What Is Alcohol Dependence?

Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS

on October 3, 2023

If you drink alcohol on a regular basis, you may develop alcohol dependence. That means your body starts relying on alcohol to function. If you quit or cut down on your drinking, you will likely experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, and nausea.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 219.2 million Americans have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives. 

While popular, alcohol threatens public health, especially when consumed in excess. Excessive drinking often leads to alcohol dependence. Here’s what you should know about this serious medical condition.

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence occurs when you drink so much or so often that your body starts relying on alcohol to function. If you reduce your alcohol intake or stop drinking, you will likely experience withdrawal symptoms. The most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • mood swings
  • trouble thinking clearly
  • trouble sleeping
  • fatigue
  • nightmares
  • shaking
  • sweating 
  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite

Most people develop these symptoms within 8 hours of their last drink. In general, symptoms last a few days, though some people experience them for weeks, especially if they don’t seek professional help.

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Severe Withdrawal & Delirium Tremens

In rare cases, a person may develop a severe, life-threatening form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens. It’s most common in people who drink large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time. Signs include:

  • fever
  • confusion
  • changes in mental function
  • restlessness
  • sensitivity to sound, light, or touch
  • hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there)
  • seizures

Alcohol Dependence Vs. Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol dependence is often a symptom of alcohol addiction (also called alcohol use disorder or AUD). 

In fact, many people use the terms “alcohol dependence” and “alcohol addiction” interchangeably. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), other symptoms of alcohol addiction include:

  • feeling unable to cut down on or quit drinking alcohol even if you want to
  • needing increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel the effects of alcohol (also known as tolerance)
  • drinking more or longer than you intended
  • spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from hangovers
  • craving alcohol so intensely that you can’t think of anything else
  • finding that your use of alcohol causes problems at home, work, or school
  • neglecting activities you once enjoyed in favor of alcohol consumption 

What Causes Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence stems from alcohol misuse. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the two most common types of alcohol misuse are binge drinking and heavy drinking. 

Binge drinking occurs when a female has 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours and a male has 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours. Heavy drinking occurs when a female has more than 3 drinks in one day (or more than 7 drinks per week) and a male has more than 4 drinks in one day (or more than 14 drinks per week). 

You face a higher risk of alcohol misuse and alcohol dependence if you:

  • started drinking at an early age
  • have a family history of substance use disorder
  • experience mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Dangers Of Alcohol Dependence

People with alcohol dependence have an increased risk of both short-term and long-term health problems.

Short-term risks of alcohol dependence include:

  • alcohol poisoning (also called alcohol overdose)
  • accidents, such as motor vehicles crashes, drownings, and falls
  • violence, such as intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and homicide
  • unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease if you have unprotected sex while drunk
  • miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) if you use alcohol while pregnant

Long-term risks of alcohol dependence include:

  • mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety
  • learning and memory problems
  • weakened immune system
  • high blood pressure
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • liver diseases, including hepatitis and cirrhosis 
  • cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum

Alcohol Dependence Treatment Options

If you think you or someone you love is dependent on alcohol, seek help at a medical detoxification program. There, you will receive 24/7 care and supervision as doctors help you get alcohol out of your system. 

Your doctors may ease certain withdrawal symptoms by prescribing medications, such as sleep aids or anti-nausea medications. 

After you complete detox, your doctors might recommend that you transition to an inpatient or outpatient alcohol treatment program. These programs reduce your risk of relapse through interventions such as:

  • therapy, in which a mental health professional helps you manage alcohol cravings and mental health concerns that may have contributed to your alcohol problem
  • medication-assisted treatment (MAT), in which doctors prescribe medications like acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone to reduce alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  • support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, in which you can discuss your experiences with other people in recovery
  • aftercare planning, in which your treatment team helps you identify strategies to maintain your recovery, such as therapy, psychiatry, and wellness activities like journaling and meditation

To learn more about alcohol dependence treatment options, please reach out to Ohio Recovery Center. Our board-certified healthcare providers offer personalized, evidence-based care to help you or your loved one recover from drug abuse.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-use-disorder-comparison-between-dsm
  4. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus https://medlineplus.gov/druguseandaddiction.html
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt39441/NSDUHDetailedTabs2021/NSDUHDetailedTabs2021/NSDUHDetTabsSect2pe2021.htm

Written by Ohio Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Ohio Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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