Alcoholism: Understanding the Risk Factors, Signs, and Effects

Alcoholism, sometimes referred to as alcohol use disorder, is defined by the problematic use of alcohol causing clinically significant impairment or distress. Alcohol use disorder is a common diagnosis affecting approximately 14.5 million people aged 12 and older in 2019.1 With over 14,500 specialized facilities to treat alcohol and substance use disorders, help is available.2

Risk Factors for Developing Alcohol Use Disorder

Risk factors increase the likelihood of someone developing alcohol use disorder or alcoholism. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they will become addicted to alcohol, but it means they have biological, psychological, or social influences that increase the chance.

Two major behavioral risk factors include binge drinking and heavy drinking.3

Binge drinking refers to the pattern of alcohol use that brings your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent or higher.3 For most adults, this pattern of use would be approximately five or more drinks for a man, and four or more drinks for a woman, within a two-hour period.

Heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than four drinks a day, or more than 14 drinks per week for a man. For a woman, heavy drinking is defined as more than three drinks per day, or more than seven drinks per week.3

Additional risk factors for alcoholism include:4

  • Drinking at an early age
  • Genetics
  • Family history of alcohol use disorder
  • Mental health disorders
  • History of trauma

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Alcoholism Signs

To meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, you or your loved one will have experienced at least two symptoms within the last 12 months.5 The symptoms include:5

  • Using alcohol longer and/or in larger amounts than intended
  • Having the desire to cut down or control alcohol consumption but being unable to do so
  • Spending a significant amount of time obtaining alcohol, using alcohol, or recovering from the use of alcohol
  • Craving or having the strong desire to use alcohol
  • Failing to meet major role obligations, including at work or home
  • Continuing to consume alcohol despite recurrent social and interpersonal problems
  • Giving up or reducing social, recreational, and/or occupational activities
  • Being placed in physically hazardous situations due to alcohol consumption
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite psychological or medical problems
  • Developing tolerance (needing more alcohol to get drunk)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly quit

Further alcoholism symptoms may include:

  • Lying about or omitting where you have been
  • Lying about or omitting how much you have had to drink
  • Defending, justifying, or rationalizing your drinking habits
  • Having to call into work due to being hungover
  • Experiencing legal problems due to your alcohol use
  • Experiencing relationship or financial problems directly related to alcohol use
  • Minimizing your drinking and/or the problems associated with it

Harmful Effects of Alcoholism

The use of alcohol can negatively impact your health and overall well-being. The long-term effects of alcoholism can be detrimental and in some cases, irreversible. Some of the dangers of alcoholism include a negative impact on your health include:5,6,7,8,9

  • Blackouts (i.e., impaired memory)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy (associated with thiamine deficiency)
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Changes to the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Pancreatitis
  • Fibrosis of the liver
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Sexual dysfunction (e.g., decreased sexual arousal)
  • Menstrual disorder
  • Reduced fertility
  • Reduced testosterone and sperm production
  • Weakened immune system
  • Cancer, especially head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal
  • Alcohol-induced mental health disorders

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Treatment for Alcoholism

It is never too late to seek treatment for alcohol use disorder. Seeking treatment can help you make positive changes in your life and live a substance-free life. Treatment for alcoholism can include:

  • Inpatient treatment: You live at the facility for the duration of treatment, following a highly structured routine and program.
  • Partial hospitalization programs: A bridge between inpatient and outpatient, you attend at least 20 hours of treatment per week, although often more, and returning home during non-treatment hours.
  • Intensive outpatient programs: A step down from a partial hospitalization program, you receive at least nine hours of therapy, educational groups, and skills training per week on an outpatient basis.
  • Outpatient treatment: The least intensive treatment option, outpatient involves a few hours of treatment per week, once or twice a week.

Inpatient alcoholism treatment includes 24/7 care, which will include services and modalities like:1

  • Biopsychosocial assessment
  • Individualized treatment plan
  • Individual therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Group counseling, including interpersonal process groups
  • Family therapy
  • Case management services
  • Pharmacotherapy
  • Support groups with your peers
  • Plan of continued care

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, likely the most accessible treatment option, are helpful as they connect you with peers and create a sense of camaraderie. However, they are not considered professional treatment, and are often used as aftercare or combined with formal substance abuse care.

Depending on the severity of alcohol use disorder and the potential for dangerous withdrawal, consult with a treatment professional to determine the best fit for your or your loved one’s unique needs.

If you believe you are experiencing any of the symptoms of alcohol use disorder, such as continued use despite consequences, you may be experiencing alcoholism. If you are interested in learning more about what treatment options are available, please call 888-647-0051 (Who Answers?) to speak with one of our treatment support specialists. Remember, no matter your situation, change is possible.


  1. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol facts and statistics.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (Third edition).
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d). Drinking levels defined.
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding alcohol use disorder
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  6. Egervari, G., Siciliano, C., Whiteley, E., & Ron, D. (2021). Alcohol and the brain: From genes to circuits. Trends In Neurosciences, 44(12), 1004-1015.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol’s effects on the body.
  8. Adejumo, A., Akanbi, O., Adejumo, K., & Bukong, T. (2018). Reduced risk of alcohol-induced pancreatitis with cannabis use. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 43(2), 277-286.
  9. Van Heertum, K., & Rossi, B. (2017). Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much?. Fertility Research and Practice, 3(1).


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