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Unpacking What Is Alcohol Use Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

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Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), also known as “what is alcohol use disorder,” is a medical condition characterized by an inability to stop or control alcohol despite adverse consequences. This article explores the intricacies of AUD, including its causes, prevalent symptoms, and effective treatment methods, providing essential knowledge for understanding and tackling this widespread challenge.

Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic condition marked by an inability to control alcohol use, leading to brain function changes and potential dependence, with severity ranging from mild to severe based on specific diagnostic criteria.
  • AUD is associated with a variety of symptoms and health consequences, including the inability to limit consumption, strong cravings, continuation despite negative consequences, and heightened risk of mental health disorders, liver diseases, heart conditions, and certain cancers.
  • Treatment for AUD encompasses detoxification, medication-assisted therapy, behavioral therapies, and support groups, with a focus on long-term recovery and relapse prevention through lifestyle changes and ongoing vigilance.

Defining Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

A person pouring alcohol from a bottle into a glass

AUD, or Alcohol Use Disorder, is characterized by a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems with controlling drinking and continuing to drink despite negative social, occupational, or health consequences. The severity of AUD can range from mild to severe, depending on the number of criteria met. However, understanding AUD involves more than its definition; it requires distinguishing between casual and unhealthy drinking, and recognizing AUD as a chronic condition that significantly alters the individual’s brain function, often leading to alcohol dependence.

Casual vs. Unhealthy Drinking

Casual drinking is characterized by low-risk consumption of alcohol in moderate amounts, perhaps on rare occasions. This is in stark contrast to unhealthy drinking, which involves frequent overconsumption of alcohol, leading to adverse actions or health consequences. The standard drink, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, varies depending on the type of alcohol consumed:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces
  • Malt liquor: 8-9 fluid ounces
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces
  • Distilled spirits: 1.5 fluid ounces

But what separates a problem drinker from someone with AUD? Problem drinkers frequently consume alcohol, often more than intended, with some health effects. However, they can usually quit on their own. Those with AUD, on the other hand, are unable to control their alcohol consumption, often drink daily, and face various life problems because of their drinking habits, usually requiring external support or rehabilitation. Unhealthy drinking is marked by alcohol consumption that harms health or safety, leads to other alcohol-related problems, or involves binge drinking.

Unpacking What Is Alcohol Use Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

AUD as a Chronic Condition

AUD is not simply a habit that can easily be broken, but rather a chronic condition. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to lasting changes in the brain, which may enhance vulnerability to relapse. It alters the normal function of brain areas involving pleasure, judgment, and behavior control. This can interfere with brain function, affecting mood and behavior, impairing cognitive abilities, and leading to a craving for alcohol to restore good feelings or reduce negative ones.

Alcohol Rehab South Carolina

If you’re seeking alcohol rehab in South Carolina, you have various options tailored to your needs. South Carolina offers a range of treatment facilities specializing in alcohol addiction recovery. These facilities often provide personalized treatment plans, including detoxification, counseling, therapy, and aftercare support. With a focus on holistic healing, many alcohol rehab centers in South Carolina integrate evidence-based practices to address the physical, psychological, and social aspects of addiction. Whether you’re looking for inpatient or outpatient programs, you can find resources and support to embark on your journey to sobriety in South Carolina.

Identifying Symptoms of AUD

A person struggling to resist alcohol temptation

When it comes to distinguishing AUD from problem drinking, the severity of alcohol-related problems and the inability to control drinking play a crucial role. Symptoms of AUD include:

  • Being unable to limit alcohol consumption
  • Experiencing strong cravings for alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences
  • Failing to fulfill major obligations due to alcohol use
  • Giving up important activities because of drinking
  • Using alcohol in dangerous situations like driving

Alcohol intoxication, leading to unstable moods, poor judgment, and in extreme cases, severe outcomes like coma or death, is also a symptom of AUD.

Diagnostic Criteria

Diagnosing AUD is a complex process that involves a clinical definition derived from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). A diagnosis of AUD under the DSM-5 requires meeting any 2 of the 11 criteria during the same 12-month period. These criteria include:

  1. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  2. Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  3. Failing to meet important responsibilities due to excessive drinking
  4. Continuing to consume alcohol despite it causing relationship, social, or physical problems

It’s worth noting that the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for AUD now includes the following criteria:

  • Craving
  • Impaired control
  • Social impairment
  • Risky use

On the other hand, ‘legal problems’ as a criterion for diagnosing AUD has been removed from DSM-5.

Severity Levels

The severity of AUD is not the same for everyone. It varies from mild to severe cases, depending on the number of symptoms experienced within a year. Mild AUD is characterized by the presence of 2-3 symptoms within a year, moderate AUD by the presence of 4-5 symptoms, and severe AUD by 6 or more symptoms.

Risk Factors and Causes of AUD

A family history tree with genetic and environmental factors

Several risk factors contribute to the development of AUD. These include:

  • A family history of alcohol problems, which can be due to genetic factors
  • Beginning to drink at an early age, especially if it involves binge drinking
  • Steady drinking over a prolonged period
  • Social and cultural environments, including the influence of friends or partners who drink regularly.

Genetic and Environmental Factors

Both genetic and environmental factors can significantly influence an individual’s risk of developing AUD. Genetic factors can impact how drinking affects an individual’s body and behavior, potentially leading to AUD.

On the other hand, environmental factors, including parental influence, peer pressure, and media portrayals of drinking, can affect an individual’s risk of developing AUD.

Binge Drinking and Heavy Alcohol Consumption

Binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption, often involving too much alcohol, are significant contributors to the development of AUD. Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking alcohol that raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08% or higher, usually resulting from consuming 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men within about 2 hours. This pattern of drinking poses significant health and safety risks, including an increased risk of certain cancers, liver diseases, and various forms of injury.

Unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns, such as regular binge drinking or heavy drinking over an extended period, can lead to alcohol-related problems and escalate to AUD. Recognizing and understanding these risky drinking behaviors and their potential consequences are essential steps in preventing the development of AUD.

What is Binge Drinking

Binge drinking refers to the consumption of alcohol in large quantities over a short period, typically leading to a rapid increase in blood alcohol concentration. This pattern of drinking often results in intoxication and poses serious health risks. Individuals who engage in binge drinking may consume several drinks in a single session, surpassing the recommended limits for moderate alcohol consumption. Binge drinking is commonly associated with social gatherings, parties, or other occasions where alcohol is readily available. However, it can have detrimental effects on physical and mental well-being, including liver damage, increased risk of accidents, and alcohol dependence. Recognizing the signs and consequences of binge drinking is crucial for promoting responsible alcohol consumption and mitigating associated harms.

Potential Health Consequences of AUD

A person suffering from physical and mental health issues

The misuse of alcohol can lead to a host of health problems. Chronic drinking can lead to a range of cancers, including those of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectum. Excessive alcohol consumption can also impair the heart, causing conditions such as cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure.

Furthermore, alcohol misuse can have several negative effects on the body, including:

  • Liver damage, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis
  • Impaired pancreas function, leading to pancreatitis
  • Weakened immune system, increasing susceptibility to diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis

Physical Health Problems

Chronic heavy drinking can lead to a variety of liver problems, including steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. In addition to liver diseases, binge drinking increases the risk of several types of cancer, including head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancers. Even moderate drinking raises the risk of breast cancer in women.

It’s clear that in addition to the immediate effects of intoxication, chronic alcohol use and binge drinking can lead to other chronic diseases.

Mental Health Concerns

AUD frequently co-occurs with other mental health disorders, including:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Trauma and stress-related disorders
  • Other substance use disorders
  • Sleep disorders

Individuals with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder have a higher likelihood of encountering problems related to alcohol. Anxiety disorders occur more frequently among persons with AUD, with rates between 20% to 40%. Both major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are mood disorders that often co-occur with AUD, with a lifetime co-occurrence rate of 27% to 40% for major depressive disorder and up to 42% for bipolar disorder.

The co-occurrence rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with AUD ranges from 15-30%, with even higher rates among military personnel and veterans. Psychiatric symptoms such as:

  • worry
  • dysphoria
  • sadness
  • irritability

often overlap with the clinical features of AUD, particularly during periods of alcohol intoxication, withdrawal, and craving.

Sleep disorders that commonly affect individuals with AUD include:

  • Insomnia disorder
  • Hypersomnolence disorder
  • Breathing-related sleep disorders
  • Parasomnias

These disorders can affect 36% to 91% of individuals with AUD. Even high-functioning alcoholics often face significant internal issues due to their drinking, necessitating addiction treatment or support.

What is Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence, often referred to as alcoholism, is a chronic and progressive condition characterized by an inability to control alcohol consumption despite adverse consequences. Individuals who are alcohol dependent often experience strong cravings for alcohol and may prioritize drinking over other responsibilities and activities. This dependency can lead to tolerance, requiring increased amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effects, as well as withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped. Long-term alcohol dependence can have severe physical, psychological, and social ramifications, impacting relationships, work performance, and overall health. Seeking professional help and support is essential for individuals struggling with alcohol dependence to achieve recovery and regain control over their lives.

Treatment Approaches for AUD

Group therapy session for alcohol use disorder

Although AUD is a serious and complex disorder, it is treatable. Treatments for AUD aim to alleviate withdrawal symptoms, stop or reduce alcohol use, and equip individuals with behavioral skills and knowledge for recovery. The primary treatments for AUD include appropriate medications, counseling, and a variety of behavioral therapies.

Medically managed alcohol withdrawal, or detoxification, is often a necessary first step in AUD treatment and is carried out under medical guidance with the use of medications, such as benzodiazepines, to ensure safety and comfort.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication plays a pivotal role in the management of AUD. The FDA has approved the following medications for the treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD):

  • Naltrexone: works as an opioid antagonist to reduce the pleasurable effects of alcohol, aiding in the prevention of relapse
  • Acamprosate: helps to restore neurotransmitter balance affected by long-term alcohol use, supporting abstinence
  • Disulfiram: causes adverse effects when alcohol is consumed to discourage drinking

Other medications, though not FDA-approved for AUD, have been found to reduce alcohol consumption and cravings, making them potential options in clinical practice. These include topiramate and gabapentin.

Therefore, medication-assisted treatment, combined with counseling and behavioral therapies, can significantly improve the chances of a successful recovery from AUD.

Behavioral Therapies

While medication can alleviate the physical symptoms of AUD, behavioral therapies address the psychological and behavioral aspects of addiction. These therapies focus on changing drinking behavior through skill development and psychological support. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps individuals identify and modify problematic behaviors and thought patterns related to alcohol use, while Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) inspires rapid change by resolving ambivalence towards treatment and sobriety.

Specific therapies that target family dynamics and communication include:

  • Family Behavior Therapy (FBT)
  • Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT)
  • Functional Family Therapy (FFT)
  • Multi-Dimensional Family Therapy (MDFT)

Another therapy, Contingency Management (CM), focuses on rewarding positive behaviors like abstinence.

Marital and Family Counseling, as well as approaches like Solution-Focused Brief Therapy and Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT), aim to improve family support and dynamics that can contribute to recovery success. Some approaches to family therapy include:

  • Behavioral Couples Therapy
  • Family Systems Therapy
  • Multidimensional Family Therapy
  • Structural Family Therapy

Family involvement is crucial and linked to improved abstinence rates and family communication, enhancing overall treatment results.

Support Groups and Peer Assistance

In addition to medication and behavioral therapies, mutual-support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous provide community support for individuals recovering from AUD. Peer support groups have been shown to improve substance abuse outcomes, increase treatment engagement, and enhance self-efficacy in individuals with substance use disorders.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs significantly aid in reducing alcohol consumption and promoting continuous abstinence among those with AUD. Support from family recovery groups and mentorship from individuals who have successfully maintained sobriety play critical roles in supporting an individual’s recovery journey.

Special Considerations for Pregnant Women and New Mothers

For pregnant women and new mothers, the implications of AUD are particularly consequential. Alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to a range of developmental disorders known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASDs can cause a variety of issues including intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems. Newborns whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy may suffer from withdrawal symptoms similar to those observed in adults. Pregnant women with AUD need treatment plans that consider the health and safety of the developing fetus.

Medication-assisted treatments for AUD are limited during pregnancy due to potential risks to the fetus. For new mothers with AUD, emotional and psychological challenges often require supportive psychotherapies. Specialized counseling and support groups for pregnant women and new mothers with AUD are essential for recovery.

Effects on Pregnancy and Fetal Development

The consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can have devastating effects on the fetus, leading to preventable birth defects and conditions known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD is a collective term for conditions such as:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe form, which often results in abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system problems
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, which can lead to significant learning and behavior abnormalities
  • Alcohol-related birth defects, which can result in physical abnormalities

It is crucial to stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy to protect the health and well-being of the baby.

Children with FASDs may experience developmental delays, cognitive impairments, speech and language difficulties, and problems with physical coordination.

Early intervention and a stable, nurturing environment are crucial in improving the outcomes for children suffering from the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure.

Treatment Options and Resources

For pregnant women, treatment for AUD can include detoxification, counseling, and support groups, all aimed at protecting the well-being of the mother and unborn child. SAMHSA’s National Helpline offers a 24/7 resource for pregnant women seeking confidential and free treatment referrals for alcohol use disorder.

Community-based organizations provide crucial support, such as parenting classes and resources, to assist new mothers in recovering from AUD. Initiatives like the Ohio Department of Medicaid’s MOMS+ project and the Mental Health Services Administration present frameworks for integrating substance use disorder treatment, including AUD, with prenatal care for affected pregnant and parenting women.

Recovery and Relapse Prevention

Recovering from AUD is a journey, not a destination. It requires early intervention, professional treatment, participation in inpatient or outpatient programs, and the support from groups and loved ones. Recovery from AUD is supported by positive lifestyle shifts such as adopting balanced nutrition and regular exercise, as well as learning stress management techniques like mindfulness to reduce the risk of relapse.

Long-term management of AUD requires ongoing treatment and vigilance, including regular monitoring to stay on the recovery path and to deal with any potential setbacks effectively.

The Recovery Process

Recovery from AUD typically involves stages of abstinence, withdrawal, repair, and growth, each with specific tasks and challenges. The abstinence stage begins immediately after ceasing alcohol consumption and focuses on coping with cravings and resisting the urge to drink.

The repair stage, lasting 2-3 years, involves healing the damages caused by alcohol, such as mending relationships and overcoming guilt and negative self-talk. The growth stage, starting 3-5 years after stopping drinking, is about developing new skills, addressing past trauma, and maintaining healthy life skills for a fulfilling life.

Combining therapy with support groups can significantly enhance the chances of a successful recovery from AUD.

Strategies for Preventing Relapse

Preventing relapse is an integral part of the recovery journey from AUD. Recognizing high-risk situations such as social events or holiday times is critical to avoiding relapse triggers. Increased family support and awareness are vital, as family therapy can promote family strengths and help reduce the risk of relapse for the individual.

Effective strategies in relapse prevention include:

  • Contingency management, using rewards for maintaining abstinence
  • Changing life circumstances
  • Regular check-ins and drug testing to provide accountability
  • Understanding the emotional, mental, and physical stages of relapse to enable early intervention and application of preventative strategies.


In this blog post, we’ve unraveled the complexities of Alcohol Use Disorder, a chronic brain disorder characterized by problematic drinking patterns. From distinguishing between casual and unhealthy drinking to understanding the symptoms, risk factors, and potential health consequences of AUD, we’ve delved into this intricate subject. We’ve also explored various treatment approaches, including medication-assisted treatment, behavioral therapies, and the role of support groups in managing AUD. While AUD is a serious and complex disorder, it’s important to remember that it is treatable, and recovery is possible. It’s about taking one day at a time, seeking help, and never losing hope.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does alcohol affect a person psychologically?

Alcohol can lead to negative feelings such as anger, depression, and anxiety by affecting the chemical balance in the brain and slowing down cognitive processes. It can make it difficult to process emotions and assess the consequences of actions.

Which of the following is a characteristic of alcohol use disorder?

One characteristic of alcohol use disorder is craving or a strong desire to use alcohol, despite facing social or interpersonal problems caused by its effects. It can also result in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.

What are the 4 types of drinker?

There are four types of drinkers: Hemingways, Mary Poppins, Nutty Professors, and Mr. Hydes, which represent different behaviors when consuming alcohol. Additionally, drinking motives can be categorized into enhancement, coping, social, and conformity.

What are the 4 types of wives of alcoholics?

Whalen (1983) identifies the four types of “wives of alcoholics” as Suffering Susan, Controlling Catherine, Wavering Winifred, and Punitive Polly, with the wife’s personality playing a significant role in her husband’s alcoholism.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disorder that involves problematic drinking patterns, leading to lasting changes in the brain and causing issues with controlling drinking despite negative consequences.


Warren Phillips

Warren is a Licensed Master Social Worker, who specializes in substance abuse and mental health treatment. Clinically, Warren has developed a therapeutic skillset that utilizes a strengths-based perspective, Twelve Step philosophies, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing.

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Located on the historic peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina, Lantana Recovery takes a modern approach to Substance Use Disorder treatment, offering intensive clinical care while also immersing our clients in local Charleston culture.