Alcohol FAQs

Facts About Alcohol

Alcohol use and abuse is associated with serious medical illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular problems, liver cirrhosis, stroke, hypertension, and brain damage. There is also extensive evidence indicating that alcohol dependence elevates the risk for depression as well as all types of anxiety and personality disorders.

Nearly 14 million people in the United States–1 in every 13 adults–abuse alcohol or are alcoholic.

Every day, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. receive treatment for alcoholism.

40% of children who start drinking before the age of 15 will become alcoholics at some point in their lives, compared with 25% for those who begin drinking at age 17, and about 10% for those who begin drinking at ages 21 and 22.

76 million Americans, about 43% of the U.S. adult population, have been exposed to alcoholism in the family.

22% of American adults are former drinkers.

What Are Safe Drinking Levels?

Moderate levels of alcohol consumption can have health benefits. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), men can safely consume 2 drinks per day and women can safely have a single drink per day. Drinking at this level produces very few negative health consequences, but chronically exceeding these guidelines can lead to a host of serious or fatal medical conditions. Pregnant women should not consume any alcohol.

Men who consume 5 or more drinks within about 2 hours, or women who consume 4 or more drinks within that same timeframe, are binge drinking. Binge drinking increases the risks of trauma, assaults, legal difficulties and some acute health conditions.

A drink equals a single bottle or can of normal strength beer, 1.5 ounces of 40% alcohol liquor or a 5 ounce glass of normal strength wine.

What is Alcohol Abuse?

According to the Center for Disease Control, (CDC) drinking at a level that causes you problems in life constitutes alcohol abuse. If your consumption of alcohol regularly causes you problems at work, school or home; or you regularly get into dangerous situations while drinking (such as driving a car while intoxicated) you meet the criteria for alcohol abuse.

You do not necessarily need to drink exorbitant quantities of alcohol to be an alcohol abuser, what is more relevant is the effect that amount you do consume has on your life.

People abusing alcohol who continue to drink are at risk of developing alcoholism. Even if you are not alcoholic, abusing alcohol can have negative results. Alcohol abuse is likely if an individual exhibits at least one of the following traits:

  • Continued use despite social or interpersonal problems by drinking.
  • Recurrent drinking when alcohol use is physically hazardous.
  • Recurrent drinking resulting in a failure to fulfill major obligations at work, school or home.
  • Recurrent alcohol-related legal problems.
  • Under some circumstances, serious problems can result from even moderate drinking, for example, when driving, during pregnancy, or when taking certain medications.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholics lose control over their drinking and the effect that alcohol has on their lives. Five characteristics of alcoholics are:

  1. They require a large amount of alcohol to achieve intoxication (the presence of an alcohol tolerance)
  2. They feel withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  3. They crave alcohol
  4. Once they start drinking, they cannot predict how much alcohol they will consume (a loss of control)
  5. They continue to drink, even though they can see the harms of their use (health, family, work etc.)

Most health professionals consider alcoholism a disease that has no cure, but believe that through alcohol treatment, alcoholics can learn to abstain from alcohol for long periods of time.  However, since a cure hasn’t been found, if an alcoholic has been sober for a long time and has regained health, he or she may relapse and so must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages and ensure professional mental health care help is always readily available to provide any necessary professional support.

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What Are Some Signs of Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism (Do I Have a Problem?)

Ask yourself these 4 questions based on an alcohol screening test known as the CAGE test. The CAGE questionnaire is a very quick test that accurately indicates the presence of an alcohol use disorder. Answering yes to 2 or more of the following 4 questions indicates a likely problem with alcohol.

  1. Have you ever thought that you needed to reduce your drinking?
  2. Do you feel annoyed when people criticize your drinking?
  3. Do you ever feel guilty about your drinking?
  4. Do you ever have a “hair of the dog” drink in the morning as a way to get over a hangover?

If I have trouble with drinking, can’t I simply reduce my alcohol use without stopping altogether?

It depends. If you are diagnosed as an alcoholic, the answer is “no.” Studies show that nearly all alcoholics who try to merely cut down on drinking are unable to do so indefinitely. Instead, receiving the necessary professional support for cutting out alcohol (that is, abstaining) is nearly always necessary for successful recovery. And anyone–moderate drinkers included–who finds it difficult to stay within their drinking limit should consider seeking professional care before what seems like a small problem becomes a serious one.

Are Some People More at Risk of Alcoholism?

No one who abstains from alcohol has any risk of alcoholism, but some people who choose to drink alcohol may be at a higher risk of succumbing to alcoholism than others.

Factors that may increase your risks include:

  • Having a close relative with alcoholism
    • A man that has one alcoholic parent is roughly three times as likely as a man without an alcoholic parent to succumb to the disorder. Women seem less affected by this familial link, though women with at least one alcoholic parent are still at a higher than normal risk of the disease.
  • Drinking heavily
    • Those who abstain from alcohol aren’t at risk of becoming alcoholics, so in functional terms, any alcohol consumption increases the risks. In reality, people who drink moderately have a much lower risk than heavy drinkers. The National Institute of Health recommends not exceeding one drink a day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
  • Being a man
    • Men are about twice as likely to experience alcoholism over a lifetime.
  • Experiencing childhood trauma
    • Numerous studies have reported a higher than average incidence rate of childhood trauma in patients undergoing treatment for alcohol or dug addiction, especially among women. Trauma can be physical, emotional or sexual.
  • Having a low response to alcohol (needing more than other people to feel the same effects)
    • A study published in the September 2009 issue of Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research showed that people who needed more alcohol to feel buzzed prior to the development of an alcohol tolerance tended to drink more alcohol in a sitting, and drinking more alcohol in a sitting increased the risk of becoming alcohol dependent.
  • Starting to drink at a young age
    • The earlier you start drinking, the greater your chances of becoming an alcoholic. Teens who start drinking before the age of 15 are about 50 percent more likely to become alcoholics as adults than teens who wait until 18 or older to start drinking (Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research, December 2008).
  • Having a psychiatric illness
    • Having a mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD or an anxiety disorder, greatly increases the risks of developing alcoholism or other addictions. People with a mental health disorder may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or may drink out of a loss of inhibition.
  • Chronic stress
  • Having easy access to alcohol
    • People immersed in societies that do not allow or condone drinking, or in societies that prohibit the sale of alcohol, face very minimal risk of becoming alcoholics. If you can’t buy it, it’s hard to drink it.
  • Certain personality types (personality characteristics)
    • The American Psychiatric Association has identified certain personality characteristics that seem to increase a person’s risk of alcoholism. These personality traits include:
      • Having a low tolerance for frustration
      • Having aggressive tendencies or difficulty with impulse control
      • Needing an inordinate amount of praise
      • Feeling unsure or not worthy
      • Demanding perfection

Is alcoholism inherited?

Alcoholism tends to run in families and genetic factors partially explain this pattern. Currently, researchers are on the way to finding the genes that influence vulnerability to alcoholism. A person’s environment, such as the influence of friends, stress levels, and the ease of obtaining alcohol, also may influence drinking and the development of alcoholism. Still other factors, such as social support, may help to protect even high-risk people from alcohol problems.

Risk, however, is not destiny. A child of an alcoholic parent will not automatically develop alcoholism—and a person with no family history of alcoholism can become alcohol dependent.

What Are the Short Term Consequences of Heavy Drinking?

The largest single health risk from binge drinking is alcohol poisoning and/or fatal overdose.

Alcohol sedates the brain and can lead to very low blood pressure and decreased or absent respiration, which can lead to death.

Binge alcohol use can also cause a person to pass out, vomit and then choke on their vomit; which can also lead to death.

Drinking alcohol in large quantities, quickly (drinking games seem especially dangerous) leads to hundreds of senseless tragedies per year, often involving young and inexperienced drinkers.

Other short term consequences of binge drinking can include:

  • An increased risk of trauma (falling down, getting into accidents, drowning etc.)
  • An increased risk of experiencing violence, either as a victim or perpetrator
  • Engaging in risky sexual acts, increasing the risks of unwanted pregnancy or STDs
  • An increased risk of legal problems (drinking in public, DUI, fighting…)
  • Family strife
  • Memory blackouts
  • Hangovers and a resultant poor performance at work or school

While moderate drinking may have some health benefits (and these are likely offset by moderate health risks, no one who currently abstains is advised to drink alcohol for health reasons) binge drinking has no benefits and increases your risks of injury or death, as well as social or legal difficulties.

What Are the Long Term Health Consequences of Heavy Drinking?

Few substances ravage the body the way alcohol does. Some of the long term health consequences of heavy drinking can include:

  • Liver disease (such as alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis)
  • Early dementia
  • An increased risk for certain cancers, including liver, stomach, esophagus, lung, larynx and others
  • Gastritis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Brain damage
  • Brain shrinkage
  • Depression
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Others
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Why is it unsafe to drink during pregnancy?

Drinking during pregnancy can cause a number of seriously harmful pre-natal effects to the child, as early as during the first several weeks of pregnancy and continuing until childbirth. Risks to the child include mental retardation, organ abnormalities, hyperactivity, and eventual learning and behavioral problems. While it is not yet known how much alcohol is required to cause these problems, it is known that they are 100% preventable if a woman does not drink at all during pregnancy.

As people get older, does alcohol affect their bodies differently?

Yes. As a person ages, certain mental and physical functions tend to decline, including vision, hearing, and reaction time. It is also true that other physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel “high” after drinking fairly small amounts of alcohol. These combined factors make older people more likely to have alcohol-related falls, automobile crashes, and other kinds of accidents.

In addition, older people tend to take more medications than younger persons, and missing alcohol with many over-the-counter and prescription drugs can be dangerous (even fatal), and many medical conditions common to older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, can be worsened by drinking.

Does alcohol affect a woman’s body differently from a man’s body?

Yes. Most women become more intoxicated than men after drinking the same amount of alcohol, even when differences in body weight are taken into account. This is because women’s bodies typically have proportionately less water than men’s bodies and, because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol becomes more highly concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s.

In addition, chronic alcohol abuse takes a heavier physical toll on women than on men and alcohol dependence and related medical problems, such as brain and liver damage, progress more rapidly in women than men.

If I am taking over-the-counter or prescription medication, do I have to stop drinking?

Possibly. More than 100 medications interact with alcohol, leading to increased risk of illness, injury and, in some cases, death. The effects of alcohol are increased by medicines that slow down the central nervous system, such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and some painkillers. In addition, medicines for certain disorders, including diabetes and heart disease, can be dangerous if used with alcohol. To be on the safe side, always ask your prescribing physician whether it is advisable to drink alcohol while taking any medication

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

Heavy, regular and chronic alcohol consumption can result in a physical addiction, also known as a physical alcohol dependency.

Alcohol makes us feel good by altering the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Over time, the brain evolves in response to the regular presence of alcohol with structural modifications that limit the effects of alcohol in the brain.

The brain responds to the near constant sedative effect of regular alcohol consumption by decreasing the effects of the endogenous neurotransmitter, GABA. GABA is responsible for inhibiting neurons (for slowing the brain down).

While the brain is near continuously exposed to the sedative (slowing) effects of alcohol, this reduction in GABA has little consequence, but when alcohol is absent, the brain accelerates, causing some very unpleasant and dangerous symptoms, known as alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

What Are Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

Once physically dependent on alcohol, sudden abstinence will result in a syndrome of withdrawal symptoms that can be very unpleasant and in severe cases, life threatening. The severity of the withdrawal symptoms will depend on the length of use and the amount of alcohol consumed daily, as well as on factors such as individual health and genetics and use of other drugs or medications.

For a heavy regular drinker, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin within 5 to 10 hours of a last drink. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will increase in intensity for 2 or 3 days, and generally last for a week or so. Some symptoms, such as insomnia, emotionality and tiredness, can endure for months after cessation of use.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Irritability and jumpiness
  • Feelings of anxiety and/or depression
  • Emotionality
  • Shakes
  • Confusion
  • Nightmares or insomnia
  • Sweatiness, (face and hands)
  • Feelings of nausea and vomiting
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Headache
  • Delirium tremens
  • Seizures
  • Fever

In severe cases, withdrawal symptoms can be fatal. Up to 35% of alcoholics who experience delirium tremens without treatment assistance die. With medical observation, that fatality figure (for those that experience this very severe withdrawal symptom) falls to 5%.

A period of alcohol withdrawal is life threatening; medical observation and care is always needed. Fortunately, medication can greatly reduce the dangers and discomfort of the withdrawal period.

Is alcoholism a disease?

Yes. Alcoholism is a chronic, often progressive disease, and, like many other diseases, it has a generally predictable course, recognized symptoms, and is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors that are being increasingly defined.

Does alcohol treatment work?

Treatment outcomes for alcoholism compare favorably with outcomes for many other chronic medical conditions. The longer an individual abstains from alcohol, the more likely they are to remain sober. Ongoing support from mental health professionals, family members and others are extremely significant to recovery. It is important to remember that many people relapse once or even several times before achieving long-term sobriety. Relapses are common and do not mean that a person has failed or cannot eventually recover from alcoholism. If a relapse occurs, it is crucial to once again stop drinking and to get whatever professional help is needed to continue abstaining from alcohol.

What Are Some Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options?

A variety of counseling therapies, medications and supportive organizations are available to treat alcoholism.

Alcoholism is not yet a curable disease, but treatment for alcoholism works about as well as treatment for diabetes or hypertension.

Two very pertinent facts about alcoholism treatment are:

  1. The longer a person participates in alcohol addiction treatment the greater their chance of continuing abstinence
  2. The longer a person can sustain abstinence, the better their chances of continuing abstinence!
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