Alcohol abuse: Definition, symptoms, treatment, and more (2023)

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition in which a person continues to consume alcohol despite the adverse consequences. AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Other names for AUD include alcohol misuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and alcoholism. Risk factors for developing AUD include a family history of alcohol misuse, mental health conditions, and starting alcohol use at a young age.

Alcohol misuse can lead to various illnesses such as heart disease. People experiencing alcohol misuse disorder should seek medical attention.

Keep reading to learn more about AUD, including who is at risk, common symptoms, treatment, and more.

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Alcohol misuse is the excessive consumption of alcohol. It is the inability to control drinking, even when it negatively affects a person’s life. The person consuming alcohol may develop tolerance and experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to cut back.

A national survey published in 2019 reported that 14.1 million adults (5.6%) and 414,000 adolescents aged 12-17 years (1.7%) were experiencing AUD in 2019 in the United States.

Common definitions for alcohol misuse are below:

Drinking in moderationFor women: 1 drink or less per day
For men: 2 drinks or less per day
Alcohol misuseFor women: 3 drinks or more per day OR more than 7 drinks per week
For men: 4 drinks or more per day OR more than 14 drinks per week
Binge drinkingFor women: More than 4 drinks over 2 hours
For men: More than 5 drinks over 2 hours
(Video) Alcoholism - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, pathology

Alcohol misuse can adversely affect a person’s health, quality of life, and relationships.

Some negative consequences of alcohol misuse include:

  • injuries (e.g. falls, workplace accidents, motor vehicle accidents)
  • violence
  • chronic diseases (e.g. liver cirrhosis, stroke, dementia, heart disease)
  • cancers (e.g. breast, rectal, liver)
  • risky sexual behaviors
  • absenteeism from work or school
  • adverse pregnancy outcomes (e.g. fetal alcohol syndrome)

Alcohol intoxication causes slowed speech and reflexes, difficulty in concentration and memory, and poor decision-making. A pattern of excessive use may signal alcohol misuse.

Common signs of alcohol misuse include:

  • wanting to stop drinking but not managing to do so
  • hiding the extent of the alcohol misuse in order to protect it
  • being in denial about the extent of the alcohol misuse problem
  • diverting energy from work, family, and social life in order to drink
  • becoming distressed at the prospect of not having access to alcohol
  • engaging in risky behaviors (eg. drunk driving)
  • slurred speech and poor coordination
  • impaired thinking and impaired memory

Severity of AUD is determined by the number of symptoms present.

  • Mild AUD: 2-3 symptoms
  • Moderate AUD: 4-5 symptoms
  • Severe AUD: >6 symptoms


A health care professional will ask questions to assess a person’s symptoms and whether they have AUD. They want to determine behaviors and physical effects due to drinking. Some of the questions they might ask about symptoms include:

(Video) Alcoholism, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.

  • Are there times when you drink more or longer than intended?
  • Have you been unable to cut back or stop drinking?
  • Do you get sick from drinking?
  • Do you sometimes want a drink over anything else?
  • Has drinking interfered with your job, school, or family life?
  • Have you engaged in risky behaviors after drinking (e.g., unsafe sex, driving while under the influence)?
  • Do you continue to drink even though it causes other health problems (e.g., anxiety, depression)?
  • Do you need to drink more to get the effect you want?
  • Do you have withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off (e.g., trouble sleeping, shaking, nausea, sweating)?

Making screening part of regular health visits can help with making an early diagnosis.

How much, how quickly, and how often a person uses alcohol will affect their risk of developing AUD. Other factors may also increase risk. Below is a list of some risk factors:

  • Binge-drinking: Consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time.
  • Heavy drinking: Steady drinking over a long period of time.
  • Starting to drink at a young age (before age 15 years): This risk is higher for females than males.
  • A family history of misuse of alcohol: Genetics may also play a role.
  • Mental health conditions: These include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. Childhood trauma also increases the risk of developing AUD.
  • Social and cultural influences: This includes experiencing peer pressure, or having role models who drink.

Following diagnosis, a healthcare professional will work with a person to determine the best course of treatment. Several options exist. People can use a combination of treatments.


Three medications are FDA-approved for alcohol dependence.

  • Naltrexone (Vivitrol): This is an injection given by a healthcare professional once a month. It reduces the craving for alcohol.
  • Acamprosate (Campral): This medication is taken by mouth. It is thought to act by restoring the balance of chemicals in the brain.
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse): This medication is taken by mouth. It interferes with the metabolism of alcohol. Drinking even a small amount of alcohol causes very unpleasant nausea and vomiting.

Natural remedies

Research is ongoing to determine the benefits of natural therapies on the prevention of complications from AUD. People should not try to use natural remedies on their own, but use them in conjunction with medical treatment and therapy options.

Alcohol misuse may lead people to skip meals or maintain a diet that lacks balance.

(Video) Alcohol Dependence & Withdrawal

Additionally, alcohol may cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. This can impair absorption of essential nutrients, particularly vitamin B1 (thiamine). Thiamine is important for proper brain function. Thiamine supplements can help restore proper levels in the body.

Excessive alcohol intake can disrupt the balance of microbes in the gut. Administration of probiotics may improve intestinal function and help prevent liver disease.

As with any chronic condition, proper nutrition is an important component of any recovery plan, but so is physical activity.

A recent literature review suggests that frequent aerobic exercise may complement behavioral therapy used for AUD, leading to reductions in alcohol intake. More study is needed in this area, and all the natural remedies above.

People should also note that those with AUD may already be dehydrated, and further dehydration due to exercise may place people at an increased risk of seizures.


Licensed therapists work with people who are misusing alcohol to help them stop drinking. They can provide reinforcement and motivation techniques. They also help people identify and avoid their triggers for drinking. They can offer alternative ways for dealing with stress.

Learn more about different types of therapy here.

Support groups

Peer support groups can help people reduce or stop drinking. Many communities have programs that meet frequently that may be helpful for some people. Online options are available. There are also programs for family members.

People should note that some support groups can be stigmatizing for certain individuals, and can adversely impact a treatment plan or progress towards recovery.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization may be useful to some people for focusing their thoughts away from drinking.

Learn more about different types of meditation here.

If a person believes that they are misusing alcohol, they should consider seeking medical help. Early intervention can help prevent some of the negative consequences of drinking.

With the support of a doctor, people can develop a treatment plan that is individualized for them. It may be in an inpatient or outpatient setting, and may require detoxification to manage withdrawal symptoms. A treatment plan may involve medication, therapy, or both.

Learn more about alcohol withdrawal syndrome here.

Contacts for help

Anyone concerned about the drinking habits of themselves, or loved ones, can contact the following organizations for help:

(Video) Drug Abuse, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment.

Awareness of the definition and who is at risk for developing AUD can help people make better decisions about their use of alcohol.

Those people who develop AUD should seek treatment. There are treatment options available for AUD, with or without therapy, that can help guide a person’s towards recovery.


What are the four types of treatment for an alcohol use disorder? ›

Treatment may involve a brief intervention, individual or group counseling, an outpatient program, or a residential inpatient stay.

What is the definition of alcoholism? ›

Alcoholism is a term used to describe the most serious form of problem drinking at a level that causes harm to your health. It describes a strong, often uncontrollable, desire to drink.

What is the DSM 5 definition of alcoholism? ›

Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol. Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home. Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.

What is the first step in the treatment of alcohol abuse? ›

Understanding the available treatment options—from behavioral therapies and medications to mutual-support groups—is the first step.

Which is the most successful type of treatment for alcoholism? ›

AA shines. Most of the studies that measured abstinence found AA was significantly better than other interventions or no intervention. In one study, it was found to be 60% more effective.

What are the three types of treatment? ›

Three principal types of medical treatment
  • Curative – to cure a patient of an illness.
  • Palliative – to relieve symptoms from an illness.
  • Preventative – to avoid the onset of an illness.
May 5, 2018

What are the 3 types of alcoholic? ›

Alcohols bind with other atoms to create secondary alcohols. These secondary alcohols are the three types of alcohol that humans use every day: methanol, isopropanol, and ethanol.

What are the 4 types of drinker? ›

There are four types of drinker – which one are you?
  • Social drinking. To date, nearly all the research on drinking motives has been done on teens and young adults. ...
  • Drinking to conform. ...
  • Drinking for enhancement. ...
  • Drinking to cope.

How does alcohol affect the body? ›

High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems. Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum. Weakening of the immune system, increasing the chances of getting sick. Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.

What is the criteria for an alcoholic? ›

For men, consuming more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week. For women, consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week.

How do we classify alcoholism? ›

Alcoholic beverages are classified as Fermented beverages, Distilled beverages and Compound beverages.

How do you classify alcoholic? ›

Psychoanalyst Robert Knight (1938) developed these ideas further, proposing three types of alcoholics: essential alcoholics, reactive alcoholics, and symptomatic drinkers.

What are five types of therapy that can be used to treat alcoholism? ›

There are many effective, evidence-based treatment therapy options for alcoholism. Most rehab facilities will utilize some or all of following treatment methods.
Motivational Interviewing
  • Expressing empathy.
  • Rolling with resistance.
  • Developing self-efficacy.
  • Developing discrepancy.
Jan 3, 2023

What do you do for an alcoholic? ›

Last, focusing on your own needs is of the utmost importance when helping a loved one recover from unhealthy alcohol use. Al-Anon meetings, individual therapy or counseling, and support groups are all resources that can help you cope with your loved one's addiction or learn more about the disease of addiction.

How do you deal with the effects of alcohol? ›

Although a person cannot sober up more quickly, there are some approaches that may help them to feel more alert and appear more sober:
  1. Coffee. Caffeine may help a person feel alert, but it does not break down alcohol in the body. ...
  2. Cold showers. ...
  3. Eating and drinking. ...
  4. Sleep. ...
  5. Exercise. ...
  6. Carbon or charcoal capsules.

What are the two drugs used to treat alcohol dependence? ›

Oral naltrexone and extended-release injectable naltrexone are indicated for the treatment of alcohol dependence in patients who can abstain from alcohol in an outpatient setting before the initiation of treatment.

How long is treatment for alcohol use disorder? ›

People commonly think of “rehab,” a 28-day residential program, for AUD treatment. However, most people do not need or benefit from 28-day residential treatment. Advances have led to evidence-based treatments that are less intensive and can be accessed through a primary care physician or mental health clinic.

How long is treatment for alcohol dependence? ›

In total, a residential or inpatient treatment program may last from three to six months. Some residential facilities may also offer treatment programs up to one year or longer.

What is the main treatment? ›

The first treatment given for a disease. It is often part of a standard set of treatments, such as surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation. When used by itself, primary treatment is the one accepted as the best treatment.

What are the four stages of treatment? ›

What Are the Four Stages of Treatment?
  • Adjustments to Treatment.
  • Early Treatment.
  • Middle-Stage Treatment.
  • Late-Stage Treatment.
Mar 15, 2021

What are some types of treatment? ›

Your treatment plan might include:
  • Watch and wait.
  • Chemotherapy or other drug therapies.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Immunotherapy.
  • Vaccine therapy.
  • Stem cell transplantation.
  • Blood transfusion.
  • Palliative care.

What is Type 2 alcoholism? ›

Type II alcoholism is associated with an early onset (i.e., before age 25) of both alcohol abuse and criminal be havior and an inability to abstain from alcohol. The most common personality characteristic of type II alcoholics is high novelty seeking. These people consume alcohol primarily to induce euphoria.

What is a heavy alcoholic? ›

Heavy drinking: For women, heavy drinking is 8 drinks or more per week. For men, heavy drinking is 15 drinks or more per week.

Can someone drink everyday and not be an alcoholic? ›

Nine in 10 adults who drink too much alcohol are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent, according to a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

What are heavy drinkers called? ›

drunkard. nounone who drinks too much. alcoholic. bacchanal.

Can you be a heavy drinker and not an alcoholic? ›

“This study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics,” said Robert Brewer, M.D., M.S.P.H., Alcohol Program Lead at CDC and one of the report's authors.

What are the 9 types of drinkers? ›

What Type of Drinker are You?
  • Social Drinker. The good news is you only drink when you're hanging out with friends. ...
  • Stress Drinker. Everyone gets stressed out sometimes. ...
  • Binge Drinker. ...
  • Self-Medication Drinker. ...
  • High-risk Drinker. ...
  • Drunkorexic. ...
  • Your Drinking Personality.
Jul 20, 2021

What organs affect alcohol? ›

Organs known to be damaged by long-term alcohol misuse include the brain and nervous system, heart, liver and pancreas. Heavy drinking can also increase your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, both of which are major risk factors for heart attacks and strokes.

How alcohol affects brain? ›

Alcohol interferes with the brain's communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works. Alcohol makes it harder for the brain areas controlling balance, memory, speech, and judgment to do their jobs, resulting in a higher likelihood of injuries and other negative outcomes.

What is the cage test for alcoholism? ›

Four clinical interview questions, the CAGE questions, have proved useful in helping to make a diagnosis of alcoholism. The questions focus on Cutting down, Annoyance by criticism, Guilty feeling, and Eye-openers. The acronym “CAGE” helps the physician to recall the questions.

What are 3 risk factors of becoming an alcoholic? ›

Known Specific Risk Factors

Having a biological family member with alcoholism or drug addiction. Having a mental health condition such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety. Experiencing peer pressure to drink, especially as a young adult. Having low self-esteem or self-worth.

What are signs that you are drinking too much alcohol? ›

These are some signs your body may be telling you to take your imbibing down a notch.
  • Changes in your skin. ...
  • Easy bruising. ...
  • Weight gain. ...
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss. ...
  • Tingling or a sensation of numbness. ...
  • Heartburn. ...
  • Stomach issues. ...
  • Nausea and vomiting.
Aug 22, 2022

Is alcoholism a disease or a behavior? ›

The American Medical Association (AMA) classified alcoholism as a disease in 1956 and included addiction as a disease in 1987. In 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) joined the AMA, defining addiction as a chronic brain disorder, not a behavior problem, or just the result of making bad choices.

What are the different types of drunks? ›

Thomas Nashe's 8 Kinds of Drunkards
  • English: It Is Full of Words for Drunk People. ...
  • Ape Drunk. ...
  • Lion Drunk. ...
  • Swine Drunk. ...
  • Sheep Drunk. ...
  • Maudlin Drunk. ...
  • Martin Drunk. ...
  • Goat Drunk.

What is the clinical definition of an alcoholic? ›

(AL-kuh-HAW-LIH-zum) A chronic disease in which a person craves drinks that contain alcohol and is unable to control his or her drinking. A person with this disease also needs to drink greater amounts to get the same effect and has withdrawal symptoms after stopping alcohol use.

Does alcohol affect empathy? ›

Conclusions: Empathy (both cognitive and affective) is significantly reduced in alcohol dependence.

What is the first ability to be impaired by alcohol? ›

The first ability affected by alcohol is judgment/decision-making. Some of the factors that affect BAC include: – Gender – Body weight – Size and strength of beverage.

What are the three most common therapy treatments? ›

Three popular types of therapy are:
  • Cognitive behavior therapy.
  • Psychodynamic Therapy.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy.

What is the best psychological treatment for addiction? ›

Behavioral therapy is perhaps the most commonly utilized types of treatment for addiction that is frequently used during substance rehabilitation. A general behavioral therapeutic approach has been adapted into a variety of effective techniques.

What are 4 treatments and or therapies for mental illness? ›

Some people find complementary and alternative therapies helpful to manage stress and other common symptoms of mental health problems. These can include things like yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, herbal remedies and acupuncture.

Is it possible to cure an alcoholic? ›

A Hard Truth: There Is No Cure for Alcoholism

Similar to other chronic illnesses like asthma and hypertension, alcoholism is not a condition that goes away after treatment. Instead, alcoholism treatment is meant to help individuals manage the condition throughout their lives so they will not relapse to alcohol use.

What are the different type of treatment for alcoholism except? ›

Health care professionals provide two types of treatment for alcohol use disorder:
  • Talk therapy. A licensed therapist can help people build coping strategies and skills to stop or reduce drinking. ...
  • Medications. A primary care clinician or a board-certified addiction doctor can prescribe non-addicting medications.

What are several treatment methods for substance use disorders? ›

Long-term therapeutic communities, such as sober living communities.
  • Detoxification. In detoxification, you stop taking the substance(s), allowing them to leave your body. ...
  • Cognitive and behavioral therapies. Psychotherapy (talk therapy) can help treat SUD and any other co-occurring mental health conditions. ...
  • Medication.
Oct 20, 2022

What are the types of treatment? ›

Your treatment plan might include:
  • Watch and wait.
  • Chemotherapy or other drug therapies.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Immunotherapy.
  • Vaccine therapy.
  • Stem cell transplantation.
  • Blood transfusion.
  • Palliative care.

What are 5 principles of treatment planning? ›

Principles of treatment planning
  • Overview.
  • Principles.
  • Multidisciplinary teams.
  • Evidence based approaches.
  • Specific populations.
  • References.

What are the 5 different phases of treatment? ›

Stage-Matched Care. Developed from the Trans-theoretical Model of Change1, the Stage of Change model includes five stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

What are the 4 techniques for being alcohol free? ›

10 practical tips for staying AF (Alcohol Free)
  • Don't keep alcohol in the house. ...
  • Attempt a physical challenge. ...
  • Remind yourself of why you're doing it (and the potential benefits). ...
  • Surround yourself with people who are also alcohol free (or don't drink as much). ...
  • Join a support group. ...
  • Focus on one step at a time.
Jan 15, 2020

What are the three categories of alcohol use disorder? ›

Alcohol use disorder is organized into three categories: mild, moderate and severe. Each category has various symptoms and can cause harmful side effects. If left untreated, any type of alcohol abuse can spiral out of control.

What is a good treatment plan for substance abuse? ›

To journal daily. To attend weekly counseling sessions with a therapist. To attend weekly support group meetings. To complete 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous program.

What is the best form of treatment for substance use disorders? ›

Behavioral therapy is perhaps the most commonly utilized types of treatment for addiction that is frequently used during substance rehabilitation. A general behavioral therapeutic approach has been adapted into a variety of effective techniques.

What is the psychological treatment for substance use disorder? ›

Along with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for SUDs, several psychotherapies combine CBT-based principles and techniques with other components to address a wider variety of issues in recovery. Behavioral couples therapy was developed to treat SUD patients conjointly with committed partners who do not use substances.


1. #NIAAA: What to Know about Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder — A Primer for Non-Clinicians
(National Institutes of Health (NIH))
2. What's the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism
(Fostering Resilience)
3. Alcoholism - The deadly truth about its stigma | Sarah Drage | TEDxFolkestone
(TEDx Talks)
4. Image-bearers From Conception | Bradley Pierce
(Founders Ministries)
5. Alcoholic Liver Disease, Animation
(Alila Medical Media)
6. Teen Substance Use & Abuse (Alcohol, Tobacco, Vaping, Marijuana, and More)
(Oasis Mental Health Applications)
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