Know the Warnings Signs of Alcoholism
While the opioid crisis deservedly gets a lot of attention, it’s important to remember alcohol – legal, accessible, and socially acceptable — kills an estimated 88,000 Americans per year. That’s 24,000 more people killed each year than opioids.
Our familiarity with alcohol sometimes hides the dangers of this drug. And it is a drug just like opioids, crack, or heroin.
And like opioid addiction, no one is immune. Rich, poor, successful, or down and out, alcoholism doesn’t care. Black, white, male or female, it does not discriminate.
Today, however, there is more hope for recovery than ever before. But the first step is recognizing the problem.
Know the Two Major Warning Signs
If you suspect that you or a loved one may suffer from alcohol use disorder, there are two major warning signs to watch for. Like other drug addictions, alcohol abuse victims have a physical dependence on their drug. These signs of dependence should serve as a warning sign.
Warning Sign #1: Tolerance
Can you drink more than others without getting drunk? Do you need to drink more to feel its effects? These are signs that your body has built up a tolerance to alcohol, which means that you need more and more alcohol to feel the same effects. This is a red flag.
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Warning Sign #2: Withdrawal
Do you need a drink to steady the shakes in the morning? Withdrawal symptoms are a flashing red light that you must not ignore. Withdrawal symptoms – which only alcohol can cure — can include:
- Anxiety or jumpiness
- Shakiness or trembling
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
In cases where someone drinks large amounts of alcohol, withdrawal can cause hallucinations, confusion, seizures, fever, and agitation. These symptoms can be dangerous. If you are a heavy drinker, talk to your doctor before you try to quit.
Here are other warning signs you should watch for:
- You’ve lost control over your drinking. Do you end up drinking more than you thought you would, or for longer than you were planning to?
- You want to quit drinking, but you can’t. Have you tried to cut down or stop your alcohol use, but been unsuccessful?
- You have given up other activities because of alcohol. Has drinking taken over for the activities you used to enjoy, the issues that were important to you, and the ways you used to spend your free time?
- Alcohol takes up a great deal of your energy and focus. Do you spend a lot of time drinking, thinking about it, or recovering from its effects? Do you focus your activities on events that revolve around drinking?
- You drink even though you know it’s causing problems. Do you drink despite knowing it causes problems in your marriage, at work, at school? Does it prevent you from keeping up with your responsibilities?
- Alcohol has gotten you into legal trouble. Have you’ve been arrested or had other run-ins with the law more than once because of your alcohol use?
If any of these sounds familiar, you might have a problem with alcohol that needs to be addressed.
The od news is that you have more choices than you might expect. If you want to quit drinking, talking with your primary care provider is an important first step. Your physician can evaluate your overall health and identify medical issues that could complicate treatment. They can also help you find the best treatment option for you.
In general, there are two types of professionally-led treatment:
1. Behavioral treatments — These are also known as counseling or “talk therapy.” These involve identifying and changing the behaviors that lead to your alcohol use. Behavioral treatments are offered in a variety of settings and may be combined with prescribed medications.
At these sessions, the counselor will help you:
- Develop the skills you need to stop or reduce drinking.
- Bolster your ability to manage emotions and stress.
- Help you build a strong social support system.
- Work with you to set reachable goals.
- Help you cope with the triggers that might cause a relapse.
2. Medications — These are non-addictive medicines. Not all people will respond to medications, but for some individuals, they can be an important tool in overcoming alcohol use disorder.
Three medications have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help people with alcohol use disorder:
- Naltrexone blocks the receptors in the brain that are involved in craving alcohol or the rewarding effects of drinking.
- Acamprosate is prescribed to help you maintain abstinence from alcohol by alleviating some negative symptoms of prolonged abstinence.
- Disulfiram is a pill that causes unpleasant symptoms such as nausea and flushing of the skin when a person drinks. These unpleasant effects can help some people refrain from drinking.
A great place to learn about your options is the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Alcohol Treatment Navigator. The site explains the different types of evidence-based treatments found to be most effective and can help you find services locally.
Finding the Right Care
Depending on the severity of your condition and other factors, different people need different combinations of services and settings.
You or a loved one can get treatment in a number of settings:
- Outpatient—visits to a medical doctor’s or therapist’s office, or an outpatient treatment program.
- Inpatient—overnight stays in a hospital, with care provided by doctors and nurses.
- Residential—overnight stays at a treatment program for several weeks, with a full daily schedule of counseling, education, and wellness activities.
Generally, treatment providers suggest starting with an outpatient option first. If more treatment is required, a health professional can recommend an inpatient or residential program.
Wherever you seek treatment, it’s important to look for high-quality care. With decades of scientific research, many health care professionals now offer a flexible mix of approaches that are based on ideas that are proven to be successful.
Your primary care physician may be able to help you find high-quality care. The NIAAA Navigator will help you spot these evidence-based approaches and other signs of higher-quality care on their website.
Remember that you are not alone. There are people who are waiting to support you, and there are programs available to help you. The helping hand you need is very close.
Your family doctor is a great place to start if you are worried about your alcohol use. If you need to find a quality, compassionate doctor near you, to UPMCPinnacle.com/PrimaryLocations.
- Take the online “Am I Alcoholic” Self-Test offered by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to see if you might have an alcohol problem. https://www.ncadd.org/get-help/take-the-test/am-i-alcoholic-self-test
- The NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator site can help you find the treatment options that increase your chance of success.
- For an overview of treatment options, as well as mutual help groups that can complement professionally led treatment, see NIAAA’s Treatment for Alcohol Problems booklet.
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About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.