A Primer on Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

The type of alcohol consumed by humans is called ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Pure ethanol is volatile and colorless and has an odor which can often be detected on the breath when an individual has been drinking alcoholic beverages.

Ethanol is essentially a type of psychoactive drug. In fact, it is one of the oldest known recreational drugs consumed by human beings. When consumed, ethanol can produce an effect known as alcohol intoxication — an effect that has been known to humans for thousands of years. The consumption of alcohol dates back to at least Neolithic times.

We generally use a broad term — Alcoholism — to describe the many problems associated with alcohol consumption. Alcoholism is considered to be a disease and an addictive illness by the greater medical community.

Let’s define alcoholism and some of the more commonly used references to the condition within an addiction context:

Alcoholism – a condition characterized by the compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages to the detriment of health, relationships, and social status.

Alcohol Abuse – a more specific term used to describe the repetitive use of alcoholic beverages – a drinking pattern – despite significant and recurrent negative consequences.

Alcohol Dependence – also more specific; a substance-related disorder where the individual is either physically or mentally addicted to alcohol, or both, and continues to use alcohol despite considerable dysfunction and evidence pointing to physical dependence.

NOTE: Alcohol Use Disorder is essentially a clinical diagnosis. A defined set of criteria are used by physicians to diagnose the nature of Alcoholism in a given individual, and if all the criteria are met the patient will be diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder. Individuals diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder are generally classified as suffering from either alcohol abuse OR alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Facts & Statistics

Estimated U.S. Deaths per year from alcohol-related causes = 80,000
Estimated number of U.S. individuals with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) = 17,000,000

Estimated % of Americans with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is: 6%
Estimated % of U.S. Children who live with a parent with alcohol problems: 10%
Estimated % of individuals with an AUD that EVER seek treatment is: 15%
As of 2012, % of people 18 or older reported binge drinking in the past month (5 or more alcoholic drinks on same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days) is: 24%

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

There can be no doubt that alcohol affects the brain in numerous adverse ways. Alcohol can create detectable impairments to memory after only a limited number of drinks have been consumed. As alcohol consumption increases, the amount and severity of impairment increases. Some of the impairments from alcohol consumption would include: blurry vision, difficulty walking, slurred speech patterns, reduction in reaction times, and problems with memory recall. Some impairments can be detected after just one or two drinks and quickly subside when the individual stops drinking. However, those who heavily drink over a long period of time may actually experience persistent impairment to brain function long after he or she reaches sobriety.

Consuming larger quantities of alcohol, particularly when consumed fast and/or on an empty stomach can cause blackouts. When blackouts occur, individuals typically cannot remember the finer details of events and may even have problems recalling any events.

Individuals who drink large amounts of alcohol for extended periods also run the risk of developing serious and persistent changes in the brain. Alcoholics often have a deficiency in thiamine, which is an important vitamin used by the tissues of the brain. Thiamine deficiency can lead to the development of serious brain disorders like Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome.

Additionally, chronic and debilitating syndromes such as Korsakoff’s Psychosis can develop, bringing with it persistent learning and memory problems. Individuals with Korsakoff’s Psychosis are forgetful, easily frustrated, and often experience impairments to walking and coordination. Both retrograde amnesia (difficulty recalling old information) and anterograde amnesia (difficulty incorporating new information to memory) are typical.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse / Dependence

Clinicians and substance abuse experts define alcohol abuse and alcoholism (also called alcohol dependence) differently. Alcohol abusers, as opposed to alcoholics, tend to have some limited ability to control their consumption. However, alcohol abusers still behave in a self-destructive manner and may pose a danger to themselves and/or others.

Typical signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • neglecting home, work, or school responsibilities
  • repetitive legal problems; DUIs
  • drinking despite relationship problems
  • alcohol use in dangerous situations
  • drinking to relax or reduce stress

Typical signs and symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Tolerance – needing more and more alcohol over time to achieve the same affect
  • Withdrawal – jumpiness/anxiety, trembling or shakiness, nausea and vomiting, sweating, depression, irritability, insomnia, headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite
  • Loss of Control – drinking more than intended, for longer than intended, despite a desire to do the opposite
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using opiates, such as flu-like symptoms, tremors, cramps, anxiety, weakness, depression, or cravings.
  • Alcohol as a Priority – spending less time doing the things you used to (like spending time with others or exercising) and more time drinking
  • Drinking Despite Harm – you know it causes you health problems and damages relationships, but you drink anyway
  • Denial – feeling that others exaggerate your problem, underestimating consumption, and transference of blame

Alcoholism: Long-term Health Risks

Long-term alcohol abuse can cause many kinds of physical and psychological problems for abusive drinkers. Long-term abuse can lead to cirrhosis, heart disease, epilepsy, polyneuropathy, alcoholic dementia, nutritional deficiencies, ulcers, sexual dysfunction, and can most certainly be fatal.

Those who consume large quantities of alcohol for a long time also face increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease, liver disease, malabsorption, cancer, and more. Long-term alcohol consumption can also take its tool on the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. Additional affects are listed below:


It is also important to mention that women tend to develop long-term complications from alcohol dependence more quickly than men do. There is also a higher mortality rate from alcoholism among women as compared to men. Some of the long-term complications alcoholic women are more likely to experience include damage to the heart, liver, and brain; increased risk for developing breast cancer; any of a long list of potential reproductive dysfunctions; alcoholic ketoacidosis for chronic abusers and/or binge drinkers.

There are many more health risks associated with alcoholism than could possibly be mentioned and expanded upon here. Suffice it to say, alcoholism is a very serious disease and illness and a structured treatment program should be a strong consideration. Follow the links below to learn more about addiction fundamentals and our approach to alcohol addiction treatment.


Learn about the characteristics of addiction, including what addiction is and what drives it to persist. There IS a way to break through addiction!


Learn about the My Addiction Physician approach to treating addiction, abuse, and dependence. Review the Ingredients for Success.