Alcohol Addiction & Abuse

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What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, which can also be referred to as alcohol use disorder, alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence, refers to the uncontrollable desire to drink alcohol and an inability to stop.

Alcoholism is a disease that affects a significant percentage of the world’s population. If left untreated, it can be fatal. However, recognised treatment methods increase your chances of a successful outcome.

It is difficult to determine the exact cause of alcohol addiction, as it’s a complex process that depends on biological factors (the fact drinking makes you feel happy and relaxed) and environmental factors (your friends love partying; your job is busy and stressful).

Alcoholism also causes many problems, for example:

  • Heavy drinking can lead to a blackout, putting your and others’ safety at risk,
  • You may become violent to yourself and others when drinking
  • It can negatively impact relationships as most of your time is devoted to drinking than your partner or children
  • It’s expensive and can put you under considerable financial strain
  • It brings about feelings of shame and guilt, resulting in secretive and untrustworthy behaviour. 

Definition of an Alcoholic

The term ‘alcoholic’ is used to describe a person suffering from alcohol addiction, a chronic disease characterised by an uncontrollable urge to consume alcohol despite its negative effects on their health, relationships, and social standing.

An alcoholic can be defined by several key symptoms: an increased tolerance to alcohol, meaning the individual needs to drink more to achieve the same effects; withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as shaking, nausea, and anxiety; an inability to limit or stop drinking worsened by alcohol cravings; and a significant amount of time spent trying to obtain and use or recover from alcohol effects.

Alcoholics often continue drinking even when it causes physical harm or exacerbates existing health issues. This condition goes beyond excessive drinking and is considered a serious mental health disorder. It can lead to a range of harmful physical and psychological consequences and often requires professional treatment to overcome.

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What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

You may not realise you’re drinking too much or you may think a couple of drinks a day, even if it is every day, is fine, but it’s not. Drinking alcohol consistently regularly is doing your body and your mental health intense and long-lasting damage.

You may not think, or be willing to accept, that you have an alcohol addiction. Fortunately, there is an easy way to work out if you need to cut down or stop drinking altogether.

Put together by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), this checklist of symptoms is used widely by clinicians and psychiatrists to diagnose alcohol addiction. The latest edition, DSM 5, refers to alcohol use disorder with mild, moderate and severe subclassifications. 

Have a look at these symptoms to see how you register. If you have two to three symptoms, you have mild alcohol use disorder,  four to five and it’s moderate and more than five is severe.

  1. Carried on drinking more or for longer than you intended
  2. Tried to cut down or stop drinking before but were unable to
  3. Spent a lot of time drinking, being hungover or sick from drinking
  4. Wanted a drink so badly it was all you could think about
  5. Drinking, or the effects of drinking impacted on your relationship, family life or job
  6. Carried on drinking even though it was becoming a problem with family and friends
  7. Stopped an activity or pastime you enjoyed so you could drink
  8. Risked your safety while drinking or drunk (e.g. by drunk driving or having unsafe sex)
  9. Continued drinking even though it made you anxious or depressed or blackout
  10. Had to drink more than you used to just to feel the same effect
  11. Experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms (e.g. shaking, sweating) when you stopped

How did you score? It’s essential that you’re honest with yourself.

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CAGE Questionnaire

The line between enjoying a few drinks and having alcohol dominate your life is blurred and not easy to identify. If you feel you or a loved one is drinking too much, answering these questions from the CAGE questionnaire may help.

  • Have you ever felt you need to Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people Annoyed you by criticising your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  • Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (an Eye-opener)?

Answer honestly. A score of two or higher and yes, you have a problem with alcohol dependence and we recommend you seek help.

Alcoholism is the colloquial word commonly used to describe the disease of long-term alcohol abuse and dependence. The predominant diagnostic classification is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

What are the Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism?

We know alcohol abuse does a lot of damage to the internal organs, overwhelming the liver so it can’t function properly and putting pressure on the heart which puts you at greater risk of stroke, but what about the physical symptoms you can see or feel?

While many people with an alcohol addiction may appear OK, to begin with, excessive drinking takes its toll on your physical appearance and bodily functions. Symptoms include:

  • A ‘flushed’ face with redness usually around the cheeks and nose
  • Stomach upset. Heavy drinking can erode the stomach lining and make you feel unwell
  • A bloated stomach from too much drink
  • Fingers and toes feeling numb or tingly due to alcohol damaging the nerve endings
  • Unsteadiness on the feet. Ever tripped over that kerb, or fallen off a bike while ‘tipsy’…?
  • Injuries and bruises from alcohol-induced accidents and even fights
  • Diarrhoea due to damaging the stomach and altering how fluids are absorbed
  • Urinary incontinence. Your bladder is full of beer but you’re out cold
  • Propensity to more infections as excessive drinking results in a weakened immune system
  • Unkempt appearance. Smelling of alcohol and not staying on top of personal hygiene

If you stop drinking, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which will have an impact on you physically, such as shaking, sweating, nausea and seizures. These can be managed with addiction treatment.

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Alcoholism is a disease that affects a significant percentage of the world’s population. If left untreated, it can be fatal. However, recognised treatment methods increase your chances of a successful outcome.

Alcoholism and Mental Health Consequences

You may think that drinking makes you feel good, happy, relaxed and fun, but alcohol abuse and its effects have severe consequences for your mental health. Heavy drinking alters brain chemistry which results in altered cognitive functions and mood.

Drinking too much can impact your well-being in many ways. Symptoms include:

  • Depression from the self-loathing you feel because you drink or from the ‘comedowns’
  • Anxiety. If you drink to relax, you’ll need more and more to make you feel less anxious
  • Memory loss. Alcohol depletes vitamin B which results in amnesia
  • Confusion and lack of concentration as a result of this vitamin B deficiency
  • Hallucinations. Severe addiction may result in seeing and hearing things that aren’t there
  • Suicidal ideation, from feelings of low self-worth, severe depression or risky behaviour

Again, if you stop drinking you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms which can include depression and anxiety. Expert treatment can help with this.

What Happens if You Drink Alcohol Every Day?

Drinking every day is bad for your health as it doesn’t give your liver a chance to break the alcohol down so your body can eliminate it before it’s overwhelmed with more. It doesn’t matter if it’s just half a bottle of wine with dinner, two drinks a day regularly is enough to put you at risk of liver disease.

Having a daily drink also raises the risk of other health issues, including cancer, and even increases your chances of death. If you can’t face a day without a drink, you have an alcohol dependence and need to seek help.

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Alcohol Abuse & Relationships

Alcohol abuse not only affects your physical and mental health, but it also wreaks havoc with your personal and professional life. People who drink excessively often drive partners and loved ones away because they’re unable to cope with the excessive drinking and dishonesty that come with alcohol addiction.

Addiction often destroys families and children can face severe emotional problems including feelings of neglect, anxiety or fear from a parent’s addiction, no matter how hard you try to hide it.

Your professional life is also likely to suffer due to poor work performance or inability to timekeep. The financial strain of losing your job will only keep you stuck in the cycle of addiction as you continue drinking to cope with the stress. These are just some of the dangers of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol Abuse and Liver Disease

Drinking large amounts of alcohol damages the liver and can result in liver disease. The liver plays an essential part in how the body functions, converting nutrients we need into energy and breaking down toxins so they can be eliminated from the body.

If the liver is damaged from alcohol abuse, it can have a devastating effect on the body, and in many cases, it can be fatal.

Alcohol liver disease is often symptomless, which means it isn’t identified until it’s advanced or too late. The good news is the liver is the only organ that can regrow healthy cells, which means in some cases liver disease can be reversed completely.

These are the three stages of liver disease:

Fatty Liver Disease (Steatosis)

Alcohol contains sugar and excessive drinking means a build-up of sugar and fat in the liver. This is the first stage of alcohol abuse and it is often symptomless. However, you can experience:

  • Nausea and feeling sick
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Dark urine

Stopping drinking can reverse fatty liver disease and restore your liver and health. The best and safest way to do this is to seek addiction treatment first.

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Inflammation of the Liver (Hepatitis)

This is the second and more advanced stage of liver disease. Around 40% of people with fatty liver disease will develop hepatitis if they continue to drink. Alcoholic hepatitis is fatal in half of all cases. Again, it is often symptomless but as well as the symptoms above, you may see:

  • Swollen stomach and ankles
  • Tenderness in the stomach and liver area
  • Blood in vomit or faeces
  • Feeling confused and disoriented
  • Fever
  • Yellow eyes and skin (jaundice)

Again, the best treatment for this stage of liver disease is to stop drinking. A liver transplant is an option although this is drastic and not always achievable.

Scarring of the Liver (Cirrhosis)

This is the most serious stage of liver disease and the only one that cannot be reversed by cutting out alcohol. Half the people who develop alcoholic cirrhosis will die.

Despite its seriousness, cirrhosis can also be symptomless. However, as well as the symptoms listed above you may experience:

  • Vomiting blood
  • Itchy skin
  • Muscle cramps

If you have any form of liver disease, you need to stop drinking. If you don’t, no treatment can save you.

Infertility

Men and women may experience fertility problems. Alcohol is toxic to sperm and heavy drinking reduces sperm count and quality. Women trying to conceive should also avoid alcohol.

Cancer

Many cancers are directly related to chronic heavy alcohol use. This includes cancer of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, breast, bowel, and liver.

Alcohol Health Risks

Anxiety & Depression

Prolonged alcohol consumption commonly leads to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Memory Blackouts

A blackout results in an inability to recall details of events that have occurred during a drinking bout. Blackouts occur even after a few drinks and the degree of memory lapse increases with the amount consumed. One particular form of alcohol-related acquired brain injury is the condition Korsakoff’s syndrome which is characterised by persistent memory and learning problems and caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1.

Alcoholic Brain Damage

Chronic heavy drinkers are at risk of the more progressive and persistent brain damage leading to generalised cognitive impairment. This may present as a loss of memory and difficulty with problem-solving.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Alcohol use during pregnancy is potentially damaging to the developing fetus and even frequent consumption of moderate amounts may cause a condition known as Fetal Alcohol Effects or with heavy consumption full-blown Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. These children suffer from a variety of cognitive disabilities.

Just a Casual Habit? When is a Person Considered an Alcoholic?

Drinking alcohol is tied in with so much of what we enjoy – eating good food, meeting friends, dating, socialising, watching sports, celebrating birthdays and weddings. It loosens us up, gives us confidence, makes us laugh and winds us down.

You might not know how to socialise without drinking or fear you may lose your friendship groups if you give up, as you’ll be accused of being a party pooper or a bore who doesn’t know how to enjoy yourself.

There’s no specific symptom or event that moves you from being a casual drinker to someone with alcohol addiction. However, if you’re making excuses to yourself, or others, about why and how much you drink, and if the negatives (the comedowns, the accidents, the lies you tell, the mess you wake up in) outweigh the positives, it’s time to come clean and seek help. 

What Should I Do if I Think Someone is Dependent on Alcohol?

Firstly, it’s important you approach them with compassion. Shouting will only cause them to become defensive or storm out. Find a time when you are both calm and talk to them. Be honest about your concerns and explain why you feel this way. Sometimes people with an alcohol addiction can’t see how it affects their loved ones until it’s pointed out to them.

Encourage them to talk to you about their drinking and the reasons behind it. Are they stressed at work or depressed about a toxic relationship? Is it going hand in hand with drug addiction or a mental health issue?

You can signpost them towards useful organisations here and direct them to websites such as ours to show them there is help out there for alcohol addiction. They just need to ask.

Remember, you are not responsible for someone else’s alcohol addiction, you are not there to cover up and lie for them, and you can’t force someone to stop drinking. You can, however, offer to support them when they admit to their own addiction and be there for them when they reach out for help.

In some cases, if the person with alcohol addiction is violent or aggressive, it is not advisable to confront them about their drinking. You need to seek help about extracting yourself from the relationship and protecting yourself and any children if they are present.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol taken in large quantities damages several parts of the body, especially the liver, heart and brain, as well as the nervous system. When heavy drinking has gone on over several years, a dependency is established and a sudden cessation is likely to cause severe withdrawal symptoms and be extremely dangerous.  Symptoms will vary but withdrawal by a heavy drinker should never be attempted alone.

Without medical supervision, there is a high risk of epileptic fits, heart failure and delirium.

Who Does it Affect? 

Any person close to an alcoholic is likely to be affected. Alcoholism is known as the ‘family disease’ and it can break a family apart, but others can be affected too: work colleagues, old friends and recreational acquaintances can all be seriously upset in emotional and practical ways by the erratic behaviour of an alcoholic. Desperate family members and friends may be driven to cover up or otherwise enable the sufferer out of misplaced kindness or fear of worse consequences.

Eventually, a crisis will occur, perhaps the loss of a job or a driving conviction. For many, this is the moment when they ask for help and start the process of recovery. Sadly, there will be some who are too much in denial to want to stop, despite overwhelming reasons to do so. However, for those who do want to change, there is help available.

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Treatment for Alcoholism

Alcoholism treatment can be either outpatient or residential but either way, it is likely to start with a detox. Alcohol poisons the body and it takes several days for the body of a heavy or dependent drinker to get through the withdrawal stage and start normal functioning. Any detox must be performed under medical supervision.

Therapy takes many forms but generally speaking, it is the process whereby a person is helped to make changes to their attitudes, beliefs and expectations which will beneficially affect their behaviour and lifestyle. For some, this will be regular counselling sessions, for others, it will be attendance at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most effective self-help therapies ever devised.

For others, it may be residential rehab. Some may do all three. Very few people manage to stop drinking with no help at all.

Residential Rehab for Alcoholism

This normally consists of three elements: detox, intensive therapy in a residential setting, and continuing care following discharge back into the community. Residential treatment can be expensive compared to other treatments, but recovery outcomes are better. It offers a therapeutic community, safe from temptations and outside stress where intensive rehabilitation takes place. The 24/7 presence of medical and therapeutic staff is another advantage.

If you need emergency mental health advice or medical support please call the NHS 24 helpline as soon as possible on 111. The advice is free and could save a life.

If you need advice on accessing inpatient rehab treatment for alcohol addiction, please call our 24-Hour helpline on 01721 728118 to arrange a free addiction assessment. We are here to help.

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Making that first step in seeking help can be very difficult, our team is here to help you.

Alcoholism FAQs 

Can you detox from alcohol at home?

We do not advise detox at home unless nursing staff are available 24/7. Those with no other options except a home detox are strongly advised not to stop drinking abruptly but to taper off their drinking over as long a period as possible – at least two weeks. Slowly reducing the amount of alcohol, you drink is not easy and should only be done as a last resort. You should consult a GP before starting to detox. The length of tapering off needed will be relative to the amount of alcohol that you have been drinking.

What is considered excessive drinking?

A bottle of 11% wine contains 8.25 units of alcohol. The government recommends a maximum intake of 14 units per person per week. Regular intake above this level can cause physical damage and so could be said to be excessive.
Seriously excessive intake would be perhaps double the recommended level on a regular basis. Other factors such as a person’s BMI have a bearing on how alcohol affects the body. Perhaps more important than the measure of alcohol is the negative consequences that follow heavy drinking.

What health problems are associated with alcoholism?

Long-term problems and chronic diseases linked to excessive drinking include:
High blood pressure, liver disease, heart disease, stroke, digestive problems.
Cancer of the breast, liver, voice box and digestive tract.
Weakening of the immune system.
Memory problems, depression and anxiety.

Is Alcoholism Treatable?

Yes, alcoholism is very treatable. At Castle Craig Hospital we believe that complete abstinence is essential to success. We have treated thousands of patients since opening in 1988. We have no doubt that anyone can be helped to live a happy sober life, regardless of their background provided they show honesty, openness and a willingness to change.

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