More than half of Americans ages 18 or older (55.3%) admitted to drinking at least once in the past month, according to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The number was higher when extended to the past year (70%) and their lifetimes (86.3%).
However, less than 6% of these adults were considered to have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which used to be called alcoholism, alcohol dependence, or alcohol addiction.
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) eliminated the terms alcoholic, alcohol dependence, and alcohol abuse in favor of alcohol use disorder (AUD). Whether or not someone’s drinking qualifies as AUD is determined by how one ranks on an 11-point scale.
Occasional heavy drinking doesn’t necessarily mean an AUD, but it can be a warning sign.
How Does Alcohol Addiction Develop?
So, something like half of all adults drink but don’t have an AUD. What determines who will develop alcohol dependence or addiction? Researchers don’t know why exactly, but there seem to be a few indicators, including:
- Age. Those who start drinking in their teens or even early 20s seem more susceptible to addiction.
- Frequency. How often they drink. Drinking changes chemicals in the brain. Abstaining for a few days after drinking usually restores them to normal, though the time it takes to restore them may increase the more and longer you drink.
- Quantity. How much alcohol people consume at one sitting. Binge drinking (four or five drinks or more at one sitting) doesn’t necessarily lead to AUD but may be another contributing factor.
- Depression, anxiety, or other emotional or mental health issues. Some people develop AUD or other substance use disorders (SUDs) by attempting to self-medicate for mental health issues.
- Tolerance. Some people don’t feel or exhibit the symptoms of alcohol use as much as others. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them or that they aren’t as susceptible to alcohol addiction. It can make them drink more, though.
- Family history. There is a genetic component to AUD.
- Significant life-altering or tragic events in their lives. Emotional or physical trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can lead to increased drinking and risk of AUD.
How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Alcohol?
Some people think they can avoid AUD if they only drink a certain amount or only drink for so long before taking a break. That might help, but there is no standard safe quantity or frequency. It varies for each individual and also by the form of addiction: physical or emotional.
Generally, one standard drink per day is considered low-risk for women and two for men. One standard drink is:
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of table wine
- 3 to 4 ounces of fortified wine, such as port or sherry
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, such as vodka or whiskey
More per day might still be considered moderate—although drinking every day might be a warning sign—provided the weekly total doesn’t increase.
How Do You Know When You Are Addicted to Alcohol?
Even though no one knows precisely what causes a given AUD, there are many signs to identify when you have one, such as when you need to:
- Drink more to feel the same effects
- Drink throughout the day, and progressively earlier
- Drink to wind down, de-stress, or cope with the day’s events
- Drink despite the problems it causes with your family, coworkers, and social life
- Drink even though you can’t control how much you drink
- Drink even though you avoid activities or events where you won’t be able to drink
- Drink or you will eventually experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Signs of Withdrawal
Some of these signs might seem a little vague or subjective, but withdrawal is proof that you no longer choose to drink, you must drink to avoid negative consequences. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling irritable, restless, or unsteady
- Rapid heart rate
- Visual hallucinations
Take The First Step Towards Recovery
Talk to a Intake Coordinator
What to Do If You Believe You Are Becoming Addicted
If you believe you are addicted or on the road to it, you need to stop drinking but don’t go it alone. Depending on how severe your AUD is, stopping abruptly can be life-threatening. Locking yourself in a room for a weekend to go cold turkey like in the movies is not safe.
Attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings isn’t enough either, though it can be a good start. It can provide fellowship, sympathy, and support from people who have been or are going through the same thing you are.
To stop drinking in a safer, more comfortable manner, you need professional medical and behavioral help, including:
- Evaluation. An alcohol taper—gradually weaning off of your alcohol consumption— or detox (detoxification) may be needed, followed by one-on-one
- Psychotherapy. Also known as talk therapy, this is one-on-one counseling with a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or other professional to uncover the why behind your addiction (sometimes it is a co-occurring mental health issue), teach new coping skills, and create or strengthen your social support system. Therapies include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Dialectical behavior therapy.
- Motivational interviewing.
- Matrix Model.
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT). No, it’s not trading one drug for another. Using drugs to treat AUD can’t get you drunk, but these drugs discourage alcohol use by blocking the pleasant effects of alcohol or causing unpleasant ones if you drink.
- Aftercare. Addiction is for life, though alcohol use doesn’t have to be. To maintain sobriety, it’s good to have a social support system (family, friends, coworkers), a support group or AA-type fellowship to talk through the rough times with people who have also been there, and follow-up medical and therapy visits.
However long it takes to become addicted to alcohol, it takes a effort and time to recover, and some of the damage may be permanent.
It’s better to prevent that damage by drinking moderately or not at all, avoiding behaviors conducive to alcohol use disorder, and seeking help as soon as you realize you have a problem.
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.