People have used alcohol to relax and socialize for thousands of years. Families and friends drink in celebration and in sorrow, and alcohol is available virtually everywhere. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that nearly eighty-eight thousand people die as a result of heavy drinking in the US each year, making it one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the country.
Throughout history, we’ve tried to make sense of alcohol’s double-edged effects. How can it be that one person can drink socially without experiencing long-term repercussions, and another can fall victim to addiction with a single drink? What does alcoholism entail, and who is susceptible? And how can someone recover from alcoholism completely?
Understanding the Real Risks of Alcohol
Alcohol is a substance produced by sugar fermentation. Wine, spirits (liquor), and beer are the most common forms of alcohol and can be purchased by anyone twenty-one years or older at any establishment with the license to sell it. As soon as someone takes a sip of alcohol, the substance enters the bloodstream, and the immediate effects of alcohol are experienced within ten minutes.
The physical symptoms of alcohol intoxication include:
- Bloodshot and/or glossy eyes
- Poor coordination
- Staggered walking or trouble standing
- Slurred, rambling, and repetitive speech
- Agitation, depression, or anxiety
- Reduced inhibitions
- Slurred speech
- Motor impairment
- Memory and concentration difficulty
More alcohol means a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level, which is the amount of alcohol in the blood. The higher the BAC, the more severe the effects. In the case of overindulgence or bingeing, the user may become dizzy, which may lead to vomiting or passing out. Too much alcohol can also lead to breathing problems, which can exacerbate existing lung or heart problems.
Coma or death can also occur as a result. In addition, heavy drinking can cause:
- Car crashes and other accidents
- Risky behavior
- Violent behavior
- Suicide and homicide
- Alcohol poisoning; overdose
People who drink heavily for an extended period may experience long-term effects such as:
- Heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure
- Brain communication interference, causing changes in mood, behavior, movement, and coordination
- Liver disease, fatty liver, hepatitis, cirrhosis, and fibrosis
- Pancreas inflammation, also known as pancreatitis
- Increased risk of certain cancers
- Weakened immune system, leading to higher likelihood of contracting diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis
After drinking to intoxication, it’s common for users to experience a hangover. While hangovers won’t last forever, they can cause a multitude of problems which may last longer than a day.
Symptoms of hangover include:
- Thirst and sweating
- Muscle aches
- Nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain
- Headache and sensitivity to light and sound
- Poor sleep and fatigue
- Decreased attention and concentration
- Anxiety, irritability, and depression
- Tremor and increased pulse and blood pressure
- Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
- Low blood sugar
Treating a hangover involves rest, liquids, and time. To avoid a hangover, one may choose to limit alcohol consumption or avoid it altogether. If you spend a great deal of time dealing with hangovers and the impact of drinking, it’s beneficial to discuss this with your doctor. Hangovers can cause problems at work, home, and school due to the severity of symptoms.
What Is a Standard Alcoholic Drink?
An alcoholic drink can vary in size, which may be a bit confusing for some people when considering how much alcohol they’re actually consuming. The amount of liquid in a glass, bottle, or can doesn’t always represent the amount of alcohol in the drink itself.
Some things to consider while drinking include:
- In the US, one standard drink has about fourteen grams of pure alcohol
- A domestic beer is typically 5 percent alcohol, while light beer is usually 4.5 percent alcohol
- Twelve ounces of beer (a standard can or longneck bottle) is considered one drink
Five ounces of wine (about 12 percent alcohol) is considered one drink
- 1.5 ounces (about one shot) of distilled spirits (roughly 40 percent alcohol) is one drink
The alcohol content of each drink type can be very different; however, it’s still possible to gauge your alcoholic intake by reading the label or asking the server. If you’re trying to limit the amount of alcohol you’re consuming on a night out, it doesn’t hurt to ask that your drink is poured using a “jigger”—a metal measuring cup for cocktails. Many bars use or have jiggers to accurately pour drinks, although bartenders do tend to use a “count” method while pouring, which is approximate, but not exact.
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How Much Alcohol Is Safe?
Weight, age, gender, frequency, and amount of alcohol consumed can affect the way someone reacts to alcohol. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines moderate drinking as one drink per day for women and two per day for men.
Furthermore, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests:
- Three drinks in a day and no more than seven in one week for women as low-risk drinking
- For men, four drinks in a day and no more than fourteen in a week are at a low risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD)
- Fewer than 2 percent of people who follow the low-risk guidelines suffer from AUD
Studies have found that women metabolize alcohol differently than men. Women are believed to have less water in their bodies compared to a man of the same weight, so alcohol moves more slowly through the bloodstream and takes longer to process. For the same reason, women are more susceptible to alcohol poisoning while bingeing, although men are more susceptible to developing an AUD.
What Is Problem Drinking?
Alcohol abuse doesn’t always mean that you are physically addicted. Problem drinkers are able to quit drinking without physical withdrawal symptoms; however, the desire to quit isn’t on the forefront. Problem drinking can still cause serious trouble at home, work, school, and with the law—and needs to be addressed to prevent serious repercussions.
Frequent bingeing is a cause for concern, and can be identified as such:
- For men, five or more drinks in two hours is considered binge drinking
- For women, binge drinking is four or more drinks in two hours
- Five days or more of bingeing in one month is considered heavy drinking, according to SAMHSA
Certain people shouldn’t drink at all due to health complications. Taking medication which could adversely react to alcohol, for instance, may cause life-threatening risks, which are just not worth taking. Someone who intends to drive a vehicle or operate machinery obviously shouldn’t drink.
What Is Alcoholism?
While drinking in moderation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, problems begin when the desire to drink becomes overpowering. Alcoholism can wreak havoc on the lives of those affected. The National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that 15.1 million adults over the age of eighteen suffered from alcoholism in 2015. Today, an estimated eighteen million adults are addicted to alcohol. Alcoholism can be identified by a physical dependence, a strong urge to drink, the inability to stop, and an increased tolerance to alcohol.
You may suffer from AUD if you’ve:
- Drunk more than intended, or for longer than planned
- Wanted to stop or cut down drinking, or tried, but couldn’t
- Spent a lot of time drinking or with a hangover
- Felt a strong urge to drink
- Your life, job, school, family, or finances have been interrupted by drinking or hangover
- Been in dangerous situations as a result of drinking, such as unsafe sex or driving drunk
- Chosen drinking over other things you enjoy
- Kept drinking despite feeling depressed or anxious as a result, or despite alcohol exacerbating existing conditions
- Built a tolerance; needed more alcohol to feel the effects
If you’ve experienced insomnia, shaking, irritability, anxiety, depression, nausea, sweating, restlessness, and irritability after the alcohol has worn off, it is likely that your body is going through withdrawal symptoms. This is a red flag and may indicate AUD. In more serious cases, alcohol withdrawal can cause fever, seizures, or hallucinations.
Drinking During Pregnancy
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol abstinence during pregnancy is especially important. Drinking while pregnant can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). FASDs can cause medical, behavioral, educational, and social problems in early and later development.
Problems associated with FASD include:
- Abnormal facial features, including a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip, wide-set and narrow eyes
- Small head and body; low birth weight and trouble gaining weight
- Poor coordination
- Attention, memory, speech/language, and learning difficulties
- Low IQ and cognitive impairment
- Poor reasoning and judgment skills
- Sleep and sucking problems
- Vision, hearing, heart, kidney, and bone problems
- Nervous system issues
There is no cure for FASDs. Medicine can help with some symptoms, as well as behavioral therapy and parent training. While many healthcare providers (HCPs) have different guidelines regarding the appropriate amount of alcohol during pregnancy, there is no known “safe” amount. Alcohol can have devastating effects on your baby at any stage of pregnancy—even before you know you’re pregnant.
Youth and Alcohol
According to NIAAA, people ages twelve through twenty account for 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the US. Although the legal drinking age in the US is twenty-one, teenagers commonly experiment with alcohol much earlier.
The CDC conducted a Youth Risk Survey in 2017, which indicated that among high school students:
- 30 percent drank some alcohol in the past thirty days, and 14 percent reported binge drinking
- 6 percent reported driving while under the influence of alcohol in the past month
- 17 percent were passengers in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking
Based on 2006-2010 data, the CDC also estimates that 4,358 deaths associated with alcohol consumption occurred in people under the age of twenty-one each year. The risk of developing alcoholism later in life is greater for those who drink at a young age.
Additional trouble can occur in people who drink in adolescence, including:
- School trouble: more absences and lower grades
- Social trouble: fighting and isolation
- Legal trouble: arrests
- Physical trouble: less effective immune response and injury
- Higher likelihood of impulsive behaviors and promiscuity
- Disrupted growth and sexual development
- Depression: higher risk of suicide
- Memory issues
- Abusing other drugs
- Brain development disruption
- Alcohol poisoning
Alcohol works to alter normal brain activity. Alcohol is risky for youth, especially during big changes in hormonal development. The best way to prevent youth drinking is to open the lines of communication and be sure who your kids are around. Talk to your kids about the dangers of drinking, and make sure your kids know that if they do find themselves in a dangerous situation, you’ll be there to pick them up.
Treatment for Alcoholism
If you’re concerned about AUD, it’s important to visit your HCP for an evaluation so you can come up with an effective treatment plan. The longer your symptoms continue, the harder it will be to recover from the long-term repercussions of alcoholism. Your HCP may refer you to treatment at an inpatient or outpatient rehab facility.
Rehab will provide the most comprehensive treatment for those in need of help. In a rehab center, patients can expect:
- Medically-monitored withdrawal and detox
- Medications and treatments to make withdrawal more comfortable, such as Disulfiram, Naltrexone, and Acamprosate
- On-site therapy and support, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), group therapy, and one-on-one therapy sessions to help patients control temptation and get to the root of the problem
- An alcohol and drug-free environment to mitigate temptation
- Resources for recovery after rehab, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- Follow-up care
Quitting alcohol abruptly can be extremely difficult if you don’t have the tools to make sobriety stick. Each step in recovery is incredibly important and can make all of the difference for those seeking sobriety. Following up with your HCP following rehab can increase success in recovery and lessen the likelihood of backsliding. In the event of relapse, contacting your sponsor, your HCP, or therapist can help you get back on track in recovery.
Alcohol Addiction Can Be Treated
Alcohol is a substance with the power to take over your entire life. If you or a loved one struggle with drinking too much, it may be time to seek treatment. Rehabs are constantly improving practices to better serve you. Call us for assistance in finding the best treatment center for your needs and get on the road to recovery today.
Call the Treatment Helpline at: 1-866-651-6885