Alcohol Addiction Treatment: What is it? Signs, Treatment and Medicines
Last Updated: November 10, 2023
Showing alcohol addiction signs, such as strong cravings and drinking despite health and relationship issues, means it’s time to seek alcohol addiction treatment.
If you or a loved one has problems with alcohol misuse, seeking treatment is the best way to stop drinking and reduce alcohol’s harmful effects. Missouri alcohol addiction treatment programs like the one at The Recovery Village Kansas City benefit the 6.6% of adults in the state who are heavy drinkers.
What Is Alcoholism?
While many people use the terms alcoholism, alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse to refer to alcohol addiction, the appropriate clinical term is alcohol use disorder (AUD).
AUD is a legitimate medical condition causing lasting brain changes that make relapse more likely. Someone with AUD will continue to drink even when significant consequences related to relationships, physical health or the inability to reduce alcohol consumption result from drinking.
Alcoholism vs. Alcohol Abuse
While the terms alcoholism and alcohol abuse may be used interchangeably, they are different. Alcoholism refers to a clinical alcohol addiction or an AUD. A person with AUD loses control over their drinking and often needs formal treatment to stop.
Not everyone who engages in alcohol abuse has an AUD. People with AUD abuse alcohol, but it’s possible to abuse alcohol without having an addiction. The term alcohol abuse refers to alcohol consumption that places a person at risk of negative consequences. For men, this involves consuming more than four drinks daily and more than 14 weekly; for women, it means consuming more than three drinks daily and more than seven weekly.
Signs of Alcohol Addiction
While alcohol addiction can look different for everyone, AUD has some general signs, including:
- Consuming large amounts of alcohol
- Experiencing strong alcohol cravings
- Wanting to cut back on drinking but being unable to
- Giving up other activities in favor of alcohol consumption
- Continuing to drink, even if it results in relationship problems
- Not fulfilling work or family duties due to alcohol consumption
- Drinking even when it places you in danger or causes a health problem
- Spending most of your time drinking or recovering from its effects
- Developing an alcohol tolerance, so you need larger quantities to feel the desired effects of drinking
- Showing withdrawal side effects, like tremors, nausea or sweating when not under the influence of alcohol
Long-term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Heavy alcohol consumption negatively affects the body. Beyond the risk of addiction, long-term alcohol abuse is linked to numerous health problems, including:
- Reduced immune system functioning
- Various types of cancer, including colorectal, breast, liver, mouth, throat and esophageal cancer
- Digestive system problems
- Cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke
- Learning and memory problems
- Increased risk of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
- Chronic medical conditions like liver disease
Knowing When It’s Time To Seek Help
Seeking help for an AUD can seem intimidating, but quality treatment can reduce the negative effects of alcohol. If alcohol is causing you significant problems, and you’re unable to cut back, it’s probably time to seek help. For example, you would benefit from treatment if you cannot stop drinking despite ongoing conflict with your spouse or having difficulty arriving at work on time. An AUD is a legitimate medical condition that requires treatment.
Treating Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction treatment often occurs in stages, with patients first receiving higher levels of care, like medical detox and inpatient rehab, then stepping down to outpatient care as their recovery progresses.
Medical detox is the first step of alcohol addiction treatment for many people. A professional medical detox program can provide prescription medications and medical oversight to keep patients safe and comfortable while detoxing from alcohol. While medical detox is important, it is often not enough to provide a lasting recovery. Continuing rehab treatment after completing a medical alcohol detox program is essential.
Consulting a doctor or professional rehab program before detoxing from alcohol is important. Sometimes, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even fatal. Working with a medical alcohol detox program reduces your risk of serious withdrawal complications. A class of drugs called benzodiazepines is often used to treat moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Inpatient Alcohol Treatment
Inpatient treatment requires patients to live onsite at a treatment center while undergoing treatment, meaning they will be away from home for some time. They will eat their meals onsite and have a bedroom for their stay. Inpatient treatment programs usually offer services, including medication management, medical care, individual and group therapy, support groups and recreation opportunities.
Outpatient Alcohol Treatment
Outpatient treatment programs allow patients to live at home while undergoing treatment. They travel to a facility for appointments and return home each night. Outpatient programs offer similar services as inpatient rehab centers, including individual and group counseling, support groups and medication management.
After completing a treatment program, staying connected to the recovery community through aftercare programming is important. This might involve working with a counselor for ongoing teletherapy sessions, attending support group meetings and following a relapse prevention plan.
Medications for Alcohol Addiction
In inpatient or outpatient alcohol rehab, you may receive medications to help you manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings and prevent relapse, including:
- Benzodiazepines: These drugs treat severe withdrawal symptoms and prevent complications during medical detox.
- Acamprosate: This medication helps prevent people from drinking alcohol but does not stop withdrawal symptoms.
- Disulfiram: Also used to treat alcohol addiction, disulfiram deters drinking by causing unpleasant side effects, such as headache, nausea, vomiting and chest pains when alcohol is consumed.
- Naltrexone: Naltrexone blocks alcohol’s euphoric effects to help people stay committed to recovery and prevent relapse.
Alcohol Abuse and Mental Health
There is a strong overlap between alcohol misuse and mental health disorders. Research shows that mental health conditions are more common in people with AUD than in the general population.
Mental health conditions that commonly co-occur with alcohol abuse may include:
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
If you have an AUD and a mental health condition, it’s important to participate in a dual diagnosis program that addresses both conditions. An untreated mental health condition can worsen an AUD and vice versa.
Is Alcoholism Treatable?
Alcohol use disorder is a treatable medical condition. Quality treatment options are available, and staying engaged in treatment reduces the risk of relapse. One study analyzing relapse rates found that 25.5% of people were in continuous remission in the year following treatment and did not relapse, but just 10.5% were in continuous relapse. Other participants had brief relapse periods and then transitioned back to remission, suggesting that treatment can be effective over the long term.
Read more: How much does alcohol rehab cost?
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