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23 Essential Facts About Alcohol Addiction

Hannah Friedman
 September 14th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

It can be hard to trust what you hear about alcohol addiction. And when you’re planning for recovery, you need to know exactly what you’re facing. These alcohol facts can help you make important decisions about treatment. 

1. Alcohol Addiction Is a Chronic Disease

Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease1 with serious, long-term health effects. This condition is also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism. AUD is highly treatable and can go into long-term remission.

2. Alcohol Use Disorder Can Affect Anyone

Anyone can develop AUD, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so on. Because alcohol is socially acceptable in most parts of the world, it can be hard to tell when your drinking gets out of hand. 

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3. Alcohol Addiction Affects Nearly 30 Million People

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) tracks alcohol facts and statistics in the U.S. According to their most recent data, 28.6 million adults had alcohol use disorder2 in 2021. That’s 11.3% of everyone in the country aged 18 or older. 

4. Your Genetics, Environment, and Other Factors Can Lead to Alcohol Addiction

Many factors can make you vulnerable to alcohol addiction.3 For example, alcohol addiction tends to run in families. On the surface, that implies AUD is genetic. But this could also be an environmental issue, because childhood trauma increases your risk of addiction. Studies show that mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression can also play a role. 

5. Long-Term Alcohol Abuse Has Serious Health Impacts

Over time, excessive drinking can cause severe physical health problems:4

  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer

Alcohol abuse also increases your risk of developing mental health problems.5

6. Alcohol Addiction Gets Worse Over Time

For most people, alcohol use disorder is progressive.6 In other words, it gets worse over time. Without proper treatment, your alcohol addiction will likely get more severe. 

7. Alcohol Withdrawal Can Be Physically Dangerous

When you first quit drinking, you may develop some or all of the following alcohol withdrawal symptoms:7

  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep problems
  • Headache
  • Digestive issues
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens

Without proper treatment, withdrawing from alcohol can be fatal. When you first enter recovery for AUD, it’s extremely important to get the medical care you need.

8. There Are Many Treatments for Alcohol Addiction

There are countless ways to heal from addiction. Rehab for alcohol addiction can include a combination of medical treatments, talk therapy, support groups, and other activities. Different programs offer various types of therapy. Some even develop individualized care plans for each client.

9. Alcohol Addiction Often Co-Occurs With Other Mental Health Disorders

Alcohol addiction commonly co-occurs with other mental health issues. People with AUD have higher rates of depression,8 anxiety, PTSD, and other substance use disorders. If you’re healing from multiple conditions at once, you will likely need specialized treatment.

10. Alcohol Use Disorder Has a High Relapse Rate

Relapse is a common part of alcohol addiction recovery. In one study, at least 60% of people with AUD relapsed9 within the first year of recovery. Certain risk factors — like clinical depression — make relapse more likely. On the other hand, having a strong support network reduces your risk of relapse.10 That could include a therapist, support groups, family, and trusted friends. Building out your support system is an essential part of healing. You can start this process during rehab by making a specific plan for aftercare.

11. Alcohol Addiction Affects Relationships

Alcohol abuse can profoundly affect your closest relationships, in every stage of addiction and recovery. While untreated AUD can severely impact whole families,11 treatment has the opposite effect. Experts say it’s impossible to separate alcohol addiction from family dynamics. That’s why many rehabs offer family therapy as a central part of treatment.

12. Alcohol Addiction Can Impact Cognitive Function

Drinking alcohol, and especially alcohol abuse, can interfere with brain function.12 Specifically, it interferes with memory, motor function, and judgment. These effects are worse for teenagers and for people with chronic, long-term addiction. 

13. Early Intervention Can Make a Huge Difference

Early intervention and treatment for alcohol addiction can significantly improve the chances of successful recovery.

14. Social Support Can Help You Recover

Social support is essential during recovery13 from alcohol addiction. A wealth of data shows that people with stronger relationships recover more quickly and completely. Your support network could include family, friends, colleagues, your care team, and members of a support group. Given the high success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), it might be a good place to start building your community.

15. Alcohol Addiction Is a Diagnosable Medical Condition

Despite the stigma surrounding addiction, healthcare professionals agree that AUD is a serious medical issue. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), for example, explains that people with alcohol addiction “have lost reliable control of their alcohol use.14 It doesn’t matter what kind of alcohol someone drinks or even how much: Alcohol-dependent people are often unable to stop drinking once they start.” If you have a diagnosis of AUD, you’ll probably need professional treatment to recover. 

16. Excessive Drinking Can Weaken Your Immune System

Heavy drinking can interfere with immune function.15 As a result, chronic alcohol abuse increases your risk of pneumonia, respiratory problems, liver disease, and certain types of cancer. People with AUD have a higher rate of complications after surgery and may heal from injuries more slowly.

17. Alcohol Addiction Harms Marginalized Communities

Anyone can abuse alcohol. However, some data shows that AUD disproportionally affects marginalized communities. For example, having less education and lower socioeconomic status greatly increases your risk of alcohol addiction.16 This is true regardless of genetics or family history. Other studies report that race also plays a role in AUD,17 and that Black communities are at greater risk. 

18. Binge Drinking May Increase Your Risk of Addiction

Recent studies show a link between binge drinking and alcohol addiction.18 We still need more information about how they relate. It could be true that binge drinking raises your risk of developing an addiction in the future. On the other hand, some say that binge drinking itself is a sign of addiction. If that’s the case, the act itself wouldn’t increase your risk of AUD. But either way, it can still qualify as alcohol abuse. If you binge drink regularly, you might consider getting treatment for alcohol addiction.

19. Relapse Is Not Failure

Relapse is a common part of recovery from alcohol addiction. It is not a sign of failure. When you think of AUD as a disease, it’s easier to make sense of this pattern. The National Institute of Health (NIH) compares addiction to other chronic conditions,19 like asthma and high blood pressure: “Relapse is common and similar across these illnesses. Therefore, substance use disorders should be treated like any other chronic illness. Relapse serves as a sign for resumed, modified, or new treatment.”

20. Underage Drinking Can Lead to Alcohol Addiction

Drinking as a teenager20 increases your risk of developing AUD as an adult. One study found that people who drank alcohol before age 15 were 3.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol. Underage drinking can also change or interfere with the way your brain develops. For teenagers with alcohol addiction, family therapy is usually an important part of treatment.

21. Integrated Treatment Can Help

If you have a mental health diagnosis in addition to AUD, it’s called dual diagnosis. Recovering from co-occurring disorders can be complex. Studies show that it’s most effective to treat mental health issues and addiction21 at the same time. By integrating different types of therapy, you can address the root cause of both issues simultaneously. Many residential rehabs use this holistic approach to treatment.

22. Chronic Alcohol Abuse Can Cause Brain Damage

Long-term alcohol addiction can lead to brain damage.22 This can occur in several different ways:

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: This condition is a rare type of dementia. It affects people who drink so heavily, for such a long time, that they develop severe vitamin B-1 deficiencies. Symptoms include confusion, memory issues, poor judgment, hallucinations, and cognitive decline.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Alcohol increases your risk of TBI, either due to accidents or aggressive behavior. Up to 81% of people with TBIs are intoxicated when they first sustain their injuries.
  • Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD):23 While ARBD mimics dementia, it has some key differences. For one thing, it usually doesn’t worse over time. This condition usually affects people in their 40s or 50s. With proper treatment, many patients can completely recover.

23. Different People Need Different Types of Treatment

There are many factors to consider when you’re planning recovery. For example, do you need to detox from alcohol before starting rehab? While you’re in treatment, will you need ongoing medical care? Are you interested in attending a faith-based program that follows the 12 Steps? There’s no right or wrong way to approach treatment, but it’s important to find a center that can meet your unique needs. 

Compare rehabs that treat alcohol addiction to find the right program for you.

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