Understanding Alcohol Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment

Alcohol abuse and addiction are extremely common in the U.S. Since drinking alcohol is a part of many celebrations, social events, and American pastimes, the general acceptance of drinking alcohol often leads to alcohol use disorders, denial, and life-altering health problems.

In this article, you will learn:

  • The scope of alcohol abuse in the U.S.
  • What is alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Long-term effects of alcohol
  • Management of alcohol withdrawal
  • What to expect during alcohol rehab

Reach out to Ascend Recovery Centers today to get help or explore your treatment options.

Alcohol Abuse in America: What the Data Shows

Thanks to its legal status, social acceptability, and widespread accessibility alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the United States. The CDC estimates that two-thirds of adults consume alcohol each year and 5.1% engage in heavy drinking.[1]

There are more people addicted to alcohol than there are any prescription or illicit drug, including tobacco.[2] In 2022, the National Survey on Drug Use and Drug Health (NSDUH) found that 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had an AUD.[3]

How Much Do You Have to Drink To Become an Alcoholic?

Not everyone who drinks alcohol abuses it, and not everyone who abuses alcohol becomes addicted to it. Certain risk factors, such as drinking heavily, starting drinking at a young age, or having parents who suffer from alcoholism can increase the likelihood of developing a drinking problem.

The CDC recommends that women limit their alcohol intake to one drink a day and men limit their intake to two drinks a day. A standard drink is defined as:[4]

  • A single 2 oz shot of hard liquor (vodka, tequila, whiskey, rum, or gin)
  • A 5 oz glass of wine
  • A 12 oz beer

Drinking more than the recommended amount can be considered alcohol abuse and increases the risk of long-term health issues.

Other forms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Binge drinking – Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period, typically leading to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08% or higher. For men, binge drinking usually involves consuming five or more drinks within a span of about two hours, while for women, it generally involves consuming four or more drinks within the same timeframe.[5]
  • Underage drinking – The legal drinking age is typically 21 years old in the United States, although it can vary in other parts of the world. Underage drinking is a significant public health concern due to its potential negative impacts on physical health, brain development, social behavior, and academic performance.
  • Heavy drinking – Consuming four or more drinks a day for women or 8 or more drinks per week or consuming more than five drinks a day or more than 15 a week for men. Heavy alcohol consumption is likely to contribute to long-term health problems.

Typically, the more you drink, the more likely you are to develop an addiction to alcohol. People who suffer from alcohol addiction have difficulty controlling how much and how often they drink.

The terms “alcoholic” and “alcoholism” can carry some stigma. The medically accepted diagnosis for someone who has a drinking problem is called an alcohol use disorder or AUD.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

People with AUD will exhibit specific signs and symptoms of physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. These symptoms are used to diagnose a drinking problem.[6]

  1. Developing tolerance— needing to drink more to feel the same effects as one used to while drinking less.
  2. Physical dependence—relying on alcohol to function properly and developing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut back or stop drinking.
  3. Continuing to drink alcohol, despite school or mental health issues that it is causing.
  4. Spending excess time, money, or resources on one’s drinking habit.
  5. Getting into legal or financial trouble as a result of one’s drinking.
  6. Wanting to cut back or stop drinking, but feeling unable to do so.
  7. Multiple failed attempts to cut or quit drinking despite wanting to do so.
  8. Drinking alcohol in situations that are considered risky or hazardous.
  9. Neglecting one’s responsibilities due to alcohol use.
  10. No longer enjoying hobbies or pastimes unless alcohol is involved.
  11. Having cravings for alcohol or strong urges to drink.

The more symptoms a person has over a 12 month period, the more severe their AUD.

  • Mild AUD: 2-3 symptoms
  • Moderate AUD: 4-5 symptoms
  • Severe AUD: 6 or more symptoms

Regardless of severity, alcohol abuse and addiction can have drastic long-term effects on a person’s mental and physical health. It’s important to seek treatment as soon as a drinking problem develops.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol’s long-term effects are far-reaching as it can affect every organ in the body, leading to a laundry list of health problems.

Each year there are approximately 178,000 people who die from alcohol-related causes. The leading causes of these deaths include liver diseases such as alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) and cirrhosis, cardiovascular disease, various types of cancer, and alcohol use disorder.[7]

Long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:[8]

  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Neurological disorders
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., liver, mouth, throat, esophagus)
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Worsening mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety)
  • Social and relationship problems
  • Financial difficulties

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

People who abuse alcohol heavily and for long periods of time develop a tolerance that forces them to drink more to feel the desired effects. This often leads to the development of physical dependence where individuals experience withdrawal symptoms when they cut back on alcohol or try to stop drinking altogether.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Fast heart rate
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Delirium Tremens (DTs)

Delirium tremens or DTs are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal during which individuals experience severe agitation, auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations, profuse sweating, hypertension, delusions, fever, confusion, sensitivity to light and sound, and coma or death. While DTs only occur in 3-5% of drinkers, the condition is fatal up to 37% of the time without treatment.[9]

How severe symptoms will become can be difficult to predict, so it’s important to detox under close medical supervision.

Medical Detox for Alcohol

Alcohol use disorder treatment programs begin with detox. During detox, a team of healthcare professionals can prescribe medications, monitor symptoms, and provide comprehensive support as the body adjusts to the absence of alcohol.

Since alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening, medications are used to manage the symptoms. These include:

  • Benzodiazepines – Long-acting benzodiazepines like Valium are used to prevent seizures and severe withdrawal symptoms. The dosage is typically reduced over a period of days or weeks, allowing the body to adjust safely and comfortably.
  • Anticonvulsants – Drugs like carbamazepine or gabapentin may be prescribed to help prevent seizures and reduce the risk of delirium tremens.
  • Beta-blockers – These medications, such as propranolol, can help control rapid heart rate, tremors, and high blood pressure associated with alcohol withdrawal.
  • Clonidine – An antihypertensive that is sometimes used to help manage symptoms like anxiety, agitation, sweating, and rapid heart rate during alcohol withdrawal.
  • Antipsychotics – In cases where severe agitation, hallucinations, or delusions occur, antipsychotic medications like haloperidol may be administered under close medical supervision.

The goal of medical detox extends beyond cleansing your body; it also prepares you mentally and emotionally for the next phase of recovery. Detox treatment may also include group and individual therapy, support groups, and holistic treatments like yoga or meditation.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Programs

Alcohol rehab can take place in various levels of care. Clients with moderate to severe alcohol use disorders, or those with co-occurring disorders, are best served at a residential treatment facility where they receive 24-hour support and supervision.

After residential treatment, clients transition to lower levels of care such as a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program (IOP), and an outpatient program (OP). This continuum of care is designed to serve the evolving needs of individuals as they make progress in their recovery. It can also reinforce the important coping skills used during rehab.

The goal of rehab is to educate about addiction, diagnose and treat the underlying causes, and provide the resources, support, and tools necessary for long-term recovery. This is primarily accomplished through counseling and behavioral therapy.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Contingency management
  • Family behavior therapy
  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Relapse prevention therapy

Alcohol addiction treatment programs like Ascend Recovery Centers provide whole-patient care extending beyond psychotherapy. Treatment also includes:

  • Individually-tailored treatment plans
  • Case management
  • Life skills training
  • NA/AA Intergroup or SMART Recovery
  • Discharge planning
  • Aftercare support

From your initial assessment and intake all the way to discharge, we’ll support you every step of the way.

Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment Now

Ascend Recovery Centers is a leading provider of alcohol abuse treatment. We’re setting the standard for evidence-based, whole-person care with clinically proven treatments, a multidisciplinary team of addiction specialists, and state-of-the-art facilities across the United States. In-network with many major insurance providers, we’re making quality substance abuse treatment accessible to all who need it.

Ascend Recovery Centers was founded on the premise of providing superior addiction treatment, delivered by a team of expert professionals, in the comfort of a facility that invests in the success of your long-term recovery. We recognize that addiction affects everyone differently, which is why our treatment programs are individually tailored to meet each person’s unique needs.

To learn more about our alcohol rehab programs or to get started with a confidential, risk-free assessment, please contact us today!


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Heavy Drinking Among U.S. Adults
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Alcohol
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States: Age Groups and Demographic Characteristics
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: What Is A Standard Drink?
  5. American Academy of Pediatrics: Binge Drinking
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Use Disorder: From Risk to Diagnosis to Recovery
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol-Related Emergencies and Deaths in the United States
  8. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
  9. National Institutes of Health (NIH): Delirium Tremens
  10. Wiley Online Library: Clinical management of the alcohol withdrawal syndrome

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