Get the Facts on Alcohol Abuse
As a substance that most adults can easily obtain from their neighborhood store, or order off the menu at a favorite restaurant, the hard facts about alcohol use and abuse are frequently overlooked. Statistics about alcohol abuse can be quite alarming, however.
Placing a spotlight on the damaging effects of alcohol consumption helps bring awareness to, and hopefully helps to fight this nationwide problem.
The Short Term Effects of Alcohol Use
The drug ethanol is more commonly called 'drinking alcohol' or simply 'alcohol'. Alcohol is an organic compound, produced in various ways from the fermentation of sugars. Its chemical structure makes it easy for alcohol to cross human cell membranes and, therefore, highly diffusible into all tissues in the body, including the brain. Ethanol acts as a central nervous system depressant, with a wide range of alcohol use effects based on dosage, speed of ingestion and the resultant concentration in the blood over time.
Blood Alcohol Content
The concentration of alcohol is measured in percentage units of 'blood alcohol content' (BAC). Tolerance to the physical influence of alcohol tempers the effects in some individuals but, in general, the following percentage ranges roughly describe the short-term effects possible at different BAC levels.
- 0.03% - 0.10%: Mild euphoria, mood enhancement, lowered anxiety.
- 0.10% - 0.20%: Marked sedation, delayed reaction time, balance / vision disturbances.
- 0.20% - 0.30%: Marked confusion, ataxia, nausea, vomiting.
- 0.25% - 0.40%: Severe loss of muscle coordination, intermittent unconsciousness, bradycardia, loss of bladder control.
- 0.35% - 0.80%: Profound respiratory depression, coma, death possible.
Long Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Chronic alcohol consumption can quickly lead to a whole host of detrimental effects.
Not all drinkers stop after a single drink. Furthermore, an evening consisting of multiple drinks doesn't always occur in isolation. Chronic alcohol consumption can quickly lead to a whole host of detrimental effects:
- Chronic inflammation of the liver (alcohol induced hepatitis) which, over time, secondarily leads to a proliferation of scarring in the liver itself (cirrhosis).
- The increase in blood pressure and heart rate associated with even moderate drinking over time can lead to an enlarged, underperforming heart (alcoholic cardiomyopathy).
A less commonly known outcome from prolonged alcohol consumption is the increased incidence of a variety of cancers (with risk being heightened even more who smoke in conjunction with drinking). Aside from the personal health impact that alcohol abuse has, one must also factor in an increased association with violent crime, and accidents (car or otherwise). All told, the economic costs of alcohol abuse are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that nearly 90,000 people die annually from alcohol-related causes, placing it in third place on a list of preventable causes of death in the US.
Video: How Alcohol Affects Your Brain and Body
Credit: Business Insider
Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
Alcohol abuse can nebulously be defined as having maladaptive or unhealthy drinking behavior. This could include drinking too much at a single moment in time, or continuing to drink every day. Most alcohol abusers know that what they are doing is detrimental to their daily lives, but are unable to easily discontinue the behavior. If a person continues to abuse alcohol, they may quickly find themselves meeting the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, which include:
- Use of alcohol in quantities or lengths of time greater than intended.
- Increasing tolerance/requiring higher amounts over time.
- Withdrawal symptoms when not using.
- A persistent desire to cut down on alcohol consumption.
- Dedication of large amounts of time and energy in obtaining alcohol.
- Decreased interest or time spent on social, work or recreational activities due to alcohol use.
- Continuing to abuse alcohol despite recognizing the existence of a clear physical or psychological problem resulting from alcohol use.
Drinking Too Much - Recognizing Alcohol Overdose
We previously outlined some of the effects of alcohol based on blood alcohol level. The overdose phenomenon known as "alcohol poisoning" can occur in those higher levels when BAC percentage is so markedly elevated that areas of the brain normally dedicated to life preserving functions such as respiration and heart rate regulation begin to fail. Symptoms of such an acute alcohol overdose may include:
- Mental confusion.
- Repeated vomiting.
- Cold and/or discolored skin.
- Labored breathing and convulsions.
Seek immediate emergency medical help should you witness any of the aforementioned symptoms.
Video: How to Handle Alcohol Poisoning
Getting Clean and Sober
There are a number of treatment options available (discussed in more detail below) to aid the transition to a clean and sober lifestyle.
How an Intervention Works
Interventions seek to increase alcoholics' desires to quit by confronting them with the effects of their behavior.
Often those struggling with an alcohol problem will show no desire to change their behavior, or they may not even recognize it as being a problem. Interventions seek to increase alcoholics' desires to quit by confronting them with the effects of their behavior. Employers or therapists can initiate these, but they are thought to be most effective when involving family members and close friends.
During an intervention, affected people communicate, honestly but compassionately, about how they have been hurt by the subject's alcoholism. This combination of confrontation and support often provides the initial desire for change that is necessary to progress.
Have questions about how an intervention works? See our Frequently Asked Questions About Interventions page.
Methods for Alcohol Withdrawal and Detoxing
Withdrawing from alcohol can be difficult, uncomfortable and, in some instances, life threatening. Acute alcohol withdrawal shouldn't be attempted without professional medical guidance and monitoring.
Supervised or medically assisted detox entails the use of specific medications to moderate the potentially dangerous physical effects of withdrawal. Additionally, there are also oral medications available to reduce the craving for alcohol that often follows once the initial hurdle of withdrawal has been overcome.
Rehab and Alcoholism Treatment Options
Following withdrawal and detox, a rehab program is usually recommended to equip alcoholics to handle life without alcohol. Depending on the individual case, this can be done either on an inpatient basis or on an outpatient basis with a tailored program. Possible treatments can include:
- Addiction education and a variety of therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Pharmaceutical or medically assisted recovery.
Aftercare and Relapse Prevention
These residences do not provide additional treatment, but they do provide a sober environment in which recovering addicts can provide each other with support.
Alcoholics Support Groups and Recovery Tools
Because alcohol is so prevalent in society, recovering alcoholics can sometimes find it hard to stay sober, especially during periods of stress or sadness.
Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, can be a considerable help in staying sober in the long term. Regular meetings are often held nationwide, enabling those in recovery to find support from others with similar problems.
New members may also be assigned a sponsor, an existing member that will provide valuable support and advice, especially during harder times.
Alcohol is the most predominant substance of abuse among people in recovery treatment, as reported by a 2017 Recovery Brands survey. Out of all the survey responses, nearly 70% of people struggled with a drinking problem, and nearly 53% of people sought treatment for alcohol abuse more than for any other substance. Regardless of how many abused substances exist, ethanol is the most pervasive.
Common Questions and Answers about Alcoholism and Problem Drinking
What are some signs of alcohol dependence? Dependency can occur in someone who drinks heavily and repeatedly, and can include tolerance to alcohol, withdrawal effects when abstinent, as well as continued drinking behavior despite recognizing the problem exists.
Can a problem drinker or alcoholic simply cut down their drinking? While a problem drinker may be able to achieve this, a clinically diagnosed alcoholic will not be able to. It is an inherent part of alcoholism that sufferers are unable to moderate their consumption, at least in the long term
What are the safe levels of drinking? For most healthy adults, two drinks per day for men and one for women is believed to be acceptable, where a drink can be a 12-oz. bottle of beer, a 5-oz. glass of wine or similar. Some people should avoid alcohol completely, such as recovering alcoholics, those on certain medications, those with certain medical conditions, and those driving or using machinery that requires care and concentration.
Can women drink during pregnancy? Research has established that heavy drinking during pregnancy can harm the baby. That said, it is still unknown if there is any safe level, so total abstinence is recommended for pregnant women.
Isn't alcohol good for my health? While some studies do support that moderate drinking can be beneficial in some cases, the negative health effects of excessive drinking far outweigh these. This should never be used as a justification to continue drinking.