Alcohol Use Disorder - Symptoms and Causes (2023)

general description

Alcohol use disorder is a pattern of drinking that includes problems controlling drinking, participating in alcohol use, or continuing to drink alcohol even when it causes problems. This disorder also includes the need to drink more to get the same effect or having withdrawal symptoms when you reduce or stop drinking quickly. Alcohol use disorder involves a level of alcohol consumption that is sometimes called alcoholism.

Unhealthy consumption of alcohol includes any consumption of alcohol that puts your health or safety at risk or causes other alcohol-related problems. It also includes binge drinking: a drinking pattern in which a man has five or more drinks in two hours or a woman has at least four drinks in two hours. Excessive alcohol consumption poses significant health and safety risks.

If your pattern of drinking causes recurring significant distress and problems in your daily life, you likely have alcohol use disorder. It can range from mild to severe. However, even a mild disorder can escalate into serious problems, so early treatment is important.


Alcohol use disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the number of symptoms you experience. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Not being able to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • You want to reduce the amount you drink or are trying unsuccessfully to do so
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, drinking alcohol, or recovering from alcohol use.
  • Feeling a strong craving or desire to drink alcohol.
  • Inability to meet important obligations at work, school, or home due to repeated use of alcohol
  • Continuing to drink alcohol even though you know it is causing you physical, social, work, or relationship problems.
  • Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies due to alcohol use
  • Consuming alcohol in situations where it is not safe, such as while driving or swimming
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol so that you need more to feel its effect or have a reduced effect of the same amount
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, and tremors, when you don't drink or drink to avoid these symptoms.

Alcohol use disorder can include periods of intoxication (alcohol intoxication) and withdrawal symptoms.

  • alcohol poisoningresult as the amount of alcohol in the blood increases. The higher your blood alcohol concentration, the more likely you are to have bad consequences. Alcohol intoxication causes behavior problems and mental changes. These can include inappropriate behavior, unstable moods, poor judgment, slurred speech, attention or memory problems, and poor coordination. You may also have periods called "blackouts," where you don't remember events. Very high blood alcohol levels can lead to coma, permanent brain damage, or even death.
  • alcohol deprivationIt can occur when alcohol use is heavy and prolonged and then stopped or significantly reduced. It can appear within several hours to 4 to 5 days later. Signs and symptoms include sweating, rapid heartbeat, hand tremors, trouble sleeping, nausea and vomiting, hallucinations, restlessness and agitation, anxiety, and sometimes seizures. The symptoms can be severe enough to affect your ability to function at work or in social situations.

What is considered 1 drink?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines a typical drink as any of the following:

  • 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer (about 5% alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 milliliters) malt liquor (about 7% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine (about 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of hard liquor or distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol)

When to see a doctor

If you feel that you sometimes drink too much alcohol, or that your drinking is causing problems, or if your family is concerned about your drinking, talk to your health care provider. Other ways to get help include talking to a mental health professional or seeking help from a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or a similar self-help group.

Because denial is common, you may feel like you don't have a drinking problem. You may not recognize how much you drink or how many problems in your life are related to alcohol use. Listen to your family, friends, or colleagues when they ask you to investigate your drinking habits or seek help. Consider talking with someone who has had a drinking problem but has stopped drinking.

If your loved one needs help

Many people with alcohol use disorder are reluctant to seek treatment because they don't recognize that they have a problem. An intervention by loved ones can help some people to recognize and accept that they need professional help. If you are concerned about someone who is drinking too much, seek the advice of an experienced alcohol treatment professional on how to approach this person.

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Genetic, psychological, social, and environmental factors can influence how drinking affects your body and behavior. Theories suggest that for some people drinking has a different and stronger effect that can lead to alcohol use disorder.

Over time, drinking too much alcohol can change the normal functioning of areas of your brain associated with the experience of pleasure, judgment, and the ability to exercise control over your behavior. This can lead to cravings for alcohol to try to restore the good feelings or reduce the negative ones.

Risk factor's

Alcohol use can begin in adolescence, but alcohol use disorder is most common in your 20s and 30s, although it can start at any age.

Risk factors for alcohol use disorder include:

  • Drink consistently over time.Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis over a long period of time or drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can lead to alcohol-related problems or alcohol use disorder.
  • Starting at an early age.People who start drinking, especially binge drinking, at a young age are at increased risk of alcohol use disorder.
  • Family history.The risk of alcohol use disorder is higher for people who have a parent or other close relative who has a problem with alcohol. This may be influenced by genetic factors.
  • Depression and other mental health problems.It is common for people with a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder to have problems with alcohol or other substances.
  • Trauma history.People with a history of emotional or other trauma are at higher risk for alcohol use disorder.
  • Undergo bariatric surgery.Some research studies show that bariatric surgery may increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder or relapse after recovery from alcohol use disorder.
  • Social and cultural factors.Having friends or a close partner who drinks regularly could increase your risk of alcohol use disorder. The glamorous way drinking is sometimes portrayed in the media can also send the message that it's okay to drink too much. For young people, the influence of parents, peers, and other role models can influence risk.


Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. In some people, the initial reaction may seem like a surge of energy. But as he continues to drink, he becomes drowsy and loses control of his actions.

Too much alcohol affects speech, muscle coordination, and the vital centers of the brain. Too much alcohol can even cause a life-threatening coma or death. This is especially concerning when you take certain medications that also suppress brain function.

Impact on your security

Excessive alcohol consumption can impair judgment and inhibitions, leading to poor decisions and risky situations or behaviors, such as:

  • Car accidents and other types of accidental injuries, such as drowning
  • couple problems
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Increased likelihood of committing violent crimes or being the victim of a crime
  • Legal problems or problems with employment or finances
  • Problems with the use of other substances.
  • Engaging in unsafe and unprotected sex, or sexual assault or date rape
  • Increased risk of attempted or completed suicide

Effect on your health

Drinking too much alcohol at one time or over time can cause health problems such as:

  • Liver disease.Excessive alcohol consumption can cause increased fat in the liver (hepatic steatosis) and inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis). Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can cause irreversible damage and scarring to liver tissue (cirrhosis).
  • Digestive problems.Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), as well as stomach and esophageal ulcers. It can also affect your body's ability to get enough B vitamins and other nutrients. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the pancreas or cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
  • Heart problems.Drinking too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure and increases the risk of an enlarged heart, heart failure, or stroke. Even a single binge can cause a serious irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) called atrial fibrillation.
  • Complications of diabetes.Alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from the liver and can increase the risk of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is dangerous if you have diabetes and are already taking insulin or other diabetes medications to lower your blood sugar.
  • Problems related to sexual function and period.Excessive alcohol consumption can make it difficult for men to maintain an erection (erectile dysfunction). In women, excessive alcohol consumption can stop menstruation.
  • Eye problems.Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can cause rapid, involuntary eye movements (nystagmus), as well as weakness and paralysis of the eye muscles due to vitamin B-1 (thiamine) deficiency. A thiamine deficiency can lead to other brain changes, such as irreversible dementia, if not treated early.
  • Birth defects.Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a miscarriage. It can also cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).CONTACTit can cause a child to be born with lifelong physical and developmental problems.
  • bone damage.Alcohol can interfere with the formation of new bone. Bone loss can lead to thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) and an increased risk of fractures. Alcohol can also damage the bone marrow, which makes blood cells. This can cause a low platelet count, which can lead to bruising and bleeding.
  • Neurological complications.Drinking too much alcohol can affect your nervous system, causing numbness and pain in your hands and feet, confused thinking, dementia, and short-term memory loss.
  • weakened immune system.Excessive alcohol consumption can make it harder for your body to fight disease, increasing your risk of various illnesses, especially pneumonia.
  • Increased risk of cancer.Long-term heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk of many types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, colon, and breast. Even moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Drug and alcohol interactions.Some drugs interact with alcohol, increasing its toxic effects. Drinking while taking these medications can increase or decrease their effectiveness or make them dangerous.


Early intervention can prevent alcohol-related problems in teens. If you have a teen, be on the lookout for signs and symptoms that may indicate an alcohol problem:

  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies and personal appearance
  • Red eyes, slurred speech, coordination problems, and memory lapses
  • Difficulties or changes in relationships with friends, such as joining a new crowd
  • Lower grades and problems at school
  • Frequent mood swings and defensive behavior

You can help prevent teen drinking by:

  • Set a good example with your own alcohol use.
  • Talk openly with your child, spend quality time together, and be an active participant in your child's life.
  • Let your child know what behavior you expect and what the consequences will be if they don't follow the rules.

By Mayo Clinic staff

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