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Alcohol Use Disorder as a Chronic Disease: The Science and Implications

Alcohol Use Disorder as a Chronic Disease: The Science and Implications

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease because it involves long-term symptoms, interference with daily life, and a necessity for medical attention.

Nearly 15 million Americans aged 12 and up struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD), yet only about 15 to 30% receive the necessary treatment to get control of their drinking. A study by the Recovery Research Institute found that stigma was one of the top barriers to getting treatment for AUD. Approximately one in five participants did not seek help because they felt too embarrassed to discuss their alcohol consumption with anyone. And almost half thought they could manage their condition on their own. Unfortunately, without proper treatment, many people progress through the stages of alcohol use disorder, harming their health and relationships. If AUD was a choice, then people could quit drinking through willpower alone. However, alcohol use disorder is now recognized as a chronic disease, helping more people to get the treatment they need as the stigma around this challenging condition begins to dissolve.

AUD creates changes in your brain that can make it harder to abstain, no matter how dedicated you are to quitting alcohol. Confidant Health's medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use can help address powerful cravings and withdrawal discomfort. To learn more about how our online medication-assisted treatment can support your recovery goals, schedule a virtual assessment with a member of our team.

What Is a Chronic Disease?

The CDC defines a chronic disease or chronic condition as any health condition that has lasted at least one year, requires medical attention, and impacts your everyday life. It is estimated that six out of 10 American adults have a diagnosable chronic disease, while four out of 10 have two or more.

Common Features of a Chronic Disease

As mentioned, there are a few common characteristics that qualify a health condition as a chronic disease. Some common features of a chronic disease are:

  • Long-term symptoms – Your system have lasted one year or longer.
  • Requires medical care – You’ll need a doctor's help to treat or manage your condition.
  • Affects your day-to-day life – You experience symptoms regularly that make it difficult to fulfill your daily responsibilities.
  • Caused by multiple factors – Several behaviors or lifestyle factors usually contribute to the condition. It can take years for these factors to culminate in chronic disease and present symptoms.

Some chronic diseases can be managed with lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Others may require medication or even surgery if the condition advances, so it is recommended that you consult with your provider for guidance.

Examples of Chronic Diseases

Chronic diseases vary in severity, with some becoming life-threatening if left untreated. Some examples of chronic diseases are:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Back pain
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes
  • Mental health conditions
  • Osteoporosis

With proper medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep symptoms of chronic diseases under control to preserve your quality of life.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a condition in which a person engages in frequent or heavy alcohol misuse but cannot moderate their consumption despite the consequences. A person may go through several stages of alcohol use disorder before they develop AUD, so it is imperative to recognize if you or someone you love is engaging in problematic drinking behaviors. Occasional binge drinking or heavy drinking does not necessarily indicate alcohol use disorder, but it can lead to AUD if it continues long-term.

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Why Is Alcohol Use Disorder Considered a Chronic Disease?

Alcohol use disorder is now considered a chronic disease, although it used to be viewed as a habit. Many people believed a person had a choice over their alcohol usage, which led to stigma against those struggling to moderate their consumption or stop drinking. It is now understood that alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition that falls under the same criteria as other chronic diseases:

Alcohol use disorder has long-term symptoms.

Although some symptoms associated with AUD dissipate within a week or two, such as withdrawal symptoms, this condition can lead to long-term or permanent damage to your health. People with alcohol use disorder are more susceptible to liver disease, stroke, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, digestive issues, and brain damage, among many other conditions. 

Alcohol use disorder requires medical treatment.

Although some people can cut back on drinking or quit altogether without serious side effects, others may risk potentially fatal complications if they stop using alcohol without medical assistance. Some risks of quitting cold turkey without professional help include:

  • Coma
  • Dehydration 
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Electrolyte imbalance 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Malnutrition 
  • Seizures
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

As with other chronic conditions, you should reach out to your provider to prevent adverse effects and help you manage AUD withdrawal symptoms safely.

Alcohol use disorder is caused by multiple factors.

There is no one cause for alcohol use disorder. This chronic condition begins with alcohol misuse, but there are often a variety of reasons a person starts drinking excessively, such as:

  • Family history of alcohol misuse or alcohol use disorder
  • Grief over the loss of a loved one
  • Peer pressure
  • Self-medication for stress, trauma, or mental health disorder

Many people have loved ones with AUD and experience loss, stress, and trauma in their lives. While this doesn't mean they are fated to develop AUD, it puts them at a higher risk. Like other chronic diseases, it typically takes multiple factors to slowly lead to the manifestation of alcohol use disorder. The more triggers for alcohol misuse you encounter, the more likely you are to drink excessively and become dependent or addicted to alcohol.

Alcohol use disorder impacts your everyday life.

Unlike occasional alcohol consumption, alcohol use disorder infiltrates your day-to-day life. Alcohol becomes the focal point, and other responsibilities can get pushed aside to make space for drinking. AUD can affect your life in some of the following ways:

  • Relationships with your partner, family, or friends can become strained.
  • Your work or school performance may suffer, and you could risk losing your job or failing your classes.
  • Overspending on alcohol can make it difficult to keep up with your bills.
  • Driving under the influence or getting into altercations while drinking can lead to legal trouble.
  • Health problems caused by AUD can disrupt your ability to work. 
  • AUD can trigger or exacerbate mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Once you have developed alcohol use disorder, it can disrupt all areas of your life, requiring a multifaceted approach to treatment.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

How do you know if someone in your life is struggling with alcohol use disorder? Know the signs of AUD so you can extend your support and encouragement to a loved one who needs help. A person struggling with alcohol use disorder may exhibit the following behavioral, psychological, and physical signs:

A Decline in Physical Appearance 

Chronic excessive alcohol consumption can lead to malnutrition, affecting how a person looks. Alcohol depletes the body of vitamins, leading to a tired, lackluster appearance. Some people may also lose their appetite for food while drinking, so they may not be getting all the vital nutrients needed for optimal health.

Cognitive Impairment 

Alcohol can affect brain function, causing a person to struggle with memory and recall. They may repeat themselves often and have trouble maintaining their attention span.

Secretive Behavior

People struggling to control their alcohol consumption may try to hide their drinking from others. They may do so out of embarrassment or shame, or they may not want to hear criticism from their loved ones. Some people trying to cover up AUD may hide alcohol around the house, in the car, or at work. They might also use gum or mints to mask the scent of alcohol on their breath. 

Depression or Anxiety

A person may feel happier while drinking, but those effects will wear off as alcohol leaves the body. Alcohol stimulates the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and dopamine, brain neurotransmitters responsible for inducing positive feelings. As time goes on, the brain will adjust its production of GABA and dopamine and rely on alcohol for stimulation. Without alcohol to trigger these feel-good hormones, a person with AUD will feel anxious, depressed, and irritable.

Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder

Some people are more likely than others to develop alcohol use disorder. Risk factors for AUD include:

  • Binge drinking or heavy drinking
  • Childhood trauma
  • Family history of alcohol use disorder
  • Mental health conditions
  • Starting drinking at a young age

Awareness of the above risk factors can empower you to take necessary measures to limit or moderate alcohol consumption before it becomes a problem.

How to Treat Alcohol Use Disorder

You may be able to manage mild alcohol use disorder on your own, but moderate to severe AUD should be treated by professionals. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous in more serious conditions, and professional treatment programs can help ensure your safety as you detox. 

Alcohol use disorder is treated with a combination of medication, therapy, and support to address the needs of the whole person. This approach offers the most effective treatment for long-term recovery.

Medication for AUD

Medications can play different roles in treating alcohol use disorder. Some, like acamprosate and naltrexone, serve to reduce the urge to drink by blocking the pleasurable effects of alcohol. Others, such as gabapentin, help to minimize discomfort, sleep issues, and anxiety associated with alcohol withdrawal. 

AUD Therapy

Overcoming alcohol use disorder is rarely as simple as getting through withdrawal. There are many factors that contribute to alcohol misuse, and these must be addressed to help you maintain sobriety long-term. Counseling for AUD will help you identify the triggers for alcohol consumption and find healthier ways to manage them.

Support for Sobriety 

Having the support of others is crucial when you're trying to remove alcohol from your life. Support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provide the opportunity to surround yourself with others in recovery who understand what you're going through. You'll also need support from addiction treatment professionals to help you get through withdrawal safely and comfortably. And most importantly, you should seek the support of loved ones who can be there for you when you struggle with intense urges to drink, low mood, anxiety, or other discomforts that may arise as you navigate recovery.

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Chronic Alcohol Use Disorder FAQs

Is alcohol use disorder curable?

Alcohol use disorder is not curable, but it is treatable. As a chronic disease, you can learn how to manage AUD to reduce your risk of relapse. But it is a lifelong condition, so you will need to continue to work to maintain your sobriety for the long term through proper treatment and support.

Is alcohol use disorder a disease or a choice?

Alcohol use disorder is classified as a chronic disease because it fits the criteria of lasting longer than one year, being caused by multiple factors, impacting daily life, and requiring medical attention to manage the symptoms. Alcohol misuse is a choice to drink heavily or binge drink. The former is defined as having more than three drinks in a day for women or more than four for men, while the latter involves consuming four or more drinks within two hours for women or five or more for men. Over time, alcohol misuse can lead to dependence or AUD, where you no longer have a choice over your consumption because your brain requires alcohol to function.

What other diseases do people with alcohol use disorder get?

Alcohol use disorder can put you at a higher risk of some diseases than people without AUD. You may be more likely to develop cancer, cardiomyopathy, High blood pressure, stroke, cirrhosis, fibrosis, and hepatitis.

Enroll in Virtual AUD Treatment at Confidant Health

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition that may require lifetime support from loved ones and addiction treatment professionals. But you don't have to wait until binge drinking or heavy drinking develops into AUD before you get help. Confidant Health's medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use can help you cut back on problem drinking or achieve an alcohol-free life. Download our app today to start receiving convenient, online medication-assisted treatment.

This article has been medically reviewed by
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Nurse Practitioner

Erin is a Nurse Practitioner with 8 years of experience in midwifery and women's health. She has spent the past 5 years specializing in the treatment of opioid and alcohol use disorders.

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