For a long time, unhealthy alcohol use was equated to moral weakness or selfishness. Over time, we have come to understand that the reality is much more complex. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a brain disease that can result in changes to the brain that make it difficult for people to manage their alcohol consumption. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we help people struggling with alcohol addiction to get sober and enter recovery. We also provide education and support for their loved ones, both during Alcohol Awareness Month and throughout the year.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder? 

Alcohol use disorder is a problematic pattern of alcohol use that can involve difficulty controlling how much the person drinks, being preoccupied with alcohol, or continuing to drink even when alcohol consumption has started to cause problems. AUD falls on a spectrum of severity, from mild to severe, but even mild cases can lead to serious consequences.

Unhealthy alcohol consumption may put the person’s health or safety at risk. Approximately 178,000 people die as a result of excessive alcohol consumption every year. Around 1 in 5 deaths among people between the ages of 20-49 years of age are the result of excessive drinking. 

Warning Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

Though it may be difficult for people who engage in problem drinking to acknowledge these signs, they point to a high probability of alcohol use disorder: 

  • Inability to control alcohol intake
    • Experiencing alcohol cravings
    • Drinking more than intended
    • Wanting to cut down but being unable to
    • Building up tolerance and needing to drink more to get the same effect
    • Continuing to drink even when it is causing problems at home, work, or school
  • Spending less time on hobbies, relationships, work, etc. in favor of drinking
  • Mixing alcohol with scenarios that create safety risks, like driving, swimming, or looking after small children
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not available:
    • Nausea
    • Shaking
    • Sweating
    • Irritability
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Seizures

Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder

There are a variety of factors that can increase the chances of a person developing an issue with alcohol. Some of these include:

  • Starting to drink at a young age 
  • Binge drinking on a regular basis for a prolonged period of time
  • Family history of substance use disorder
  • Mental health concerns
  • History of trauma
  • Bariatric surgery
  • Social and cultural factors

Consequences of Alcohol Misuse

Excessive drinking can lead to a wide range of undesired outcomes, not only in the short term (blackouts, hangovers, risky behavior) but also long after the alcohol has left their system:

  • Safety Risks – alcohol use can impair judgment and lower inhibitions, leading people to make choices they would not normally consider while sober:
    • Operating a vehicle while impaired
    • Engaging in criminal activity 
    • Participating in risky sexual activities
    • Considering suicide
  • Health Hazards – drinking heavily can damage a person’s body, sometimes irreparably:
    • Liver disease
    • Digestive issues
    • Heart problems
    • Diabetes
    • Sexual dysfunction
    • Eye problems
    • Increased risk of cancer
  • Social Impact – alcohol can interfere with a person’s goals and dreams:
    • Damaged relationships
    • Poor work and school performance
    • Legal issues
    • Loss of children to the child welfare system

Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder

AUD is a treatable condition, and there are a range of options available to help people stop drinking and enter recovery. Ideally, these tools would be used in combination to give the person the best chances of getting and staying sober:

  • Detox – quitting drinking so that the alcohol can leave the system. Withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening in some cases, especially when the person has been a heavy drinker for a long time. That’s why it’s important to detox in a treatment center, where medical support is available 24/7. 
  • Therapy – individual, family, and group therapy help the person explore the underlying causes of their addiction.
  • Recovery groups – this includes 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which have a spiritual component, and science-based options like SMART Recovery
  • Medication – these can help to reduce cravings or make a person feel ill if they do drink. 
  • Rehab – this may be offered either inpatient or outpatient, depending on the person’s needs and situation.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we recognize that recovery looks different for everyone. That’s why we create individualized treatment plans with each person we serve, incorporating their support systems whenever possible.