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:
- Delirium tremens (DTs)
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Heart palpitations
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.
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.
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.
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.