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Home > Fitness & Health > Health Library > Alcohol Use Disorder
This topic is about alcohol use disorder in adults. For information about alcohol problems in teens or children, see the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Use.
Alcohol use disorder means having unhealthy or dangerous drinking habits, such as drinking every day or drinking too much at a time. It can range from mild to severe. The more signs you have, the more severe the disorder may be. Moderate to severe alcohol use disorder is sometimes called addiction.
When you have alcohol use disorder, you continue to drink even though you know your drinking is causing problems. You have a strong need, or craving, to drink. You feel like you must drink just to get by. It can harm your relationships, cause you to miss work, and lead to legal problems such as driving while drunk (intoxicated).
Alcohol use disorder is a long-term (chronic) disease. It's not a weakness or a lack of willpower. Like many other diseases, it has a course that can be predicted, has known symptoms, and is influenced by your genes and your life situation.
Alcohol is part of many people's lives and may have a place in cultural and family traditions. It can sometimes be hard to know when you begin to drink too much.
You are at risk of drinking too much and should talk to your doctor if you are:footnote 1
Certain behaviors may mean that you're having trouble with alcohol. These include:
Alcohol use disorder may be diagnosed at a routine doctor visit or when you see your doctor for another problem. If a partner or friend is worried about your alcohol use, he or she may urge you to see your doctor.
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and past health, and he or she will do a physical exam and sometimes a mental health assessment. The mental health assessment checks to see whether you may have a mental health problem, such as depression.
Your doctor also may ask questions or do tests to look for health problems linked to alcohol, such as cirrhosis.
Treatment depends on how bad the alcohol use disorder is. Some people are able to cut back to a moderate level of drinking with help from a counselor. People who are physically dependent on alcohol may need medical treatment and may need to stay in a hospital or treatment center.
Your doctor may decide you need detoxification, or detox, before you start treatment. You need detox when you are physically dependent on alcohol. When you go through detox, you may need medicine to help with withdrawal symptoms.
After detox, you focus on staying alcohol-free, or sober. Most people receive some type of therapy, such as group counseling. You also may need medicine to help you stay sober.
When you are sober, you've taken the first step toward recovery. To gain full recovery, you need to take steps to improve other areas of your life, such as learning to deal with work and family. This makes it easier to stay sober.
You will likely need support to stay sober and in recovery. This can include counseling and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Recovery is a long-term process, not something you can achieve in a few weeks.
Treatment doesn't focus on alcohol use alone. It addresses other parts of your life, like your relationships, work, medical problems, and living situation. Treatment and recovery support you in making positive changes so you can live without alcohol.
If you are worried about your alcohol use, get help. Even if you are successful in other areas of your life, visit a doctor or go to a self-help group. The earlier you get help, the easier it will be to cut back or quit.
Helping someone who has alcohol use disorder is hard. If you're covering for the person, you need to stop. For example, don't make excuses for the person when he or she misses work.
You may be able to help by talking to the person about what his or her drinking does to you and others. Talk to the person in private, when the person is not using drugs or alcohol and when you are both calm. If the person agrees to get help, call for an appointment right away. Don't wait.
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It's not clear why some people develop alcohol use disorder and others do not. It often runs in families (genetic), but your drinking habits also are influenced by your environment and life situations, such as friends or stress levels.
If you have two or more of the above signs you may have alcohol use disorder. The more signs you have, the more severe the disorder may be.
Other signs include:
Signs of alcohol problems in children and teens can be different from the ones for adults. For more information, see the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Use.
You might not realize that you have a drinking problem. You might not drink large amounts when you drink. Or you might go for days or weeks between drinking episodes. But even if you don't drink very often, it's still possible to develop alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol use disorder can develop very quickly or happen gradually over years.
In the beginning, your drinking might not seem to be any different from the way other people drink. You may drink only with friends or at parties. It may stay like this, or you may begin to drink more. Your drinking might become a way for you to feel normal or to cope with life's problems.
You might think that you can quit drinking at any time. Many people who have alcohol problems quit for days, weeks, or even months before they start drinking again. But unless you can consistently keep your drinking under control and not fall back into unhealthy patterns, you need help.
Long-term heavy drinking harms your liver, nervous system, heart, and brain. It can cause health problems or make them worse. These problems include:
Alcohol use also can contribute to stomach problems, interactions between medicines and alcohol, and sexual problems. It can lead to violence, accidents, social isolation, and problems at work, school, or home. You also may have legal problems, such as traffic tickets or accidents, as a result of drinking.
Drinking alcohol can cause unique problems for older adults, pregnant women, and people who have other health conditions. If you are pregnant, you should not drink any alcohol, because it may harm your baby.
Drinking also makes symptoms of mental health problems worse. When you have alcohol use disorder and a mental health problem, it's called a dual diagnosis. It's very important to treat all mental health problems, such as depression. You may drink less when mental health problems are treated.
Many people drink alcohol throughout their lives without any problems. Other people who drink alcohol have problems with it. Why do some people develop alcohol use disorder, while others don't?
Certain things make alcohol use disorder more likely. These are called risk factors.
Risk factors include:footnote 2
Just because you have risk factors for alcohol use disorder doesn't mean you'll develop it. A person who has many risk factors won't always have alcohol use disorder. And a person who has no risk factors can develop alcohol use disorder.
Call 911 or other emergency services if you or someone else:
Call a doctor right away if you or someone you care about:
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. Watchful waiting is not a good choice for alcohol use disorder. If you have concerns about your drinking or the drinking of someone you care about, talk to your doctor. Early treatment makes recovery more likely.
Support groups can also help you and your family:
Alcohol use disorder may be diagnosed during a routine doctor visit or when you see your doctor for another problem. Many people don't go to a doctor for alcohol problems but for problems that are caused by long-term alcohol use.
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam. He or she also may ask questions or do tests to look for health problems linked to alcohol use disorder, such as cirrhosis.
To learn which type of questions your doctor may ask, use this short quiz:
People who drink also may have mental health problems. These may include depression, anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you have alcohol use disorder and a mental health problem, it's called a dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis can make treatment for alcohol use disorder harder.
If your doctor thinks you have a mental health problem, he or she may do a mental health assessment.
Treatment for alcohol use disorder usually includes group therapy, one or more types of counseling, and alcohol education. You also may need medicine. A 12-step program often is part of treatment and continues after treatment ends.
Treatment doesn't just deal with alcohol. It will help you manage problems in your daily life so you don't have to depend on alcohol. You'll learn good reasons to quit drinking.
Recovery from alcohol use disorder—staying sober—is a lifelong process that takes commitment and effort.
Some people with mild alcohol use disorder may be able to cut back or quit on their own. But most people need help when they quit drinking.
If you want to quit, talk to your doctor. When you get a doctor's help, treatment for alcohol use disorder is safer, less painful, and quicker. If you can't stop drinking alcohol with just your doctor's help, a treatment program can help you get through the first cravings for alcohol and learn how to stay sober.
You might start treatment with your family doctor, or your doctor may recommend that you enter a treatment facility. A friend may bring you to a self-help group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or you might go to a clinic that deals with alcohol use. You may just decide that you drink too much and want to cut back or quit on your own.
You may have a treatment team to help you. This team may include a psychologist or psychiatrist, counselors, doctors, social workers, nurses, and a case manager. A case manager helps plan and manage your treatment.
When you first seek treatment, you may be asked questions about your drinking, health problems, work, and living situation. Be open and honest to get the best treatment possible. Your treatment team may write a treatment plan, which includes your treatment goals and ways to reach those goals. This helps you stay on track.
Your doctor may decide you need detoxification, or detox, before you start treatment. You need detox when you are physically dependent on alcohol. This means that when you stop drinking, you have physical withdrawal symptoms, such as feeling sick to your stomach or intense anxiety.
Detox helps get you ready for treatment. It doesn't help you with the mental, social, and behavior changes you have to make to get and stay sober.
Whether you need detox and whether you can go through it at home or need to go to a clinic or other facility depends on how severe your withdrawal symptoms are. Most people don't need to stay at a clinic but do need to check in with a doctor or other health professional. Whether you need to spend time in a clinic (called inpatient care) also depends on other problems you may have, such as a mental health problem.
Your doctor may give you medicines to help reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Your doctor can help you decide which type of program is best for you.
If you are thinking about going into a treatment program, here are some questions to ask.
Treatment programs usually include counseling, such as:
A treatment program may include medicines that can help keep you sober during recovery. You may take medicine that can help reduce your craving for alcohol or that makes you sick to your stomach when you drink.
Most programs provide education about alcohol use disorder. Understanding alcohol problems can help you and your family know how to overcome them. Some programs also offer job or career training.
Treatment programs often include going to a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Your family members also might want to attend a support group such as Al-Anon or Alateen.
Medicines can be used to help treat alcohol use disorder. Some medicines reduce withdrawal symptoms during detoxification. Other medicines help you stay sober during the long process of recovery.
Medicines most often used to treat withdrawal symptoms during detoxification include:
Medicines used to help you stay sober during recovery include:
Alcohol use can cause your body to become low in certain vitamins and minerals, especially thiamine (vitamin B1). You might need to take thiamine supplements to improve your nutrition during recovery. Thiamine helps prevent Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which causes brain damage.
You also might need supplements to help replace fluids and electrolytes.
Recovery from alcohol use disorder means finding a way to stay sober while changing your attitudes and behaviors. You will work to restore relationships with your family and friends and people at your job or school. You will need to find meaning and happiness in a healthy lifestyle that doesn't include alcohol.
To stay sober after treatment, focus on your goals. Find things to do, such as sports or volunteer work. Learn how to say no to alcohol and drugs.
An important part of recovery is being sure you have support. You can:
Stopping alcohol use is very hard. It's not unusual to have setbacks, even years later. Very few people succeed the first time they try. Many people who are trying to recover from alcohol use disorder will have lapses or relapses along the way.
It's smart to plan for a lapse or relapse before it happens. Your doctor, family, and friends can help you do this.
Some people find that relieving stress helps them during recovery. Although there is little research to show that managing stress helps you stay sober, you may find that it helps you feel better overall.
You can find ways to deal with stress, such as sharing your feelings with others or writing to express your journey through recovery. Do something you enjoy, like a hobby or volunteer work. Learn how to relax your mind and body with breathing exercises or meditation.
You can do many things to reduce stress. To learn more, see the topic Stress Management.
When you have alcohol use disorder, you often get away from some of the basics of good health. Part of recovery is finding your way back to a healthy lifestyle.
Alcohol use disorder can harm your relationships with family and friends. You and your family may feel you have turned against each other. You may be angry at your family and friends, and they may be angry at you.
If you can, talk with your family and friends about your drinking and recovery. Your family and friends need to know how they can help you during recovery.
If someone close to you has alcohol use disorder, you know how hard it can be. You know how living with or being close to someone who has this disorder can change your life. You're an important part of your loved one's treatment and recovery. Your emotions and life may change too, and taking care of yourself is also important.
It can be very hard to live with a family member who has alcohol use disorder. It's best not to try to control, excuse, or cover up the person's drinking. Instead, encourage your family member to seek treatment. Find a good time to talk to the person.
When the choice for treatment has been made, you play an important part. You can help your loved one stop drinking and help repair the damage done to your family or relationship. Here are some things you can do:
Taking care of yourself while you help your loved one is important. You probably will feel relief and happiness when the person decides to get help. But treatment and recovery mean changes in your life too. Your emotions may become more complicated. You may:
These feelings are normal. You've been through a bad period of your life, and what happened is not easy to forget. Nor is it easy to forgive your loved one. Keep in mind that recovery is the road to a better life and that you can help your loved one get there.
You may find that talking to people who also have loved ones with alcohol use disorder helps your own recovery. Al-Anon and similar programs are for people with family members or friends who struggle with alcohol. Other support groups are specially designed for certain age groups, such as Alateen for teens and Alatot for younger children.
These programs help you recover from the effects of being around someone who has alcohol use disorder. You also may try family therapy.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2005). Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much: A Clinician's Guide (NIH Publication No. 07-3769). Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health. Also available online: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Practitioner/cliniciansGuide2005/clinicians_guide.htm.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Substance-related and addictive disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., pp. 481–589. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Current as of:
February 11, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicinePeter Monti PhD - Alcohol and AddictionChristine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral HealthHeather Quinn MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: February 11, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Peter Monti PhD - Alcohol and Addiction & Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health & Heather Quinn MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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