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Alcohol Addiction Abuse : What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Updated on March 14, 2013

According to DSM IV-TR there is a difference between alcohol dependence (addiction) and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse means that the individual experiences negative social and occupational effects as a result of alcohol use, but does not show tolerance, withdrawal or a compulsive pattern of abuse. Most people who abuse alcohol do not develop alcohol dependence.

Alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction involves much more serious symptoms such as tolerance and withdrawal because of the chronic use of alcohol.

Alcohol is classified as a depressant. In low doses it can stimulate neural firing and facilitate social interaction.

In moderate doses, it depresses neural firing within the body and the alcohol drinker experiences various levels of impairment - cognitive, verbal, perceptual and motor damage. This can be accompanied by loss of control that leads to socially unacceptable behaviour or reckless actions.


Alcohol Withdrawal:

Alcohol withdrawal often produces mild syndromes such headache, nausea, vomiting and trembling - commonly referred to as a hangover.

A full-blown alcohol withdrawal begins around 5-6 hours of heavy drinking and becomes more intense around 15-30 hours after it.

The effects of withdrawal include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Abdominal cramps

Over 100,000 people die each year from alcohol related diseases and accidents (Pinel, 2009).

3 % of deaths in the United states can be linked to alcohol - including deaths from birth defects, accidents, ill-health and violence (Mokdad et al., 2004)

  • Raised pulse
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • High temperature
  • Profuse sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Weakness
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to sleep
  • Muscle tremors, especially around the face, eyelids, lips, tongue and fingers

In rare cases where a person has been consuming alcohol for years, sudden withdrawal can lead to delirium tremens (DTs) which is characterised by agitation, confusion, trembling, hyperthermia (high body temperature) and tachycardia (rapid heart beat). These are followed by disturbing but very real delusions and hallucinations such as crawling snakes, spiders etc. over walls or one's body. There is also disorientation and terror.

The convulsions and some of the DTs caused by alcohol withdrawal can be lethal.


Alcohol Tolerance:

Like most addictive drugs, alcohol produces both tolerance and physical dependence. Most alcohol tolerance is functional. Heavy drinking causes changes in the liver enzymes of drinkers so that their bodies metabolize alcohol more quickly than that of nondrinkers, but this only leads to a slight level of tolerance. Research shows that tolerance to alcohol is also caused by changes in the central nervous system.

How Does Alcohol Addiction Start?

Tolerance is one of the first signs in alcohol addiction, so that the drinker starts to require more drink in order to produce the same effect. This is followed by withdrawal symptoms that grow more severe with chronic consumption of alcohol.

In order to avoid the withdrawal symptoms, the individual drinks more alcohol for relief and often begins having larger quantities of drink that he intends. Often, drinkers underestimate the amount of drink consumed and get caught up in a cycle of heavy drinking, withdrawal and then more drinking.

Addicted to alcohol, the person becomes obsessed with drinking, spending large amount of time (and money) trying to obtain alcohol, consuming and then recovering from it's impact on his body and mind.

Alcoholics may be in denial of the adverse effects of alcohol or simply unwilling to stop drinking. Like all drug addiction, they lose control over their ability to quit.

Alcohol-related Incidents:

1,400 college students die from alcohol related incidents each year.

600, 000 students are assaulted by drunk students

70, 000 students are sexually assaulted

- NIAAA, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Binge & Heavy Drinking :

Binge drinking means having five or more drinks in a short period of time (e.g. within an hour). Heavy drinking involves having five drinks on the same occasion but five or more times within a month.

Binge drinking is common among college students and can have serious consequences. Figures on the right show the dangers of binge drinking.


Short-term Effects Of Alcohol:

Since alcohol molecules are small and soluble in fat and water, they easily permeate every part of the body. Once alcohol reaches the stomach, it is metabolized by the enzymes and most of it is passed into the intestines and absorbed in the blood stream. It is then broken down by the liver which has a limit to how much quantity it can metabolize. Thus, any excess will remain in the bloodstream and removed slowly.

Alcohol interacts with several neural systems in the brain: It stimulates GABA receptors (a major inhibitory neurotransmitter), increases the level of serotonin and dopamine (producing the sensation of pleasure) and inhibits glutamate (which slows down thinking and memory).

High levels of alcohol leads to unconsciousness. Moreover, If blood levels reach beyond a certain point, it can put the alcohol consumer at the risk of death by respiratory depression.

Alcohol is a diuretic i.e. it increases the production of urine by the kidneys. The 'flush' or redness in the face produced by alcohol intoxication is caused by dilation of blood vessels in the skin which causes heat to be lost from the body, potentially leading to Hypothermia.


Long-term Effects of Alcohol Addiction:

Chronic alcohol abuse adversely affects every tissue and organ in the body. Alcohol is high in calories but empty of nutrients, so prolonged use can cause severe malnutrition. Alcohol also impairs the digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients and vitamins. In older people, alcohol abuse can cause Vitamin B deficiency which leads to severe memory loss.

Prolonged alcohol use can also cause scarring or cirrhosis of the liver - a liver disease that is a major cause of death by alcohol addiction. Long-term alcohol abuse can damage the endocrine glands and pancreas. It can eventually irritate the lining of the digestive tract which increases the risk of liver cancer and stomach ulcers.

Alcohol addiction an also lead to heart failure by eroding the muscles of the heart. It also causes hyper-tension, erectile dysfunction, capillary haemorrhages and facial redness and swelling.

Alcohol addiction can cause extensive brain damage. This damage is produced both directly and indirectly. It can lead to Korsakoff's Syndrome - which is a neuropsychological disorder involving memory loss, sensory and motor dysfunction and dementia. Indirectly, this can lead to the likelihood of a stroke.

Addiction to alcohol can also reduce the flow of calcium into neurons in the body and impair normal neuron activity.


On Your Way To Alcohol Addiction?

  • Are you having financial or work-related problems because of drinking?
  • Is drinking affecting your personal life?
  • Do you crave a drink at a definite time every day?
  • Do you find yourself obsessively thinking about your next drink?
  • Do you usually use drink to escape from stress or trouble?
  • Have you ever been to the doctor or hospital because of drinking too much?

If you've answered 'yes' to more than 3 questions, your drinking might be turning into a serious problem!



Apart from the devastating effects of alcohol addiction on the body and mind, it can severely impair one's normal daily functioning and quality of life. This can further impact one's job and relationship with family and friends.

Moreover, it is important to note that a huge number of casualties and accidents are regularly caused by drink driving, not to mention accidents at workplaces and at home. In the United States, 20,000 people die each year from traffic accidents caused by alcohol. Alcohol addiction is also responsible for a large number of crimes and vandalism.

Lastly, alcohol addiction and abuse is co-morbid with personality disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and other drug use.

Alcohol addiction is thus a serious disorder that has devastating consequences for the alcoholic as well as those around him.

A Video On Alcohol Addiction:


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