge drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dLi—in a short period of time (about 2 hours). This typically occurs after five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women.

A big part of alcohol recovery is not only learning to quit drinking but learning to live a healthier lifestyle, which includes proper nutrition and exercise. While everybody differs, regaining a healthy weight is a realistic goal for many people who stay sober for the long-term.

Better Mental Health

There is a high rate of comorbidity between addiction and other mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.2 million U.S. adults experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder in 2018. Yet nearly 60% receive no treatment at all.

While scientists have yet to determine the exact link, we do know that many people turn to alcohol and other illicit substances in an attempt to self-medicate symptoms of mental illness. We also know that alcohol actually exacerbates mental illness, so when you stop drinking, you'll reduce these symptoms.

Developing an alcohol-free lifestyle and achieving long-term sobriety takes a lot more effort than merely not drinking anymore. If you've stopped drinking and began on the road to recovery, congratulate yourself.

As you achieve your sobriety goals (small and big) and work toward a healthier you, you will begin to notice an improvement in your mental health. This may include increased self-confidence and self-respect as well as decreased anxiety and depression, especially if you are struggling with a co-occurring mental health issue.

Improved Immunity

Alcohol interferes with your immune system, preventing it from producing enough white blood cells to fend off germs and bacteria.6 This is why many long-term, heavy drinkers tend to struggle with bouts of pneumonia and tuberculosis.

When you give up drinking, you will also be giving up the many colds and flu and illnesses that you may have been unable to ward off due to chronic drinking in the past.

Enhanced Nutrition

Drinking can deplete your body of vital nutrients. Many people with alcohol use disorder tend to "drink" their meals, eating less than the amount of food needed to provide sufficient carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals.

Alcohol itself can also interfere with the nutrition process, affecting digestion, storage, utilization, and excretion of nutrients. As a result, many chronic drinkers become malnourished. As you stop drinking and begin focusing on a healthier way of life, your body will begin to better absorb nutrients.

Lower Risk of Cancer

Alcohol is a known carcinogen. According to the CDC, the more alcohol you consume, the greater your risk of developing some types of cancer, including:8
  • Breast cancer
  • Colon and rectal cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Oral cancer
  • Throat cancer

Reduced Cardiovascular Risk

If you quit alcohol, your heart is sure to thank you. Heavy drinkers are about twice as likely to have a cardiovascular event within 24 hours and up to six times more likely within a week than those who don't drink alcohol.9 A significant amount of scientific research has linked alcohol misuse with an increased risk for the following heart problems, including:
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Heart failure
  • Hemorrhagic stroke
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Myocardial infarction

Better Memory and Thinking

Heavy drinking can cause the hippocampus, which is critical to memory and learning, to shrink.

Abstaining from alcohol over several months to a year may allow structural brain changes to partially correct. Quitting drinking can also help reverse negative effects on thinking skills, including problem­ solving, memory, and attention.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol has depressing effects on your body. It can slow down your brain’s functions when you consume too much alcohol, frequently, and for a long time. The brain compensates the depression effects by releasing more chemicals in the body than it normally would when without alcohol.

So, if you stop drinking alcohol suddenly, the brain still produces the extra chemicals resulting in unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that are linked with overstimulation. Eventually, the brain will adjust, but until you get to normal, you may feel uncomfortable and sick.

Withdrawal symptoms are not standard to everyone who stops drinking, but people who have been drinking for a long time or drink large amounts of alcohol frequently will experience withdrawal symptoms if the alcohol consumption is stopped suddenly.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
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