In the United States, about 16.6 million adults have an alcohol-use disorder, and alcohol-related death is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, with approximately 88,000 patients dying annually. Mid to late teenage years are the most vulnerable for developing an alcohol disorder.
Chronic exposure to alcohol causes significant changes in brain functions. Key features of alcohol dependence include compulsive consumption, craving alcohol and tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Loved ones who suspect an alcohol issue should monitor family or friends for behavioral, psychological and physical manifestations of alcohol dependence.
Behavioral manifestations involve consuming more alcohol for longer periods of time than planned; neglecting work, school and family; and consuming alcohol despite having problems that will be aggravated by alcohol. Alcohol-dependent individuals may also undertake activities with high potential for harm, such as driving under the influence, becoming violent or having recurrent social and interpersonal problems.
Psychological symptoms include intense craving and persistent preoccupation and desire to consume alcohol.
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Physical signs include developing tolerance, which is the need to increase the alcohol consumed to feel the same effect. Alcoholism also can induce depression, anxiety, severe sleep problems, sexual dysfunction, memory loss and dementia. Those with alcohol dependency may exhibit signs of withdrawal when not drinking.
Contrary to common belief, alcoholism treatment is effective. People with alcohol dependency are as likely to follow treatment recommendations and improve as those with other chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Several forms of effective psychotherapies have been developed, and four medications — surprisingly under prescribed — are approved in the United States for the treatment of alcoholism.
If you or a loved one are experiencing alcohol dependency, seek expert help immediately.
Dr. Ihsan Salloum is chief of the Division of Substance & Alcohol Abuse at UHealth — the University of Miami Health System. UHealth is the premiere provider of acute and complex mental health services and research in South Florida. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.