Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Long Term Effects, & Recovery

Written By: Facility Staff

Edited By: Editorial Team

Published Date: 01/27/24

Last Updated: 01/27/24

Alcoholism is a real and far-reaching health condition, with alcohol use disorders currently being the most common type of substance use disorder and a prominent matter in public health. 

Alcohol addiction can, however, be difficult to spot in our friends and loved ones. It never presents itself in exactly the same way, and some of those who face alcohol abuse from it are better at hiding it than others. 

But remember: alcohol addiction is highly treatable, and many people are able to recover and go on to lead healthy and fulfilling lives free from the throes of addiction. 

Read on to learn more about alcohol addiction and how to find alcohol treatment options for people in the southeast United States.

Alcohol Addiction (Alcohol Use Disorder): Quick Definition

An alcohol use disorder (AUD) occurs when a person loses control over their behaviors and actions regarding alcohol consumption, particularly with the amount of alcohol they drink and the frequency with which they consume it. 

The warning signs for this type of substance use disorder tend to be more difficult to recognize than others. This is largely due to the fact that alcohol is legal, readily available, and socially acceptable in American society. 

An alcohol use disorder may only become more clear once a person has started to experience health consequences or effects on their responsibilities, relationships, and normal functioning. 

Key Facts on Alcohol Addiction & Alcohol Abuse

  • One in 10 people over the age of 12 in America has an alcohol use disorder.
  • Roughly 22% of suicide deaths involve alcohol intoxication.
  • Roughly 1 in 4 adults over age 18 report binge drinking within the past 30 days.
  • Excessive alcohol use is a leading cause of preventable death in the United States and is responsible for 140,000 preventable deaths every year.
  • Liver disease is one of the leading causes of alcohol-related death.

How Does Alcohol Use Disorder Start?

An alcohol use disorder can start in many different ways and for many different reasons, but understanding why an individual starts drinking alcohol can help in treating their addiction. 

Why Do People Abuse Alcohol?

Everyone has their own reasons for why they start to use alcohol, though they may not necessarily understand the reasons why they start to misuse or abuse it. 

Reasons people abuse alcohol include:

  • To lower their inhibitions and help them to relax and have a good time
  • To numb themselves from problems in their personal lives
  • To satisfy their curiosity or boredom
  • To self-medicate a mental health, emotional health, or physical health issue
  • To relieve stress
  • To rebel against parents or other authority figures who tell them not to drink
  • To fit in with their friends or peers

Pleasurable Effects That Lead to Alcohol Misuse

Drinking alcohol can have a lot of pleasurable effects, and having a good time while drinking alcohol can lead many people to want to drink more.

Drinking alcohol can be problematic, however, when people do not recognize that their drinking has turned into misuse, and others around them are no longer having a good time. 

Unfortunately, once they have reached this point it can be very difficult to stop drinking without professional help.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

While it may seem like alcohol makes people more energetic and social, this is just an immediate effect. Alcohol is actually a central nervous system depressant. 

This means alcohol slows down brain activity, causing effects like impaired judgment, lack of balance and coordination, drowsiness, and slurred speech. 

Is Alcohol Addiction a Choice?

No, alcohol addiction is not a choice, and is in fact a chronic brain disease that alters a person’s brain chemistry as well as the way they think, feel, and behave

Most people with AUD (formerly called the stigmatic word alcoholics) would likely choose to be able to drink in moderation or socially, but find that it is difficult to control themselves in situations where alcohol is readily available. 

In most cases, by the time an alcohol use disorder has been set in motion, that person has already started to lose their awareness and ability to change their behavior on their own. 

What Are the Signs of Alcohol Addiction?

Because alcohol addiction affects each person differently, and because there are levels of alcohol use disorder, signs of alcohol addiction may look different from one person to the next.

Here are some of the most common signs of alcohol addiction:

  • Not being able to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Lots of time spent drinking, seeking alcohol, or recovering from drinking alcohol (hungover)
  • Wanting to stop drinking, or trying to, but being unable to succeed
  • Craving alcohol when it’s not available
  • Feeling uncomfortable when being unable to drink alcohol
  • Avoiding social events where alcohol is not allowed, or sneaking alcohol
  • Shirking work, school, or other obligations due to alcohol use
  • Having a lack of interest in usual hobbies or activities
  • Building a tolerance to alcohol
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

Alcohol Addiction vs Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence are commonly mistaken for being the same condition. Though they are closely related, there are some key differences. 

Addiction to alcohol is a mental and emotional dependence on alcohol, characterized by intense cravings and behaviors that revolve around seeking or desiring alcohol. 

Someone who is dependent on alcohol is instead physically dependent on alcohol, and will experience withdrawal symptoms and other physical discomforts if they don’t have access to alcohol. 

People are often addicted to alcohol and physically dependent on it at the same time, and it is rare to find one occurring without the other. 

What Causes AUD to Develop?

Not only is alcohol a highly addictive substance, it also rewires the way a person’s brain functions. 

Once a person drinks often enough and in large quantities, they lose the ability to drink in controlled amounts, and their brain has a harder time returning to its normal baseline between drinking sessions. 

At this point, they are also likely to experience withdrawal symptoms in between drinking sessions, keeping them in a state of addiction in order to avoid physical discomfort. 

With early intervention and support from family and loved ones, however, people can reverse many of the effects of an alcohol use disorder. 

Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction

While everyone is potentially susceptible to the dangers of addiction and alcohol abuse, research and data suggest that there are certain risk factors that are more indicative of future problems. 

Risk factors for alcohol addiction include:

  • Genetics: people who had a parent with an AUD are more likely to develop an AUD
  • Home environment: particularly home environments that were unstable or with a parent or caregiver who was abusive or neglectful 
  • Easy access to alcohol: people may be more likely to face addiction if they have no issues obtaining it
  • Drinking as an adolescent: the earlier in life a person starts drinking, the more likely they are to have alcohol problems later
  • Mental health conditions or trauma: people with mental illness, high stress, or recent trauma may turn to alcohol as a means of coping or escaping their problems

Who Experiences Alcohol Abuse Problems?

People of any age, gender, race, or ethnicity can experience an alcohol abuse problem.

However, like most substance use disorders, alcohol use disorders are more common in men than women, with men being three times more likely to die from an alcohol-abuse related death. 

Also like other substances, alcohol abuse is most common in the 18-25 aged demographic, with the age of 21 being considered the peak age for heavy drinking. 

Yet, alcohol abuse can affect anyone, and even infants and newborns can be affected by alcohol abuse in their mothers during pregnancy or breastfeeding. 

Stages of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction affects people in stages, though people can pass through the various stages at greatly different rates. 

Binge Drinking & Alcohol Intoxication Stage

Addiction can start to develop as soon as a person engages in binge drinking or drinking with the intention of becoming intoxicated. 

Binge drinking is characterized by drinking many drinks in one sitting over a short period of time.

People may start binging alcohol more frequently and find that their tolerance has increased as well. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Stage

Someone in the middle stage of alcoholism will start to experience withdrawal symptoms any time they do not drink for a period of time. 

Withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as within six hours of a person’s last drink. 

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating 

Alcohol Use Preoccupation & Addiction

People who are in the later stages of addiction are usually preoccupied and even consumed by their addiction.

At this point, their alcohol use is likely affecting their life and relationships in noticeable ways, and their jobs, families, and personal relationships may be in jeopardy. 

They are also likely very physically dependent on alcohol in this stage, and will experience severe and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking. 

Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

In the short term, alcohol can cause happiness and euphoria, but it can also cause short-term side effects that are risky and potentially dangerous. 

Short-term side effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of balance or coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired vision 
  • Reduced inhibitions 
  • Blackouts 

Complications of Alcohol Addiction

In addition to potentially dangerous short-term side effects, alcohol addiction also carries with it numerous potential long-term complications and health problems, some of which can be life-threatening. 

The longer a person is addicted to alcohol, the more severe their resulting medical conditions may be and the less likely that they may be able to reverse them. 

Long-term complications of alcohol addiction include:

  • Liver disease, such as cirrhosis of the liver
  • Liver cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive problems
  • Mental health disorders
  • Seizures 

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

There are several types of evidence-based treatments and programs that you can find standard when entering treatment for alcohol addiction

Alcohol Detox Programs

Detox is an important part of alcohol recovery, as withdrawal from alcohol after heavy use can be dangerous and even life-threatening. 

Detoxification from alcohol is usually medically monitored but can also be social or observational. 

A detox program may involve medications, monitoring of vital body functions, fluids, nutrition, and more.

Alcohol Rehab Programs

Alcohol rehab programs can be either inpatient programs, outpatient programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), or partial hospitalization programs (PHP)

Residential treatment programs have historically been the most successful for long-term recovery, but outpatient treatment can be more convenient or even necessary for some people. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

While MAT is most commonly used in the treatment of opioid use disorders, it can also be effective when treating alcohol use disorders as well.

Medications that are currently approved by the FDA to treat alcohol use disorders are naltrexone (Vivitrol), acamprosate (Campral), and disulfiram (Antabuse). 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis treatment is very effective for treating people who have co-occurring disorders in the form of mental health or behavioral health disorders. 

Mental health conditions that commonly co-occur with alcohol use disorders are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. 

Behavioral Therapy & Counseling

Behavioral therapy helps people to address the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, in the hopes of displaying healthier behaviors in the future. 

Types of behavioral therapy and counseling that are effective with alcohol use disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). 

Alternative Therapy

Alternative therapies for alcohol addiction can vary by treatment center and location, but can include options like adventure therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and animal therapy.

Alcohol Recovery Options

People who have successfully completed recovery need to continue to focus on their goals, and it can often help to be around others in recovery. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Support Groups

Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step meetings are a great way for people to receive support both during and after they have completed recovery. 

These AA meetings are a place to connect with others, share stories of addiction and trauma, and receive mentorship and guidance from those who have reached long-term recovery.

Potential participants should consider that there is a spiritual component to AA that not everyone may be comfortable with, as participants must admit that they are powerless before God or a higher power.

Sober Living

Sober living is a type of transitional home for people who have recently completed a residential program and who are not quite ready to return to an unsupervised environment. 

These homes can also provide a sense of community and accountability, as all residents are in similar situations and hoping to maintain sobriety. 

Continuing Care

Continuing care can include services such as case management, medication management, continued counseling and therapy, and other types of relapse prevention support.  

Those who are newly in recovery must continue to work on and keep a close eye on their mental health at all times. 

Alcohol Addiction Recovery Resources 

No one who is going through alcohol addiction ever has to do so alone, and there are a number of reliable resources available to provide information, support, and advocacy.

Alcohol addiction recovery resources include:

Find Individualized Alcohol Treatment at Otter House Wellness

If you or someone you love is living with an addiction to alcohol, know that it is never too early or too late to get back on track. 

At Otter House Wellness, we offer a compassionate, individualized approach to helping people with alcohol addiction and other substance use disorders enter lasting recovery.

Our rehab programs include a range of treatment levels to meet you where you are on your recovery journey.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us as Otter House Wellness when you are ready to start your sober path. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

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What are the main causes of alcohol addiction?

Some of the main causes of alcohol addiction are genetics and family history, growing up with abuse or neglect, pressure from peers, and high levels of stress.

What is the most common treatment for alcoholism?

Common treatments for alcoholism are medical detox, residential treatment, outpatient counseling, and 12-step meetings through AA.

Is alcoholism a disease or syndrome?

Alcoholism is a chronic brain disease as classified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). The main difference between a disease and syndrome is that a disease is an established condition while a syndrome is more ambiguous and refers to a group of symptoms.

Can you cure alcoholism?

No, you cannot cure alcoholism. Because it is classified as a chronic disease it is thus treatable but not curable. However, as with other incurable conditions, people with AUD can learn to manage symptoms, treat side effects, and find recovery.

Is full recovery from alcohol possible?

Yes, long-term recovery from alcoholism is possible. It is important to remember, however, that long-term recovery takes focus, dedication, and hard work.

What do you do after an alcohol addiction relapse?

The most important thing to remember after a relapse is to be kind to yourself and not judge yourself harshly. You should also consult your relapse plan and seek help from someone you trust, whether that is a friend or family member, a sponsor, or a professional health care provider.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Excessive Alcohol Use.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 18, 2024. 

Mayo Clinic. “Alcohol use disorder.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 18, 2024. 

National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. “Alcohol Abuse Statistics.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 18, 2024. 

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 18, 2024. 

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 18, 2024. 

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