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Last Updated on December 15, 2021 by Randy Withers, LCMHC
In the United States, approximately 95,000 people die each year from alcohol-related accidents and diseases. Aside from tobacco, alcohol is the single most lethal controlled substance available for legal purchase.
If you are reading this, chances are you or someone you love has abused alcohol at some point in their lives.
Perhaps you are wondering if you are guilty of alcohol abuse. Maybe you drink too much. Maybe you find it hard to stop.
Either way, you’ve grown concerned with your drinking and you’re trying to find out if you have a problem and how to stop.
In this post, we’re going to talk about alcohol use. We’re also going to discuss clinical terms mental health professionals used to describe various types of problems associated with it. These include alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol use disorder, and alcoholism.
Finally, we’ll talk about why some alcoholics choose to go to rehab.
What Are Alcohol Abuse, Dependence, Alcoholism, and Alcohol Use Disorder?
In the field of addictions treatment, there are several terms that describe various types of problematic alcohol use.
- Alcohol Abuse is an older term used to describe behaviors that cause problems in a person’s life. Abuse implies consequence, and alcohol can cause a bunch of them. It can cause physical problems like hangovers. It can cause psychological problems like depression. It can cause legal problems like getting arrested for a DUI. It can cause social problems like marital issues and relationship strife.
Alcohol abuse is common. Technically, drinking that causes any type of problem is considered alcohol abuse. If you get hangovers when you drink, you are abusing alcohol. If you show up late for work after a night of drinking, you are abusing alcohol.
As you can see, it’s fairly easy to meet the criteria for alcohol abuse.
- Alcohol Dependence and Alcoholism are virtually interchangeable terms. One achieves alcohol dependence when they become physically or psychologically addicted to alcohol. The same holds true for alcoholism, a non-clinical term that describes a pattern of problematic drinking behaviors and an inability to reduce or quit excessive use.
Two noteworthy “red flags” of alcohol dependence are tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance means it takes more of a substance to achieve the desired effects. Withdrawal means you experience physical or psychological distress when you try to quit.
- Alcohol Use Disorder is a clinical diagnosis that replaced alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence back in 2014. It is effectively a synonym for alcoholism.
Alcohol Use Disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe. This depends on the number of criteria met.
How Do You Know That You Have a Problem with Alcohol?
One of the challenges of spotting alcohol abuse is that alcohol is ubiquitous. It is cheap, socially acceptable, easy to acquire, and celebrated throughout a variety of cultures. Many people falsely believe that alcohol is safe because it is legal. That’s just not true.
But it is also not true that everyone who drinks has a problem. Studies show that the vast majority of people who drink do not experience adverse results.
So how do you really know?
In my experience, the best way to find out if you have a problem is to ask yourself this question: do you think you have a problem with alcohol?
If you answered yes, or maybe, then you probably do.
But if you are still on the fence, people who abuse alcohol tend to encounter the same types of problems. Look at the following list. If you answer yes to even one of these questions, you probably have a an alcohol abuse problem:
- Do you find it difficult to control your drinking?
- Do family members and friends ever express concern about your drinking?
- Have you ever suffered legal consequences as a result of drinking?
- Has your drinking ever interfered with your relationships?
- Do you hide your drinking?
- Do you feel shame or guilt about your drinking?
- Do you suffer from hangovers or blackouts?
- Do you spend more than you can afford on alcohol?
- Does your alcohol use make you feel depressed or anxious?
- Do you use alcohol to escape from your problems?
How Much Can You Safely Drink?
According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, men should limit their use of alcohol to no more than two drinks per day. For women, they advise no more than one drink per day.
Of course, these recommendations assume you are healthy and have no previous history of alcoholism. In fact, the recommendations specifically say the following people should avoid alcohol completely:
- Women who are pregnant or might be pregnant.
- those under the legal age for drinking.
- People with certain medical conditions or who are taking certain medications that can interact with alcohol.
- People who are recovering from an alcohol use disorder or if they are unable to control the amount they drink.
The truth is that most people who drink alcohol don’t end up abusing it. And if they do, it is often temporary. College students, for example, tend to overdo it, but most of them temper their drinking as they mature.
But a small percentage of the population – say around 10% – will eventually meet criteria for alcohol use disorder, and many of them will require extensive treatment once they do.
What Could Happen if You Abuse Alcohol?
When you abuse alcohol, you become highly susceptible to a variety of physical, psychological, social, legal, occupational, and financial problems.
People who abuse alcohol are far more likely to:
- Be involved in serious accidents that may require hospital treatment or even prove fatal
- Fall victim to or be the perpetrator of a violent crime
- Engage in high-risk sexual activities
- Run afoul of law enforcement
- Suffer from alcohol poisoning
- Experience poor job performance
Over the long term, problematic alcohol use can lead to:
- Alcohol addiction (alcoholism)
- Severe health problems such as ulcers and cirrhosis
- Cardiovascular disease
- Severe mental illness
- Increased risk of suicide
- Incapability to handle daily responsibilities
- Loss of financial control or bankruptcy
- Inability to maintain good relationships
- Crime and incarceration
Of course, nobody wants any of these things to happen to them, but you need to know that these are not unrealistic consequences of prolonged and excessive alcohol abuse.
If you have been reading this article and relating to a lot of what has been said, it may be time to make a plan to quit drinking.
When (And Why) Should I Get Help?
For many alcoholics, professional help is essential. Depending on the volume, frequency, and duration of your alcohol use, abrupt cessation can lead to alcohol withdrawal, which can be life-threatening. That shouldn’t stop you from quitting, but it does mean that you should talk to your doctor first about the best and safest way to do so.
If you do plan on quitting alcohol, you need to know about the potential consequences. And one of the big ones is Delirium Tremens, also known as the “DTs” or “the shakes.”
Delirium tremens (DTs) is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal marked by tremors, psychosis, disorientation, and tremors.
It typically occurs among people who have a history of long term alcohol use and who have previously experienced severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
While the DTs only seem to affect about 5% of those withdrawing from alcohol, it is nonetheless a serious condition that requires medical monitoring.
Of course, physical withdrawal symptoms are just one of the potential barriers to your recovery. Recovery from alcohol use disorder is hard. It’s both difficult and unnecessary to try to do it on your own.
Without proper education, support, and treatment, you run the risk of relapse, which is when you start drinking again after a period of sobriety. While relapse is often a part of recovery, it’s still a devastating experience, one you can avoid with the right support.
While support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) do a great job providing free community support, some recovering alcoholics choose to pursue more long term professional assistance. Examples include outpatient groups (IOPs) as well as residential rehabs and medical detoxification services (rehabs).
In a rehab center, you will have:
- A complete rehabilitation plan, including aftercare
- Medical support from doctors and healthcare professionals
- Constant monitoring and immediate intervention
- Access to medication that relieves the pain and discomfort of withdrawal
- Psychiatric interventions
- Group support
- Space and time away from the people, places, and things that make you want to drink
If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to visit addictionanswers.com to investigate your options.