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Understanding Alcoholism & How to Help an Addict
While ‘alcoholism’ is still a common term, medical professionals now refer to the family of alcohol-related disorders as alcohol abuse disorder (AUD). This new term reflects changes in how the disease is understood. It is a brain disease.
Someone whose life is being taken over by alcohol is someone suffering from a disorder, not someone choosing a reckless lifestyle as terms like “alcoholic” suggests.
Watching a loved one struggle with alcohol abuse can be an awful experience. You can see the damage that they are doing to their bodies, relationships, and goals while they often can’t.
One of the most frustrating parts of watching someone abuse alcohol is feeling helpless. You have likely already tried and failed to get their attention. Maybe you have offered them help or even challenged them to seek recovery.
It’s difficult, but not impossible to get through to someone suffering from addiction. First, you need to contact a mental health professional. If your loved one refuses to talk to a professional, you can still choose to get advice from someone licensed to deal with alcohol abuse.
You may be able to get someone to agree to talk to a professional by communicating with them. Your goal is to help them realize…
- That they do have an alcohol problem
- That their problem is dangerous
- That there is a recovery path that meets their needs
This guide will help you understand the best ways to identify abuse, present them with the risks and explain to them how they can get help.
Table of Contents
How to Spot Alcohol Abuse
- What Are Alcohol Abuse Symptoms & Signs?
- How Many Drinks Is Alcohol Abuse?
- What Questions Can I Ask a Loved One Who May be Abusing Alcohol?
How to Explain the Risks
- Alcohol Abuse Facts to Know
- Alcohol Statistics to Know
- Stages of Alcoholism: How Many Years Of Alcohol Abuse Causes Liver Damage?
- Stages of Alcoholism: How Many Years Of Alcohol Abuse Causes Cirrhosis?
- Stages of Alcoholism: How Many Years Of Alcohol Abuse Causes Pancreatitis?
What does Effective Treatment Look Like?
- What Is Alcohol Treatment?
- Option: Private Counseling
- Option: Medication
- Option: Support Groups
- Option: Medical Detox
- Option: Rehab
- Does your insurance cover rehab?
Before you can approach someone and offer them help, you need to make sure that you are dealing with real alcohol abuse. If you don’t have the benefit of having your loved one evaluated by a professional, you may be able to spot these signs.
How to Spot Alcohol Abuse
Are you trying to figure out how to help an alcoholic? You need to know whether your loved one is dealing with alcoholism before you can credibly recommend any treatments. This can be complicated because people who are abusing alcohol can present themselves in very different ways.
Some may be very effective at blending their substance abuse into their daily lives—easily carrying on with their personal and professional responsibilities while consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol. Others may withdraw from their responsibilities, preferring to retreat home to drink as much as possible.
The differences in how people respond to alcohol can make it difficult to detect. The best way to determine if your loved ones are abusing alcohol is to consider as many signs and symptoms as possible. While no excessive drinker is likely to exhibit all signs, a combination of signs points to abuse in most cases.
In this section of the guide, you’ll get answers to common questions, like:
- What are alcohol abuse symptoms and signs?
- How many drinks is alcohol abuse?
- What are the most important facts about alcohol abuse?
- What are the most important statistics about alcohol abuse?
- What questions can I ask someone I think is abusing alcohol?
First, consider the major signs and symptoms.
What Are Alcohol Abuse Symptoms & Signs?
Your loved one may be struggling with alcohol abuse if they EXPERIENCE any of the following…
- A need for alcohol to feel good, fun or functional
- Periodic blackouts or memory loss after drinking
- Extreme mood swings
- Long-term or constant hangovers when not drinking
Your loved one may be struggling with alcohol abuse if they DO any of the following…
- Withdraw from friends and family to be alone more often than usual
- Create excuses for why they need to drink (“I need to relax”)
- Abandon responsibilities in order to drink more often
- Become more irritable the longer they go without drinking
It can be helpful to understand these symptoms in more detail. In this guide, you’ll find an in-depth look at some of the most important private behaviors, public behaviors, and physical symptoms.
Is it possible to determine alcohol abuse by counting the drinks consumed? The guidelines published by the Health Department (U.S) may help.
How Many Drinks Is Alcohol Abuse?
Researched guidelines published by the Health Department have provided us with good baseline definitions for things like high-risk drinking, binge drinking, and excessive drinking. In summary, those are:
- High-risk drinking
- Men: 5+ drinks in 1 day OR 15+ drinks per week
- Women: 4+ drinks on 1 day OR 8+ drinks per week
- Binge drinking
- Men: 5 drinks within 2 hours
- Women: 4 drinks within 2 hours
- Excessive alcohol drinking: Covers high-risk drinking, binge drinking, and any drinking by those who should not consume alcohol.
All excessive drinking is considered to be dangerous, even if the drinking isn’t being driven by addiction. Anyone drinking excessively is at high risk of developing dependence or long-term health problems. If you know someone who is drinking at this level regularly, they may need help.
What Questions Can I Ask Someone who Might be Abusing Alcohol
You may be able to find out if someone is suffering from alcohol abuse by asking them the right questions. If you want to know how to help an alcoholic, you first need to be able to identify one.
Doctors have a special set of questions (called the CAGE questions) that they ask patients to determine the severity of their condition. If you have not been able to convince your loved one to see a doctor, you may be able to make a point by asking some of these questions yourself.
Question 1: Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
Question 2: Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
Question 3: Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
Question 4: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady nerves or treat a hangover (an eye-opener)?
These questions are helpful because they compel the person giving the answer to explore their own behavior. While you may have luck getting a loved one to respond to these questions, they are most effective in a clinical setting. Use any opportunity to convince your loved one to seek medical evaluation.
Step Two: Explain the Risks
Most people who abuse alcohol are aware of the risks. However, they tend to avoid confronting those risks or thinking about how serious and permanent the effects of ignoring the risks can be.
This is where you can help. By confronting them with the facts about what their future holds, you may be able to get through to them. Though many alcohol abusers will choose to change the subject or become unresponsive during these types of discussion, the impressions that you leave on them can follow them around until they choose to get help.
In this section of the guide, you’ll learn the answers to some of the most serious questions about the effects of alcohol.
- What are the most important alcohol abuse facts to know?
- What are the most important alcohol abuse statistics to know?
- How many years of alcohol abuse causes liver damage?
- How many years of alcohol abuse causes cirrhosis?
- How many years of alcohol abuse causes pancreatitis?
It can help those struggling with abuse to understand that they have limited time before they must deal with serious consequences.
What are the Most Important Alcohol Abuse Facts to Know
It can be effective to approach people who refuse to seek help with facts about alcohol. They may not be aware of all the damage that alcohol can do, or how fast some of the most serious problems can develop.
Fact: Alcohol is a depressant
Alcohol may inspire some good feelings, but it does so by dampening the mind and your cognitive function. Alcohol cannot be an effective treatment for depression, anxiety or any other condition that people may drink to avoid. It does not give anyone problem-solving tools for these conditions, it just spares them from dealing with it for a short time.
Fact: Alcohol causes damage all over the body
Alcohol abuse can strain nearly every vital organ, including the liver, pancreas, heart, and stomach. However, that only covers the organs. Alcohol can also affect the nervous system, leading to lifelong problems with trembling and poor coordination. It also increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon in men (Center for Disease Control).
Fact: Alcohol use is a significant risk factor for dementia
Those who can escape the physical effects of alcohol abuse may instead suffer from its psychological effects. Long-term alcohol abuse is one of the most significant risk factors for the development of dementia. Long-term alcohol abuse may impair memory, language, and problem-solving skills. The true damage may take years to reveal itself.
Fact: For some people, the only safe level of drinking is none
Occasionally, a major journal may publish a story touting the benefits of moderate drinking. Moderate drinking may be alright for a certain subset of the population, but for many people, there are more risks than benefits. Even moderate drinking can cause dependency in people with a family history of alcohol abuse.
Fact: AUD has a genetic component
Alcohol Use Disorder does not always follow after a series of mistakes. It cannot be avoided with a plan to keep drinking “under control”. It has genetic components that may flare up even in the earliest, lightest uses of alcohol. Tell this to any loved ones who tell you they haven’t been drinking long enough to have a problem.
Fact: Most alcohol-related deaths are not from poisoning
When many people think about alcohol-related deaths, they think of incidents of alcohol poisoning. However, most people who die while abusing alcohol don’t get poisoned from a single night of binge drinking. They die in vehicular accidents, experience deadly falls and succumb to long-term health problems.
Alcohol abuse is incredibly unhealthy for the body. Learn more facts that you may be able to use to help loved ones in this list of alcohol abuse facts.
What are the Most Important Alcohol Statistics to Know
The right statistics may help you to reach out to someone who is dealing with alcohol abuse. Or, it may help you understand how important it is that you continue your work to help them. Consider how you can use these statistics to help convince someone that getting help could save their lives.
- Alcohol poisoning kills 6 people every day (Center for Disease Control)
- 3 million people die every year around the world from alcohol-related conditions (WHO)
- 88,0000 Americans die every year from alcohol-related conditions (Center for Disease Control)
- 30% of all driving fatalities involve alcohol-impaired drivers (Center for Disease Control)
- 29% of suicide victims in America had alcohol in their system (New York Times)
Alcohol abuse is a significant public health crisis. Learn more about the statistics, here.
How Many Years Of Alcohol Abuse Causes Liver Damage?
Liver damage is one of the most serious consequences of alcohol abuse. Many people who are trapped in a cycle of alcohol abuse may believe that they aren’t using enough alcohol to damage their livers. They’re likely wrong.
The abuse of alcohol isn’t associated with just one liver condition, it’s associated with three of them:
- Fatty liver: Accumulation of fat in the liver is the first stage of liver damage. 90% of the people who drink excessively will develop a fatty liver, so this condition cannot be easily avoided. Fortunately, in the early stages, the liver can heal if the excessive drinking ends.
- Inflammation: Inflammation is the next stage of liver damage. For some people, inflammation may happen early before there are symptoms of fatty liver or any other condition. Once again, the liver may be able to heal itself given enough time. However, enough inflammation can lead to widespread damage.
- Cirrhosis: 10-20% of people who drink excessively over a long period develop cirrhosis—a serious liver condition that can lead to death.
How fast can problems develop? Recent research suggests that only seven weeks of intermittent binge drinking can lead to profound changes in the way the liver works. Liver damage may occur in the first few weeks of regular binge drinking.
Because humans react differently, it is impossible to say what level of liver damage will develop, and on what timeline. However, liver damage will increase as long as excessive drinking continues. After years of excessive drinking, cirrhosis becomes far more likely.
Learn more about all the ways that the liver can be damaged, and what that damage means, in this guide to alcohol abuse and liver damage.
How Many Years Of Alcohol Abuse Causes Cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis, often called “liver cirrhosis”, is an advanced form of liver disease that results from long-term drinking. At this stage, the liver is heavily damaged. Large sections of it are covered in permanent scar tissue which is not functional. Eventually, the healthy tissue will be damaged by scar tissue and the liver will no longer function.
At 10 years of excessive drinking, 10-20% of drinkers will develop cirrhosis. This disease does not often immediately result in liver failure, but the progression can be dangerously quick. At this stage, a full transplant may be necessary.
You can learn more about the link between drinking and cirrhosis in our guide.
How Many Years Of Alcohol Abuse Causes Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is a serious condition that can develop silently over a long period of time. It comes in two different forms, chronic and acute. Acute is the type most associated with alcohol consumption. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas. Attacks can be mild or, in the worst cases lead to serious medical emergencies.
The pancreas can be damaged by a single night of binge drinking, but take years to show it. Periods of excessive drinking may also result in symptoms in later years. While the liver can recover, the pancreas is not as able to shake off short-term damage This damage may later appear as severe pancreatitis symptoms.
Those symptoms can be difficult to endure. They include intense abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Severe cases may damage the pancreas beyond repair, leading to complications if it is not removed quickly enough.
You can learn more in this guide to alcohol abuse and pancreatitis.
What does Effective Treatment Look Like?
Many people who are suffering from alcohol abuse act as if they are beyond help. They may feel this way for many reasons, including…
- Because they are still ashamed to admit they have a problem
- Because they are high-functioning and haven’t had a crisis yet
- Because they think they should treat their addiction alone
- Because they are concerned that they cannot afford treatment
- Because they have had bad experiences with one type of treatment
However, the truth is that there is a massive range of different treatment options for alcohol addiction. There are treatments out there that are perfect for those with small budgets, tight schedules, and even personality disorders.
First, what is basic alcohol treatment?
What Is Alcohol Treatment?
Alcohol treatment is not a single type of care, but a catch-all term that describes all the ways that alcohol use can be controlled. There are dozens of different treatment methods, enough that nearly anybody’s needs can be accommodated.
If you are trying to convince a loved one that there is an effective treatment for them, it may be helpful to understand all the options yourself.
Here, you can see some quick summaries of the different care options. To learn more about the world of alcohol abuse treatment, see this treatment-focused guide.
Option: Private Counseling
Private counseling is often the first stage of recovery. An alcohol abuser who can be convinced to take the first steps with a counselor can often be convinced to take the next steps toward a more comprehensive treatment plan.
In some cases, comprehensive treatment is necessary. Those who have advanced addictions or live their lives surrounded by addiction triggers may need to remove themselves from their environment and enter rehab.
However, some excessive drinkers can resolve all of their issues in one-on-one therapy sessions. This is more likely to be possible in cases where the behavior is new and not firmly established habit.
Your loved one may be apprehensive about working with a counselor. Remind them that there are often dozens of choices in any mid-size American city. Finding a good counselor is just a matter of searching around until a good match can be found.
Medications are another option for alcohol treatment, though they are only used in certain cases. Many of the medications used to treat alcohol addiction are available only with a prescription. Treating addiction with these drugs will require a medical evaluation.
Several drugs on the market directly target addiction. Disulfiram is one such medication that has been on the market since the early 1950s. It changes the way that the body processes alcohol. While the drug is being used, any alcohol consumed will have very unpleasant effects. The goal of the drug is to end the relationship between alcohol and the brain’s reward center.
However, there are good reasons that the drug has never been very common. Many Alcohol Use Disorders are more complicated than a rewarding feeling. These drugs may be used in minor cases when withdrawal won’t lead to serious health risks.
There are also classes of medications that are used in detox. These medications are designed to make the process of withdrawal more manageable while the alcohol is purged from the patient’s system.
Detox medications are rarely available even with a prescription. In most cases, they are administered only in controlled settings such as a residential rehab facility.
Options: Support Groups
Support groups are a part of many different recovery stories. Most people who completed treatment were involved in a support group at one time. These groups can help others get treatment, provide structure after treatment, help recovered alcoholics manage relapses and much more.
While support groups are involved in almost every kind of treatment, they are rarely considered to be the treatment. Those suffering from Alcohol Use Disorders rarely succeed in treating themselves, even with a support group.
For those with limited budgets, support groups can be a lifesaving bridge between different kinds of care. Many, including some of the largest programs in the world, are completely free with open membership. Meetings are taking place in almost every area. People can sit in or share their stories anonymously.
If you can convince your loved one to attend an alcoholics support meeting, you could do a lot of good for them. Like counseling, attending meetings is another great way for your loved one to work up the resolve to transition to comprehensive care.
Options: Medical Detox
Medical detox is not a treatment for alcoholism, it is a treatment for medical emergencies that result from alcoholism. Detox may be necessary to save the life of your loved one if they consume too much alcohol for their body to handle.
Most major hospitals have detox centers, but these centers are used for many other conditions unrelated to alcohol. These centers are designed to make it easier for a doctor to monitor progress regularly. After all, the first few hours of detox can involve dangerous changes to the body.
Not every hospital offers treatment plans. If your loved one is brought in for emergency care, one of several things may happen. They may be released as soon as they are stabilized. They may also be referred to a treatment facility and transported there for residential inpatient treatment.
The hospital will often have requirements for releasing patients who require medical detox. They may need to sign a waiver if they will not be accepting any treatment for underlying conditions. At this stage, drinking is likely to be fatal.
This is why most hospitals recommend some form of rehab.
Rehab is one of the most comprehensive treatments for Alcohol Use Disorders. It involves an inpatient stay at a facility for a set number of days–anywhere from a few weeks to 90 days.
During this time, the patient is guided through detox, encouraged to develop new skills for dealing with their problems and spared any of the triggers that might have caused them to abuse alcohol in their normal life. Rehab is designed to be its own environment, free of both temptations and pressures.
If you convince your loved one to enter rehab, you’ve done very well. No other type of care will be as complete, or as supervised as the care that they will receive in a rehab facility. It is one of the only treatments left in the late stages of alcoholism development.