Alcohol Misuse and Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment
What Is Alcohol Misuse?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), alcohol is the most commonly used and misused substance in the United States.1 Those who misuse alcohol are not necessarily addicted or dependent on alcohol. An individual can misuse alcohol without drinking on a consistent basis. For example, an individual who misuses alcohol may only drink once a week. However, when the individual drinks, they may put themselves in risky situations or drink enough to cause problems.2
Addiction is a chronic disease that involves the uncontrolled, continued pursuit and use of substances despite any harmful consequences.3-6 Individuals who suffer with alcohol addiction are often diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). They may also have developed a dependency on alcohol.
The effects that alcohol can have on a person will vary, and the factors that influence these effects include age, health status, family history, and how much and how often one drinks.2
Alcohol Addiction Statistics
As mentioned, Americans use and misuse alcohol more than any other substance. During 2020, 50% of individuals 12 and older (138.5 million people) used alcohol in the past month.7 Also among this age group, 10.2%, or 28.3 million people had a past-year alcohol use disorder.8
According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, of the 138.5 million people who had used alcohol in the past month, 61.6 million were classified as binge drinkers and 17.7 million were classified as heavy drinkers.7 In terms of people who were past-month binge alcohol users:7
- 31.4% were young adults aged 18 to 25.
- 22.9% were adults aged 26 and older.
- 4.1% were adolescents aged 12 to 17.
A trend known as high-intensity drinking can be defined as drinking alcohol at levels that are two or more times the binge drinking threshold, based on gender. When compared with those who did not binge drink, individuals who drank at a high-intensity level were 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related emergency room visit.9
What Are the Causes of Alcohol Addiction?
There are various factors that can increase a person’s chance of developing alcohol use disorder. Certain long-term behaviors like heavy use or binge drinking will increase someone’s risk for AUD. The following factors may also increase a person’s risk:10,11
- Your genetics.
- Family history and drinking patterns.
- History of trauma.
- Lack of parental supervision.
- Co-occurring mental health condition, like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Early age when experimentation and/or drinking began.
- Availability of alcohol.
The more risk factors that a person has, the more susceptible they are to alcohol misuse and addiction. However, protective factors aid in reducing these risks. Protective factors may include positive relationships, parental support, and neighborhood resources.11
What Are the Common Methods of Alcohol Misuse?
Binge Drinking and Heavy Drinking
- Binge drinking is excessive drinking that is defined as 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for a man and 4 or more drinks for a woman. Most people who are binge drinkers are not identified as alcohol dependent.
- One in 6 U.S. adults report binge drinking approximately 4 times each month, and binge drinking occurs most commonly among adults aged 18–34. Binge drinking can lead to numerous health problems and damaging effects, including alcohol poisoning, alcohol overdose, car accidents, violence, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer (including breast, mouth, liver, and colon), and memory and learning problems.12
Pregnant Women and Alcohol
- Alcohol can present various dangers during pregnancy, and there is no known level of use that is considered safe. All types of alcohol are dangerous.
- Drinking while pregnant is dangerous because the alcohol is passed on to the baby and can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and numerous physical, behavioral, and intellectual development issues, including low body weight, poor coordination, hyperactive behavior, poor memory, learning disabilities, poor judgment skills, and vision or hearing problems.13
Teen Alcohol Use
- Many teenagers misuse alcohol due to the accessibility of the substance and peer pressure. In fact, among those aged 12 to 20 in 2020, 16.1% (6.0 million people) were past-month alcohol users. In terms of underage people who took part in binge drinking and heavy drinking, these numbers were 9.2% (3.4 million people) and 1.8% (669,000 people), respectively.8
- Teenagers who misuse alcohol may exhibit signs including low energy, having alcohol paraphernalia, concentration problems, problems with coordination, mood swings, changing social circles, declining academic performance, behavioral issues/rebelling, and smelling of alcohol.14,15
- Teens who use alcohol are at an increased risk in a number of ways. Teens who drink may be sexually active and participate in unprotected sex more often than teens who do not consume alcohol.15These teens are also at an increased risk of becoming a victim of rape or assault.15 They may also get injured or die in car crashes involving alcohol.15
- Not only can alcohol misuse alter how a teenager acts, but it can also have adverse effects on the adolescent brain. Studies show that brain development continues past the teenage years. Alcohol abuse during the brain’s formative years can negatively impact how the brain develops and can also lead to learning problems and increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder in the future.15
Signs and Health Effects of Alcohol Misuse
Alcohol misuse symptoms can vary. Binge drinking and the excessive use of alcohol have a wide range of consequences, from nausea to headaches from a hangover to severe liver problems from chronic drinking. In the short term, drinking too much can be very dangerous and sometimes deadly. Alcohol’s effects may include:2,5,16
- Slurred speech.
- Impaired judgment.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Memory loss.
- Problems breathing.
The risk of significant personal harm or long-term health problems is increased with chronic alcohol consumption. People who use excessive amounts of alcohol are at greater risk of:2,5,16
- Mouth, esophageal, throat, liver, and breast cancer.
- Heart problems, such as cardiomyopathy.
- Brain damage.
- Weakened immune system.
- Liver disease.
- Violence or self-harm.
- Accidents, such as vehicle collisions.
How Is Alcohol Use Disorder Diagnosed?
The misuse of alcohol has the potential to lead to an alcohol use disorder. An AUD is a chronic disease in the brain that is defined by the compulsive use of alcohol, an inability to control how much you drink, and negative feelings when you are not drinking.10 Signs that may indicate an alcohol use disorder include the following:5,10
- Neglecting personal/family responsibilities.
- Declining academic or professional performance.
- Conflicts with loved ones.
- Preoccupation with drinking and cravings.
- Inability to control drinking.
- Failing in attempts to stop drinking.
- Needing increasing amounts of alcohol to feel its effects.
- Drinking too much or when it could be hazardous, such as before driving.
- Going through withdrawal when not drinking.
Alcohol Combined With Other Drugs
Alcohol use disorder often occurs in the presence of another substance use disorder. In 2017, 16% of individuals entering treatment for substance use used alcohol alone vs. 37% entering treatment for AUD along with a co-occurring or dual diagnosis substance use disorder.18
Some people combine alcohol use with prescription or illicit drugs. Combining alcohol with other drugs is never safe. The substances’ strength and predictability can be significantly affected, and even deadly. Alcohol, in particular, is dangerous to mix with other substances since it is a depressant. Severe damage to the heart, brain, and other organs can occur, as well as overdose.
Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment
Individuals who wish to overcome problems with alcohol use or who suspect that they may have an alcohol use disorder have a number of options. You may, for example, wish to contact a free alcohol addiction hotline (or drug abuse hotline number).
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 686,000 people aged 12 and older with AUDs received alcohol use treatment in treatment facilities (4.6% of people with AUDs, 2018).8
Many individuals who are treated for alcohol misuse often seek outside help from addiction treatment centers and therapy sessions. Alcohol treatment centers are designed to help individuals who are addicted or who misuse alcohol. Some treatment centers require an individual to stay at the center for a specific amount of time, while others offer outpatient treatment. Many centers offer both long- and short-term treatment options.3
During treatment, individuals go through detoxification. Detox is a set of interventions used to keep a person safe as they adjust to a lack of alcohol in the body.19,20 Medical detox is extremely important for someone dependent on alcohol because withdrawal can cause delirium and potentially life-threatening seizures, along with other very serious symptoms.2,19,20
Treatment with behavioral therapy and possibly medication should follow detox.20 Treatment centers are designed to provide support in the form of individual therapy, as well as group therapy and educational classes on drug addiction. During therapy sessions, patients can explore the reasons behind their excessive alcohol consumption, as well as what they can do to overcome their abusive behavior.3
Alcohol Addiction Treatment Programs
Inpatient treatment allows patients to receive care in a structured, controlled environment.3 With housing, medical care, and various forms of therapy, inpatient treatment can be best for those who do not have effective home support systems or who are dealing with more severe alcohol misuse problems.3
Outpatient treatment is also an option for many individuals. Outpatient treatment centers are designed to provide those in recovery with a place to explore their behaviors. Many outpatient treatment centers provide anonymous group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as other programs, to help recovering individuals overcome their issues.3 With outpatient treatment, individuals are not placed in a controlled environment, so it is important that people who use outpatient treatment have strong support systems to rely on outside of treatment.
Finding Alcohol Treatment Facilities
Rehab facilities are located throughout the U.S., and a variety of treatment types is available. You can use SAMHSA’s Find Treatment tool to search for programs. Many state government websites will provide local drug and alcohol resources to those in need. To find your state government’s website, do a web search for your state name and ‘.gov.’ Once your state website is located, substance use resources shouldn’t be hard to find, and they should provide further phone contacts for your assistance.
Receiving treatment for an alcohol use disorder can help you regain control of your life. We can help. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted rehab facilities across the country. Please call us free at to learn about treatment options with AAC.