Alcohol Addiction

Learn more here about alcohol use disorder, co-occurring disorders, alcohol addiction and treatment options.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is a medical condition also called alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol dependence. If a person is addicted to alcohol, they have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is characterized by a person’s inability to stop or control their drinking despite negative consequences.  

Alcohol abuse is a serious public health crisis in the United States and around the world. In 2019, approximately 26% of adults in the United States reported at least one episode of binge drinking in the past month. In 2019, about 14.5 million people ages twelve and up had an alcohol use disorder.1 The current alcohol addiction statistics are alarming and demonstrate the need for education surrounding alcohol addiction.  

For instance, a person diagnosed with alcohol use disorder may stop attending social gatherings, meeting work obligations, or caring for their personal health needs. These are all negative consequences of alcohol use disorder. Additionally, AUD is considered to be a brain disorder within the medical community.2 

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Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol can be incredibly addictive, and how at-risk a person is for AUD depends on multiple factors. These factors include how much a person drinks, how often they drink, and how quickly the alcohol is consumed. Binge drinking also increases a person’s risk for developing an AUD. Other factors include drinking at an early age, genetics, family history of alcohol abuse, mental health conditions, and childhood trauma.2 

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

When a person drinks alcohol, their brain is bombarded with chemicals that flood the brain’s reward pathways. Over time, the brain adapts and associates alcohol with pleasure. As the brain adapts, an individual will require more alcohol to achieve the same feelings. If it takes more alcohol to achieve the same result, a person has developed tolerance.3 

How Do You Know If You Are Addicted To Alcohol?

To determine whether a person is addicted to alcohol, there is a range of signs and symptoms you can look for. Behavioral healthcare professionals and primary care providers typically screen for signs of alcohol abuse regularly. It is essential to be familiar with these symptoms to recognize if someone is struggling with alcohol addiction.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Warning signs to look for when it comes to alcohol abuse include tolerance, withdrawal or shakes, anxiety, insomnia, depression, sweating, vomiting, and irritability. People struggling with addiction often try to hide their substance use disorder from friends and loved ones. If a person is struggling with alcohol abuse, you must encourage that individual to meet with a healthcare provider.4

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

There is a wide range of symptoms when it comes to alcohol use disorder. Drinking more alcohol or for longer than initially intended is a common symptom of alcohol addiction. Here are a few other symptoms of AUD: 

  • Failed attempts to cut back or stop drinking 
  • Spending the majority of each day getting alcohol, drinking, and recovering 
  • Alcohol use is interfering with home, work, school, or family 
  • Continued drinking despite issues with family or friends 
  • Participating in high-risk activities while drinking (driving, unprotected sex, etc.) 
  • Drinking more to get the same effect (tolerance) 
  • Withdrawal symptoms (shakiness, nausea, sweating, seizure, etc.) 


A behavioral health professional uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to diagnose an alcohol use disorder. If a person has an AUD, the severity is determined by how many criteria a person meets in reference to their symptoms. An individual can receive a mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder diagnosis. 

How Easily Can You Get Addicted To Alcohol?

A person’s susceptibility to alcohol addiction depends on a variety of factors. An individual could be predisposed to alcoholism based on drinking at a young age, binge drinking, genetics, and mental health. It’s relatively easy for a person who is abusing alcohol to become addicted. 

Heroin Overdose

How Much Is Too Much?

It is not easy to define how much alcohol is too much. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can reduce their risk by choosing not to drink or only drink in moderation.  

Moderation is considered two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women. However, for someone genetically predisposed or at risk due to other factors, any level of alcohol consumption could be too much.5  

How Long Does It Take To Be Addicted to Alcohol?

It is impossible to create an alcohol addiction timeline that applies to every single human. Hundreds if not thousands of variables could play a role in how long it takes for a person’s brain to become addicted. In relative terms, it does not take a long time, and anyone concerned about their alcohol use or disease progression should seek medical assistance for an individualized answer.

What Is Comorbidity?

Comorbidity occurs when a person has two or more disorders or illnesses. These disorders or illnesses can be present at the same time or at different times. Generally, the presence of multiple disorders worsens the outcomes of all illnesses.6 

Co-Occurring Disorders

In the behavioral health field, co-occurring disorders typically describe an individual diagnosed with both substance use and mental health disorders. For instance, if a person has a dual diagnosis of alcohol addiction and major depressive disorder, they have co-occurring disorders.6 

SUD and Mental Disorders

About half of all people with a mental health or substance use disorder will experience both at some point in their life. These disorders frequently co-occur because they share many risk factors and contribute to each other.6 


Studies have shown a positive correlation between major depressive disorder (MDD) and alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, individuals often use alcohol to numb their depression and vice versa. However, this type of use is counterproductive because alcohol is a depressant.7 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma can lead to alcohol addiction. Approximately 75% of people who experienced abuse or violent trauma report struggling with alcohol.8 

Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is frequently diagnosed among individuals with an AUD. In a recent study, most participants were diagnosed with GAD before being diagnosed with an AUD. Study participants with co-occurring anxiety and alcohol use disorders displayed higher levels of worry and more significant history of suicide attempts.9 


Researchers have been trying to understand the explanation for a typical relationship between bipolar disorder and AUD. Currently, the evidence suggests this correlation may be due to a genetic link. Alcohol dependence is more likely among individuals with bipolar than any other mental health diagnosis, aside from antisocial personality disorder.10 


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD is a mental health disorder that typically develops during childhood. Childhood ADHD can lead to substance use problems, including AUD.11 

Borderline Personality Disorders

In a study comparing alcohol cravings between people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and those without, individuals with BPD reported higher cravings.12  


For individuals with schizophrenia, alcohol use disorder is the most common dual diagnosis. Behavioral health experts attribute this to biological and psychosocial factors.13 

Eating Disorders

Behavioral health clinicians have documented the common co-occurrence of AUD and eating disorders among individuals. Recent research has highlighted family epidemiology as a potential factor for these co-occurring disorders.14 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

To effectively treat individuals with co-occurring disorders, clinicians must develop a comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment plan to address both areas. Luckily, behavioral and medication therapies are available to treat comorbid conditions. 

Alcohol Addiction


Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is an evidence-based therapeutic approach to change harmful behaviors and beliefs. 

Medically-assisted Treatment

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone for alcohol use disorder treatment. Although these medications cannot cure AUD, they can reduce cravings and block euphoric effects.15 

Support Groups

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are an excellent tool for developing a sober support network and receiving alcohol addiction help. On the AA website, individuals can find in-person and virtual meetings all over the United States.  


Behavioral therapy and counseling in combination with medication is the gold standard for treating comorbid conditions. Common therapeutic modalities include dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), assertive community treatment (ACT), and motivational interviewing (MI). 


Over the past few decades, neurological professionals have begun using biofeedback to treat substance use disorders (SUD) and co-occurring disorders (COD). Biofeedback is a helpful tool to learn how a person’s brain functions and support alcoholism treatment.16 

Relapse Prevention Programs

In residential and outpatient alcohol addiction treatment programs, relapse prevention is a crucial component. Usually, an individual will work alongside their therapist to create a unique relapse prevention plan.  


If a person is experiencing withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, they will most likely require a medical detox. Medical detox is critical because alcohol withdrawal can present a range of complications, including death. If you or someone you know needs alcohol addiction help, contact a local behavioral health provider for guidance.17 


Counseling is available to individuals that need alcohol addiction help on a short-term and long-term basis. People in active addiction or recovery often choose to pursue alcohol addiction treatment to overcome their addiction and treat their mental health.