Alcohol Addiction

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Kerry Canning, MBChB
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Kerry Canning is a Medical Editor at Castle Craig and is responsible for developing and medically reviewing content. More

What is Alcoholism?

“Alcoholism,” now considered an outdated term, is often referred to as alcohol use disorder, alcohol addiction, or alcohol dependence. It describes the uncontrollable desire to drink alcohol and the inability to stop despite negative consequences.

Alcohol addiction 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 achieving and maintaining recovery.

It is difficult to determine the exact cause of alcohol addiction, as it is a complex process that depends on biological and environmental factors.1

Alcohol addiction also causes many problems for individuals and their families, for example:

  • Heavy drinking can lead to a blackout, which risks personal safety and the safety of others
  • Self-directed violence or violence towards others
  • A negative impact on relationships as most of your time is devoted to drinking than your partner or children
  • Financial strain due to the expensive costs of alcohol
  • Secretive and untrustworthy behaviour resulting from feelings of shame and guilt

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. However, “alcoholic” is now considered outdated and carries negative connotations. It is more respectful and accurate to use terms like “individual with alcohol use disorder” or “person with alcohol dependence.”

A person dependent on alcohol exhibits several key symptoms:

  • Increased tolerance to alcohol, requiring more to achieve the same effects.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as:
    • Shaking
    • Nausea
    • Anxiety
  • Inability to limit or stop drinking, worsened by alcohol cravings.
  • A significant amount of time spent:
    • Trying to obtain alcohol
    • Using alcohol
    • Recovering from the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol-dependent individuals often continue drinking even when it causes physical harm or exacerbates existing health issues. This condition goes beyond excessive drinking and is considered to be 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?

People living with alcohol addiction may struggle to identify or accept they have this problem. However, even moderate daily drinking can cause significant long-term harm to your physical and mental health.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) have created a helpful symptom checker to help diagnose alcohol addiction. Widely used by clinicians and psychiatrists, the latest edition, DSM 5, refers to alcohol use disorder with mild, moderate and severe subclassifications. 

Review the following symptoms to assess your situation.

  • 2 or 3 symptoms mean you may have a mild alcohol use disorder
  • 4 or 5 symptoms indicate a moderate alcohol use disorder
  • >5 symptoms suggest a severe alcohol use disorder
  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 that 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

It’s important that you consider your results seriously and seek help if you’re concerned about your alcohol use.

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Alcohol Screening Questionnaires

The distinction between social drinking and alcohol dependence can be difficult to discern. If you suspect that you or a loved one may be drinking excessively, the CAGE questionnaire can provide valuable insight.

  • 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)?

If you score two or higher on the CAGE questionnaire, this indicates a possible problem with alcohol dependence, and seeking professional help is recommended.

What are the Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol misuse can severely damage internal organs, leading to a variety of health risks, including poor liver function and an increased risk of stroke.

While many people with an alcohol addiction may initially appear okay, excessive drinking eventually takes a significant toll on physical appearance and bodily functions. Symptoms of alcohol addiction can include:

  • Flushed face: Redness, usually around the cheeks and nose
  • Stomach upset: Heavy drinking can erode the stomach lining, causing nausea and discomfort
  • Bloated stomach: Excessive alcohol intake can lead to abdominal bloating
  • Numb or tingly fingers and toes: Alcohol can damage nerve endings
  • Unsteadiness on the feet: Increased risk of tripping or falling, even when slightly intoxicated
  • Injuries and bruises: Common from alcohol-induced accidents and altercations.2
  • Diarrhea: Damage to the stomach lining and altered fluid absorption
  • Urinary incontinence: Inability to control the bladder, especially when unconscious
  • Increased infections: Weakened immune system due to excessive drinking.3
  • Unkempt appearance: Poor personal hygiene and smelling of alcohol

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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Alcohol addiction 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 the chances of a successful outcome.

Alcohol Addiction and Mental Health Consequences

People living with alcohol addiction may feel that drinking helps them relax, but alcohol misuse and its effects have severe consequences on mental health and well-being. 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: Stemming from self-loathing associated with drinking
  • Anxiety due to increased alcohol consumption for relaxation
  • Memory loss (amnesia) as alcohol depletes vitamin B4
  • Confusion and lack of concentration as a result of this vitamin B deficiency
  • Hallucinations can occur is severe cases of alcohol addiction
  • Suicidal ideation, from feelings of low self-worth, severe depression or risky behaviour5

Additionally, ceasing alcohol consumption can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including depression and anxiety. Expert treatment can help manage these symptoms and support recovery.

Alcohol Addiction Success Stories

Peter’s Recovery Journey

Peter shares his journey of overcoming alcoholism and how Castle Craig helped him reclaim his life. Watch to hear more about his transformation and how his life has changed since finding recovery.

What Happens if You Drink Alcohol Every Day?

Drinking alcohol every day is bad for your health as it doesn’t give your liver a chance to break the alcohol down before it’s overwhelmed with more. Even if it’s 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 may be dependent on alcohol and need to seek professional help.

Alcohol Misuse & Relationships

Alcohol misuse not only affects your physical and mental health, but it also wreaks havoc with your personal and professional life. Excessive drinking frequently leads to strained relationships, as partners and loved ones struggle to navigate the challenges posed by alcohol addiction, including deceit and unreliability.

Alcohol addiction often fractures families 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 misuse.

Alcohol Misuse 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 as a result of alcohol misuse, it can have a devastating effect on the body, and in many cases, it can be fatal.

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

These are the three stages of liver disease:

Fatty Liver Disease (Steatosis)

Alcohol contains sugar and excessive drinking results in a build-up of sugar and fat in the liver. This is the first stage of alcohol misuse and it is often symptomless.6 However, you can experience:

  • Nausea
  • 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.

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.7 As with fatty liver disease (steatosis) alcoholic hepatitis is often asymptomatic, in addition to the symptoms of steatosis, 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)

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.

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

  • Vomiting blood
  • Itchy skin
  • Muscle cramps

The Impact of Alcohol Addiction on Physical and Mental Health


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


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

Anxiety and 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 session. 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. This condition 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 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 Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

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

When is Alcohol Use Considered a Problem?

Alcohol is often intertwined with many aspects of social and recreational life, including dining, socialising with friends, dating, celebrating events, and watching sports. It can enhance relaxation, boost confidence, and contribute to enjoyment in these settings.

However, the transition from casual drinking to alcohol addiction is not marked by a specific symptom or event. If you find yourself making excuses for your drinking habits or notice that the negative consequences outweigh the positive experiences, it may be time to acknowledge the issue and seek professional help.

Fears about socialising without alcohol or concerns about losing friendships should not deter you from getting help. Addressing alcohol addiction is crucial for your overall well-being and the health of your relationships.

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

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 stopping suddenly 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 confusion (delirium).

Who Does it Affect? 

Alcohol addiction is often referred to as the “family disease,” as it impacts not only the individual but also those around them. Family members, work colleagues, old friends, and recreational acquaintances can all experience significant emotional and practical disruption due to the erratic behaviour associated with alcohol misuse. In some cases, desperate loved ones may enable the sufferer, driven by misplaced kindness or fear of more severe consequences.

A crisis, such as job loss or a driving conviction, often serves as a turning point, prompting individuals to seek help and begin the recovery process. While some may remain in denial despite compelling reasons to change, there is help available for those ready to embrace recovery.

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Castle Craig has a dedicated detoxification centre and 24/7 supervision by doctors and nurses to ensure the utmost patient safety.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol use disorder treatment includes both outpatient or residential programmes, however, given that alcohol is toxic to the body, heavy or dependent drinkers require detoxification before continuing with therapeutic treatment. Due to the complications that can occur as a result of alcohol withdrawal, a medically supervised detox is always advised.

Therapeutic interventions encompass various modalities aimed at facilitating profound behavioural and lifestyle changes. Therapy entails guiding patients in restructuring their attitudes, beliefs, and expectations to positively influence their behaviour. While some individuals may benefit from regular counselling sessions, others may find solace and support through participation in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, renowned as one of the most effective self-help therapies ever developed.

For some individuals, residential rehabilitation may be the most suitable option. Others may engage in a combination of outpatient therapy, residential rehab, and self-help groups.

Residential Rehab for Alcohol Addiction

Residential rehab at Castle Craig typically involves three key components: detoxification, intensive therapy in a residential setting, and continuing care after discharge into the community. Although residential treatment can be more costly compared to other options, we have found that it yields better recovery outcomes.8 This approach provides a therapeutic community free from external temptations and stressors, where intensive rehabilitation can take place. Additionally, the continuous presence of medical and therapeutic staff at our clinic offers significant advantages for patient support and care.

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 treatment for alcohol addiction, please call our Help Centre to arrange a free addiction assessment.

Alcohol Addiction FAQs 

Can You Detox From Alcohol at Home?

We do not advise detox at home unless nursing staff are on hand. Those with no other options 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?

Excessive drinking refers to consuming alcohol in amounts that surpass recommended guidelines and pose a risk to health and well-being. It can vary depending on factors such as age, gender, weight, and overall health. Generally, for adults, excessive drinking is defined as:
For men: consuming more than 4 drinks on any single day or 14 drinks per week.
For women: Consuming more than 3 drinks on any single day or 7 drinks per week
However, individual tolerance levels can vary, and excessive drinking can lead to a range of health issues, including liver disease, heart problems, and mental health disorders. It’s important to be mindful of alcohol consumption and seek support if drinking habits become problematic.

What Health Problems Are Associated with Alcohol Addiction?

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 Alcohol Addiction Treatable?

Yes, alcohol addiction 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 do not 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.

Alcohol Addiction Resources

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