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Omnipresent at social settings and celebrations, alcohol may feel harmless — but it can also be powerfully addictive. Here’s everything you need to know about this legal, but risky drug.

Alcohol is a fermented beverage typically made from grains or fruit. Popular drinks include beer, wine, spirits, and liqueur, all of which have different percentages of alcohol. Beer, for example, is on the lower end at 2-6% alcohol. On the higher end, spirits have 40-50% alcohol.

Alcohol is legal in the United States for adults over the age of 21. According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), a majority of Americans have consumed alcohol within the past year. Its prevalence in social settings and easy accessibility has also made it the most commonly abused drug among teens and adolescents. More teens use alcohol than marijuana, inhalants, or synthetic drugs like K2/Spice.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

Alcohol depresses the nervous system, causing slurred speech, mood changes, slower reaction time and increased risk-taking behavior. The drug also causes dulled senses, including vision and hearing, and weakened muscles. Acting within 10 minutes of consumption, alcohol quickly alters serotonin levels in the brain, changing a person’s mood and outward disposition. Interestingly, alcohol appears to affect women more heavily than men: on average, women will have a higher blood alcohol content (BAC) even when controlling for weight, stomach content, and consumption rate.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse has become a growing problem in recent years despite its prominent place in social settings. Rates of fatal overdose nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017, while emergency room visits rose nearly 50% between 2006 and 2014, the last year for which statistics are available. Women, racial minorities, and older adults have seen the biggest increases in alcohol use. However, men are still more likely than women to have problems with alcohol.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Most social drinkers can relate to the negative short-term effects of alcohol. The headaches, nausea, upset stomach and general discomfort are hallmarks of a “hangover.” But excessive drinking can lead to far more serious consequences than a miserable morning. Binge drinking, defined as having at least three drinks per hour for men and two drinks per hour for women, can also lead to dangerously lowered inhibitions, memory loss, unconsciousness and even death.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Even if you avoid the unpleasant short-term side effects, alcohol can still do long-term damage. Cirrhosis of the liver, digestive system distress, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers are just some of the possible long-term effects of alcohol abuse. Alcohol can also cause pancreatitis, lung infections, and even shrinking of the frontal lobe in the brain. Moreover, alcohol has been associated with a loss of bone density and malnutrition. Alcohol abuse can also trigger or worsen mental illnesses, which can lead to a cycle of self-medication and alcohol dependence.

Alcohol and Addiction

Many people safely use alcohol without becoming addicted, but this experience is not universal. For some individuals, alcohol use can lead to physical dependence and severe withdrawal symptoms, including headache, rapid heart rate, and seizures and even hallucinations. Because of the severity of these symptoms, doctors recommend a medically assisted detox during alcohol abuse recovery.

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Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction

Several risk factors contribute to a person’s chance of developing an alcohol abuse disorder. The most common include: family history of addiction, mental illness, or a habit of excessive alcohol use, such as drinking more than five drinks a day. Ongoing stress or a traumatic experience can also increase the likelihood of alcohol addiction. For adolescents and young adults, other factors become important. Peer pressure, low self-esteem, high-stress environments, or living with an adult who abuses alcohol contribute to the risk of dependence.

If you or a loved one is concerned about your alcohol consumption, consider the following questions:
  • Is your personality different when you drink?
  • Has your drinking caused you to miss important events or appointments?
  • Do you usually end up drunk after deciding to drink?
  • Are you able to limit your alcohol intake?
  • Do you regret decisions you’ve made when intoxicated?
  • Have you tried to consume less alcohol and failed?
  • Do you use alcohol to escape unpleasant feelings?
  • Do you use alcohol to gain confidence in social settings?
  • Have friends or family expressed concern with how often you drink?
  • Have you ignored responsibilities at work because of your drinking?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then you may be using too much alcohol. If someone you know meets these criteria, there are many options to seek help. At Sprout Health Group, we work with experienced clinicians and medical professionals to provide individualized treatment to each client, guiding you through every phase of treatment, from detox to aftercare.

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.