Alcohol Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Alcohol Addiction

While alcohol is legal for over-21s, any form of alcohol abuse can lead to the development of alcohol addiction.

Each year, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) publishes data from NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health). Alcoholism, clinically described as alcohol use disorder has been on the rise in the United States since 2019:

  • 14.5 million U.S. adults had alcohol use disorder in 2019.
  • 29.5 million U.S. adults had alcohol use disorder in 2021.


This guide highlights how addiction to alcohol develops, explores the issue of alcohol abuse vs dependence and addiction, and shows you how to recover from addiction to alcohol.


Alcohol is a chemical compound that is colorless and highly flammable. It is also the most abused addictive substance worldwide.

The most common type of alcohol is known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Produced through fermenting sugars with microorganisms like yeast, alcohol is most commonly consumed in beverages like beers, wines, and distilled spirits. The following are examples of a standard alcoholic drink that contains 14g of alcohol:

  • Beer (12oz, 5% alcohol)
  • Wine (5oz, 12% alcohol)
  • Beer (1.5oz, 40% alcohol)


Alcohol is classified as a CNS depressant, not a stimulant, for the way it affects the central nervous system, leading to:

  • Mood changes
  • Impaired judgment
  • Altered perceptions


If you adhere to moderate drinking guidelines, consuming alcohol is typically safe. Any abusive or excessive patterns of alcohol consumption, whether heavy drinking or binge drinking, can trigger effects on your physical and mental health and increase how long alcohol stays in your system. Alcohol abuse may also cause liver damage and other serious health complications.

man looking away representing alcohol blackout

Is Alcohol Addictive?

Yes, alcohol is addictive. Alcohol is a psychoactive substance that influences the brain’s reward and pleasure centers – the nucleus accumbens –  leading to a sense of euphoria and relaxation.

Regular or heavy drinking, such as binge drinking during the holidays, can prompt changes in brain chemistry and an increased tolerance to alcohol, both of which can contribute to the development of alcohol addiction.

Like all addictions, alcohol use disorder is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain condition. Central to alcohol use disorder is the compulsive intake of alcohol regardless of adverse outcomes. If untreated, alcoholism can be damaging both physically and emotionally. Chronic alcohol abuse may also cause permanent structural and functional brain changes.

While there is no cure for alcohol use disorders, a combination of pharmacological treatments and behavioral interventions typically delivers positive treatment outcomes.

man looking away representing alcohol blackout
A woman stares out the window representing alcohol addiction symptoms
A woman stares out the window representing alcohol addiction symptoms

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol is a depressant of the CNS that inhibits brain activity by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter and amino acid known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

GABA serves as the  primary inhibitory neurotransmitter or chemical messenger in the brain. Substances like alcohol that increase GABA signaling are indicated as sedatives, muscle-relaxants, and anti-anxiety medications. This enhanced signaling also leads to those who consume excessive amounts of alcohol suffering blackouts and memory loss, slurring their speech, and becoming unsteady on their feet.

In the event of sustained alcohol abuse, the brain adapts to increased inhibitory signaling by increasing excitatory signaling through glutamate and other neurotransmitters. It is through these neural adaptations that tolerance to alcohol builds. This often triggers a vicious cycle of increased consumption, physical dependence, and alcohol addiction.

Beyond this, alcohol also boosts the release of endorphins, naturally occurring chemicals associated with relaxation and euphoria. The way alcohol interacts with endorphins may contribute to its addictive properties.

man deep in thought representing signs of fentanyl use

What is the Leading Cause of Alcohol Addiction?

The causes of alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, are complex and vary from person to person. With so many factors that can contribute to the development of alcohol use disorder, it is often challenging to pinpoint a single primary cause. Some of the factors that can contribute to alcohol addiction include:

There is a significant genetic component to alcoholism, meaning that you will be more susceptible to developing alcohol addiction if you have a family history of alcoholism. Most estimates suggest that 50% of your risk profile for alcohol use disorder is genetic.

Factors like a stressful home environment, peer pressure, and exposure to alcohol at a young age can all increase the risk of developing alcohol addiction.
Those with mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) may be more likely to turn to alcohol as a means of coping with their symptoms.
Social factors like living in a culture where heavy drinking is normalized, or having a social circle that encourages excessive drinking, can heighten the chance of developing alcohol addiction.

Evidence shows there is a link between brain trauma and alcoholism. Experiencing traumatic events like physical, emotional and sexual abuse or neglect can lead to alcohol addiction as a way to cope with the distressing feelings associated with the trauma.

Alcohol Addiction Symptoms

While there are many alcohol abuse symptoms, a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder is made based on the diagnostic criteria outlined in DSM-5-TR. The symptoms of alcohol addiction are as follows:

  1. Do you find yourself exceeding your intended alcohol consumption or drinking for longer than planned?
  2. Have you attempted to reduce your alcohol consumption or quit drinking altogether without success?
  3. Does a significant amount of your time revolve around drinking or recovering from alcohol abuse?
  4. Is the idea of having a drink constantly on your mind?
  5. Does your alcohol consumption cause problems in your personal, academic, or professional life?
  6. Have you sacrificed time previously spent on hobbies and interests to make room for more drinking?
  7. Has your tolerance for alcohol increased to the point where you require more to achieve the same effects?
  8. Do you engage in risky behavior after consuming alcohol?
  9. Do you continue drinking even when experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression?
  10. Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off?
  11. Despite the negative consequences, do you persist in drinking alcohol?

Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed according to the number of symptoms that present as mild (2 or 3 symptoms), moderate (4 or 5 symptoms), or severe (6 or more symptoms).



adults in the U.S. had alcohol use disorder in 2019.


people in the U.S. suffer from liver disease due to alcohol.


increased chance of stroke for binge drinkers vs. non-bingers.

Effects of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction can trigger many negative effects on your physical and mental health, as well as impacting your personal and professional lives. While some people believe they can be a functioning alcoholic, alcohol addiction is too destructive to not be a negative influence on someone’s life. Some of the most common effects of alcohol addiction include:

Heavy and prolonged drinking can cause liver damage, heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
Alcohol addiction can contribute to the development or inflammation of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Alcohol addiction can strain personal relationships and lead to social isolation, conflict with family and friends, and difficulty maintaining romantic relationships.
Alcohol addiction can lead to job loss, financial difficulties, and reduced productivity and performance at work.
Driving under the influence of alcohol can lead to legal consequences such as fines, loss of driving privileges, and even incarceration.
Alcohol addiction can impair judgment and lead to risky behaviors like unprotected sex, drug use, and criminal activity.
When someone with alcohol addiction tries to stop drinking or reduce their alcohol intake, they may experience withdrawal symptoms that include anxiety, irritability, tremors, and potentially life-threatening seizures.


Alcohol is commonly paired with cigarettes and caffeine. Many rehab centers for alcoholics see numerous combinations with stronger substances. Both caffeine and Adderall are stimulants, which can lead to blackouts because a drinker may not feel the effects of alcohol during consumption. Other drugs such as painkillers and cocaine are commonly mixed but should not be because the result can be fatal.

Alcohol Addiction Test

One of the most common and straightforward alcohol addiction tests is the CAGE questionnaire. The questionnaire consists of the following four questions:

  1. Have you previously felt that you needed to cut down your alcohol consumption?
  2. Have other people annoyed you by criticizing your alcohol consumption?
  3. Has your alcohol intake caused you to feel guilty?
  4. Have you ever felt the need to drink an alcoholic eye-opener first thing in the morning?


Two or more positive responses indicate a possible problem with alcohol abuse that warrants evaluation by a medical professional.

Here is another short quiz you can attempt if you are concerned about alcohol abuse and addiction:

  1. Is your life becoming increasingly unmanageable because of alcohol abuse?
  2. Are you prioritizing alcohol use over your responsibilities?
  3. Have you been hiding your alcohol use?
  4. Are your sleep patterns, appetite, and general health being affected by alcohol use?
  5. Do you use alcohol as a coping mechanism?
  6. Are you experiencing financial difficulties due to alcohol abuse?

1) Is your life becoming increasingly unmanageable because of alcohol abuse?

Most people with an active addiction will tell you that life becomes chaotic. The very first step of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program states that: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For anyone with a busy lifestyle, an alcohol addiction can easily lead to meltdown. After all, you can only juggle so many balls before some start tumbling to the floor. Make sure you focus on the things that count in life before alcohol abuse takes center stage.

2) Are you prioritizing alcohol use over your responsibilities?

If you find yourself letting responsibilities slide at home, work, or school in favor of alcohol use, this is a common red flag indicating that dependence is building.

Ask yourself searchingly how much of your time is being sucked away on obtaining, using, and recovering from alcohol. If your daily routine is being adversely impacted, you may consider reassessing your priorities.

3) Have you been hiding your alcohol use?

Denial often accompanies addiction. Anyone concerned about their alcohol use has likely probably been asked questions by concerned loved ones about their consumption. When someone asks how much you drink, do you answer honestly, or do you try to play down your alcohol intake?

If you start lying about your alcohol consumption, or if you start concealing the evidence of your alcohol use, a more serious problem could be developing.

4) Are your sleep patterns, appetite, and general health being affected by alcohol use?

Alcohol has the potential to disrupt your sleeping patterns when abused. Short-term lack of sleep makes you irritable and fatigued, but long-term sleep deprivation can trigger serious health consequences.

5) Do you use alcohol as a coping mechanism?

Maybe you have a stressful job and work long, demanding hours. If so, and if you appear to be functioning fully, maybe a bottle of wine or a few beers with dinner seems acceptable or justifiable.

To determine whether you might be using alcohol as a coping mechanism, ask yourself this: could you just as easily go without alcohol? If that idea seems unpalatable or, worse, unmanageable, it might be worth consulting your healthcare provider and requesting a referral for an assessment and diagnosis.

6) Are you experiencing financial difficulties?

How much of your income do you use for alcohol? Maybe you are going without things in order to buy alcohol, or perhaps you are solvent but eating into your cash reserves. Either way, if you find your financial situation being impaired, this could be an early warning marker of alcohol addiction developing.

Note: online alcohol addiction screening tests are not a replacement for evaluation by a healthcare provider. If you are concerned about your alcohol consumption, seek help from a qualified medical professional or mental health professional. To shortcut the process, reach out to Gratitude Lodge.

Gratitude Lodge’s Alcohol Rehab

The most effective alcohol addiction treatment typically begins with a supervised medical detox, and we can help you achieve this at Gratitude Lodge in Southern California.

We have pet-friendly rehab centers located in Southern California. Our supervised detox program streamline alcohol withdrawal and minimizes the chance of cravings or withdrawal symptoms derailing your early recover. Medication-assisted treatment may be effective both during detox and throughout ongoing treatment for alcohol addiction. When you are ready to begin your journey to sober living, call Gratitude Lodge today to get help for yourself or learn how to help an alcoholic.

an image of Gratitude Lodge's alcohol rehab in Southern California

Alcohol Addiction FAQS

The time it takes for an individual to develop alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, can vary significantly. It is influenced by various factors, including genetic predisposition, individual biology, environment, and patterns of alcohol consumption.

Some people may develop alcohol addiction relatively quickly, within a span of a few months or even weeks, particularly if they engage in heavy or binge drinking. Others may develop alcohol dependence over a more extended period, often as a result of consistent, long-term alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are related to problematic alcohol consumption, but they represent different stages or patterns of alcohol-related disorders.

Alcohol abuse refers to the recurrent use of alcohol despite negative consequences. It involves excessive drinking that leads to problems in various areas of life, such as relationships, work, or legal issues. Individuals who engage in alcohol abuse may experience difficulties but have not yet developed a physical dependence on alcohol.

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a more severe condition. It is characterized by both a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. People with alcoholism often exhibit compulsive drinking behaviors and experience withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit or cut back on alcohol. Alcoholism can have significant negative effects on an individual’s physical and mental health, relationships, and overall well-being.

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