Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a serious health condition that can take over your life or that of someone you love. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of AUD is crucial so you can get help before the problem worsens. However, that can be tricky because there are five subtypes of AUD, and each may appear somewhat different. Familiarizing yourself with the different AUD subtypes can help you spot the need for intervention, such as alcohol rehab, earlier on.
Regardless of the AUD subtype you fall into, medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use can help. And with Confidant Health, you can get the support you need right from home. Download our app to enroll in our online medication-assisted treatment program. You’ll enjoy convenient, effective AUD treatment and guidance from a recovery coach.
Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition in which a person cannot stop drinking even after experiencing adverse effects. Alcohol misuse can lead to health problems, financial worries, and even job loss, but once a person is addicted, they may find it impossible to quit. AUD often involves binge drinking and heavy drinking, although this is not always the case. Drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol can increase the chances of dependence or addiction.
What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder is caused by changes in the brain that make a person crave alcohol and depend on it for positive mood and relaxation. The addiction cycle occurs in three stages: incentive salience, negative emotional states, and executive function.
During the first stage, a person experiences the mood-boosting effects of alcohol, which activates the basal ganglia and makes them want to drink more. Over time, they associate certain people, places, or things with alcohol consumption and enhanced sociability, euphoria, and relaxation. These physiological and learned behaviors lead to cravings and dependence.
Negative Emotional States
This second stage involves the withdrawal symptoms a person experiences when they stop drinking after becoming addicted. The basal ganglia have become reliant on alcohol for activation; without it, a person may feel anxious and irritable. The lack of alcohol can also activate the extended amygdala, making them feel more stressed. The negative emotional states in this second stage are bothersome enough that a person turns to alcohol to alleviate the discomfort, continuing the addiction cycle.
The prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for the third stage of the addiction cycle. This area of the brain involves a person's decision-making and time-management skills. When the prefrontal cortex is impaired due to addiction, the person becomes fixated on consuming alcohol and when they can have their next drink. When that next drink comes, they circle back to stage one, and the addiction cycle continues.
Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
How can you distinguish between occasional alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder? People with AUD exhibit the following signs and symptoms:
Inability to Moderate Alcohol Consumption
You may intend to limit yourself to just one or two drinks when you go out but often find that you can't stop after that point.
Alcohol Monopolizes Your Time
Alcohol may become a focal point in your life, and social activities revolve around drinking. This can also mean that much of your time is spent recovering from the effects of alcohol, with hangovers or withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol Affects Work or School
When you have developed AUD, your mental and physical health can suffer, making it more difficult to keep up with work or school responsibilities. This can eventually result in job loss or failing classes.
Developing Tolerance to Alcohol
Over time, you may need to drink more alcohol to achieve the same relaxing or euphoric effect. This indicates you have developed a tolerance to your usual amount.
Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms
If you try to reduce your consumption or quit alcohol cold turkey and experience withdrawal symptoms, you have likely developed AUD. Your body has become dependent on alcohol and responds with physical and psychological discomfort when alcohol is cut off. Some common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include sweating, shaking, nausea, irritability, and anxiety. These symptoms can be mistaken for hangovers, but withdrawal lasts much longer, sometimes up to a week or two.
Who May Be at Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder?
Anyone who misuses alcohol can develop an alcohol use disorder, but some people are more prone to this chronic disease. Some factors that increase the risk of AUD include:
- Family history of alcohol misuse, alcohol use disorder, or another substance use disorder
- Family or personal history of mental health conditions
- Childhood trauma or mental health conditions
- Binge or heavy drinking
Being aware of your risk of AUD can help you make changes to your drinking behaviors and address risk factors that are within your control. Preventative measures are much easier than trying to cut back on drinking after you have become dependent or addicted to alcohol.