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Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used recreational drugs in the United States and the world. Alcohol ads are a ubiquitous part of American culture, and binge drinking is all but a rite of passage among college students. For many, alcohol is an important cultural touchstone, used among friends and as a social lubricant. However, many people see the adverse effects of the drug like dependence, addiction, and health problems.

Learn more about alcohol addiction, the signs and symptoms, and how it can be treated.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is a form of alcoholism that’s characterized by compulsive abuse of alcohol despite serious consequences. Addiction is a disease that affects the reward center of the brain in a way that causes it to mistake drinking alcohol for a life-sustaining activity. It’s officially diagnosed as a severe alcohol use disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Problems like binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and chemical dependency may fall under mild and moderate alcohol use disorders. However, addiction is ultimately defined by compulsive use and the inability to quit, even in the face of serious setbacks. 

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Alcohol is one of the most commonly used recreational psychoactive substances in the world. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 86 percent of people over the age of 18 drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. In the same survey, 26 percent of people said they engaged in binge drinking that same year.

However, not everyone who drinks develops a substance use disorder. Addiction can be caused by a variety of factors, including biology, environment, and development. It may also come with several underlying issues like mental health problems.

How Alcoholism Works

The reward center of the brain is designed to help motivate you to find food, shelter, and personal connections through cravings and compulsions. This part of your brain responds to “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin that are often released by normal activities like eating a meal, talking to a loved one, or getting exercise. However, some psychoactive substances also affect these chemicals.

Alcohol has shown to increase the release of dopamine, which is closely tied to reward and motivation. The brain is wired to seek positive things and avoid negative things, which is an important function for survival.

However, it can also lead to addictive behavior. If you have a negative experience like a stressful day at work, you may come home and seek a way to take the edge off like a few glasses of wine.

However, your brain picks up on the fact that alcohol helped alleviate your negative experience. After repeating this a few times, your reward center will learn to compel you to drink the next time you experience a stressful day.

This effective is deepened by heavy alcohol use. Having one drink at the end of the day is a low enough dose that your body can filter the majority of the alcohol out before it affects your brain.

Multiple drinks can have a profound effect on your brain, body, and nervous system. Once a substance use disorder develops, it can cause more stress and negative experiences in your life, which can trigger more cravings and more alcohol abuse.

Signs of Alcoholism

If you think that you might be developing a problem with alcohol use, there are a few signs and symptoms that can point to an alcohol use disorder. As alcohol addiction begins, the signs may be subtle, and you might be able to hide a problem from your friends and family. But addiction is progressive, and as it continues, it can become harder and harder to conceal.

If you are trying to identify addiction in yourself, the following symptoms may point to a problem:

  • Drinking more than you intended
  • Trying and failing to cut back on drinking
  • Drinking to mask uncomfortable emotions
  • Regularly drinking outside of social settings
  • Drinking at odd times like first thing in the morning
  • Feeling uncomfortable symptoms when you don’t drink
  • Memory issues or blackouts
  • Developing and increasing tolerance to alcohol
  • Lying about or hiding drinking habits

If you are worried that a friend or loved one may be struggling with alcohol use disorder, there are some things you might be able to observe from an outside perspective, including:

  • Struggling at work or in school
  • Finding alcohol hidden around the house
  • DUIs or other legal issues
  • Sudden unexplained medical issues
  • Binge drinking despite serious consequences like a DUI
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent intoxication
  • Strange sleep schedules
  • Hand tremors
  • Isolation
  • Engaging in risky behavior

What Is Involved in Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

If you’ve become addicted or dependent on alcohol, you may have to start treatment with medical detox or detox in a hospital setting. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol is likely to cause you to experience withdrawal symptoms after becoming chemically dependent.

Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening and even deadly. Withdrawal is characterized by insomnia, anxiety, high blood pressure, tremors, seizures, and a condition called delirium tremens. These symptoms can be treated in a 24/7 medical detox program to help avoid serious complications.

After medical detox, you may continue onto the next level of care, which depends on your specific needs. If you still have medical or psychological needs that require high-level care, you may move onto an inpatient or residential treatment program where you will have access to 24-7 medical monitoring and clinical care. When you can live on your own without serious medical risks or likely threats to your recovery, you may move on to intensive outpatient or outpatient treatment.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

  • 1 in 7 teens binge drink, which is consuming large amounts of alcohol at one time.
  • Someone is killed by drunk driving in the U.S. every 51 minutes.
  • Alcohol use disorders affect 623,000 between 12 and 17.
Many people


Bergland, C. (2012, November 29). The Neurochemicals of Happiness. from

Di Chiara, G. (1997). Alcohol and dopamine. from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018, December 13). What Is A Standard Drink? from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019, August 08). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. from

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015, September). Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results … from

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