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Home » Is Alcoholism a Disease? Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder – Verywell Health

Is Alcoholism a Disease? Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder – Verywell Health

Michelle Pugle is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of experience contributing accurate and accessible health information to authority publications.
Stephanie Hartselle, MD, is a board-certified pediatric and adult psychiatrist and Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Alcoholism is the lay term for alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is a brain disorder affecting nearly 15 million people aged 12 and older in 2019, according to a national survey. Some people may also know it as alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or alcohol dependence. AUD ranges from mild to moderate to severe. No matter the severity, the key characteristic in people who have AUD is an impaired ability to control their alcohol use despite consequences.
This article will discuss the causes of AUD, its symptoms, how it's diagnosed and treated, and tips for living with AUD. It will also share some information on what you can do if you have a loved one who is experiencing AUD.
Women have a faster progression of AUD than men and are at greater risk than men for certain alcohol-related consequences.
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Factors that can contribute to the development of AUD include:
The effects of alcohol on brain chemistry are like those of other drugs—toxic to brain messaging channels (neurotransmitter pathways) associated with learning and memory. And as drinking continues, these changes negatively affect systems responsible for your body and brain’s stress response.
Drinking alcohol changes a person’s brain chemistry. Over time it impairs many brain chemicals including those associated with motivational processes, including arousal, reward, and stress. 
For example, dopamine (reward/motivation), opioid peptides (pain relief), GABA (stress/anxiety), and serotonin (mood/energy/appetite) are all affected by alcohol use and misuse. These neurotransmitters are all associated with a person’s mental health. Over time drinking can lead to persistent deficits in these brain chemicals. 
A mental obsession is a thought that plays over and over again in your head, distracting from other thoughts and priorities. Mental obsession examples include planning or scheduling activities around alcohol consumption or the effects of alcohol consumption (e.g., hangovers) and increased thinking about alcohol.
Certain behaviors or traits can prompt inappropriate drinking or lead to alcohol-related disorders. These include:
Heavy drinkers and those who have lost control over responsible alcohol consumption also markedly increase their chances of dying from automobile accidents, homicide, and suicide.
People may use alcohol in the short-term to experience feelings of pain relief. But over time alcohol use disrupts the relationship between pleasure and pain.
As tolerance increases, a person may continue drinking to avoid the adverse effects of stopping or to avoid discomfort. Increased cravings for alcohol to provide desired feelings like calmness or emotional numbing make it all the more difficult to stop the cycle.
Physical signs of alcohol use disorder can vary between people. Someone may show some, all, or you may see no signs of AUD. It can depend on how high-functioning the person with the disorder is and how long they’ve been in the cycle of addiction. 
Physical signs include:
Like signs of AUD, symptoms can also vary. These are the things a person or their loved one may report to their healthcare provider:
Alcohol withdrawal ranges from mild to severe and in some cases can be life-threatening.  Alcohol withdrawal symptoms worsen as the detox process continues. This means how you feel on day one or two of not drinking may not be a good indicator of your risk of serious withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually start within eight hours after the last drink, but they can still occur days later. Symptoms usually peak by 24 to 72 hours, but may go on for weeks.
Common symptoms include:
Serious withdrawal symptoms are known as the DTs, or delirium tremens. Signs of emergency include:

Alcohol use disorder is known as a progressive disease, meaning that without proper treatment, it will continue to get worse. There is no set time frame for when a person typically moves through each stage.
Possible complications of alcohol use disorder include:
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed based on criteria as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). A person must meet at least 2 of the 11 criteria during the same 12-month period. Additional lab tests including screening for nutritional deficiencies and blood markers of inflammation can also be useful to determine the illness stage.
AUD is usually treated with multiple methods, including behavioral therapies, medications, and support groups.
Psychotherapies can help a person learn to cope with everyday stress without alcohol. 
These include:
Medications may be used to help reduce symptoms of withdrawal and cravings for alcohol. These include:
Support groups include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs that provide trained professional or peer-led support for people in recovery from alcohol use disorder.
It’s never too early to see a primary care physician or another healthcare provider about your relationship to alcohol. If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, it’s time to seek help. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding excessive alcohol consumption. If you do choose to drink alcohol, follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans on moderate alcohol consumption (no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men). They also suggest talking to your healthcare provider and seeking counseling if you have concerns about your drinking. 
Alcohol use disorder is treatable. Mild and early-intervention cases may only be problematic for a period of time, but severe cases are often a lifelong struggle.
The sooner you recognize there may be a problem and talk to your healthcare provider, the better your chances at recovery.
Supporting someone with AUD means encouraging them to seek help and stay in recovery (continue with their treatment plan which includes staying sober from alcohol). You can also help by:
People with drinking problems are most likely to relapse during periods of stress or when exposed to people or places associated with past drinking.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a hotline, 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 
Additional places for help include:
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complex disease that affects millions of people in the United States every year. People with alcoholism often experience a worsening of symptoms over time, causing greater distress in their lives. There are many potential causes of AUD, including cultural and social factors, mental illness, and trauma. It is treatable with therapy, medication, and continued support from others. 
Alcoholism is a disease. Disease management requires acceptance of a problem, follow-through with treatment, and an understanding that a person can have periods of symptom flare-ups or relapse (but this doesn’t mean hope is lost). You can recover from AUD, but it often takes time and commitment. Lean into your loved ones for support and ask them to help you through this difficult time.

Both. Alcoholism is caused by a mix of genetic, social, cultural, and environmental factors. Researchers estimate that genetic factors account for 40% to 60% of a person's vulnerability to addiction and the rest is a mix of the other factors.
A single (one) standard drink is equal to roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:
Alcohol use disorder is the clinical term for alcoholism or alcohol addiction. The latest version of the DSM-5 combined the two former categorizations of abnormal alcohol use (alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence) into one diagnosis: alcohol use disorder.
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