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Alcohol Addiction: Statistics, Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Alcohol addiction, or what is commonly diagnosed as an alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic but treatable medical condition where it is difficult to control your use of alcohol, even after drinking has negatively impacted your health, work, or other areas of your life.5 Fortunately, there are highly effective treatment programs that can help people with AUD. This page will help you understand more about alcohol use disorders, the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction, and treatment options for severe to mild AUD. 

Alcohol is one of the most used substances around the world and plays a significant role in many cultures and societies.1 Alcohol misuse also has a profoundly negative global public health impact. Each year, there are an estimated 3 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide.2

In 2020, approximately 28 million people had a past-year alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the United States alone. In the U.S., adults use alcohol more than any other drug and nearly 33% of adults will struggle with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) during their lifetime.3, 4

AUD is a medical condition characterized by continued, compulsive drinking despite its adverse consequences.5 Alcohol use occurs along a spectrum that can range from casual drinking to episodic heavy use to more compulsive misuse, or addiction. Alcohol misuse can involve drinking in harmful ways, such as occasional binge drinking which increases the risk of alcohol poisoning, though any pattern of problematic use can increase the risk of AUD, or addiction.5

Severity of Alcohol Use and AUD in the U.S. and Worldwide Infographic

What Is Alcohol?

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is the intoxicating component of many different types of alcoholic beverages (e.g., beer, distilled spirits, wine).6 When people consume alcoholic drinks, the body progressively breaks down ethanol into the chemical compounds acetaldehyde and acetate, and then ultimately eliminates them as carbon dioxide and water.6

Alcohol by volume (ABV) is a measure of how much ethanol is in an alcoholic beverage. A “standard” drink in the U.S. contains approximately 14 grams of pure ethanol, but the rate at which the body eliminates alcohol depends on various environmental and genetic factors.7, 8 Age, race, sex, liver function, body composition, nutritional status, and other factors can all influence how long alcohol stays in your system by modifying the rate by which it is metabolized and eliminated.8 Beer, distilled spirits, wine, and other types of alcohol also have different amounts of alcohol content, which is why it’s important to understand how much alcohol a drink contains.7

The Short-Term Effects 

The short-term effects of alcohol can vary greatly depending on a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and their level of alcohol tolerance.9

As a person’s BAC increases, they may show different signs of intoxication. For example, a person with a BAC of 0.02 to 0.08 may begin to experience some loss of coordination and changes in behavior and mood; as BAC rises from 0.08 to 0.20, coordination continues to decline, at which point a person might begin to exhibit more slurred speech and have trouble walking; a person with a BAC of 0.20 to 0.30 may experience memory blackouts, nausea, vomiting, and be at risk for choking due to profound sedation.9

All told, as BAC levels rise, the acute intoxicating or short-term effects may include:9

  • Changes in behavior and mood.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Reduced coordination.
  • Impaired ability to drive.
  • Impaired judgment and thinking.
  • Decreased alertness.
  • Memory blackouts.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Falling body temperature and blood pressure.
  • Amnesia.
  • Incontinence.
  • Coma.
  • Marked slowing of breathing and pulse.
  • Death.

Signs of Addiction

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol misuse or alcohol use disorder (AUD), there are several potential physical and behavioral signs that you might recognize. In clinical settings, alcohol use disorders are professionally diagnosed based on the presence of 2 or more of these characteristic signs, symptoms, and behavioral changes manifesting within a 12-month period. As outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), these criteria include:12

  1. Drinking more alcohol or continuing to drink for a longer time than intended.
  2. An inability to lessen alcohol consumption despite wanting to do so.
  3. Spending a great deal of time obtaining, using, and recovering from alcohol consumption.
  4. Craving alcohol or experiencing strong urges to drink.
  5. An inability to meet expectations or fulfill obligations due to alcohol consumption (e.g., home, school, or work responsibilities).
  6. Consuming alcohol despite persistent interpersonal and social problems caused or worsened by its effects.
  7. Reducing occupational, recreational, or social activities due to alcohol consumption.
  8. Consuming alcohol in situations where it is physically hazardous to do so.
  9. Consuming alcohol despite persistent physical and psychological problems caused or worsened by the effects of alcohol.
  10. Developing a tolerance (e.g., needing more alcohol to feel its intoxicating effects).
  11. Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing consumption or needing to continue drinking to avoid such symptoms.

There are several types of screening instruments and self-assessments available that may help you identify a problem as well.13 However, because alcohol addiction is a lifelong disease and a diagnosis carries potentially dangerous implications, it’s best to speak honestly with a healthcare professional who can provide a thorough evaluation to most accurately diagnose you.13 

Addiction is Treatable Infographic

Am I Addicted to Alcohol?

Take our “Am I Addicted to Alcohol” self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with alcohol addiction. The self-assessment consists of 11 “Yes” or “No” questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the probability and severity of a substance use disorder (SUD). The test is free and confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

​​It is not entirely well understood why some people may be more at risk of developing AUD than others. It is likely that there is a somewhat complex interplay of both environmental and genetic factors that, together, contribute to the development of the compulsive patterns of alcohol use commonly seen in those with alcohol addiction, or AUD. However, we do have some understanding of a neurochemical basis for what drives continued, problematic drinking.

Similar to other addictive substances, alcohol is thought to be associated with increased dopamine activity.10 Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical signaling molecule in the brain, involved with movement, motivation, and reward-seeking.10, 11 Increased dopamine activity can reinforce what we perceive as pleasurable experiences—in this instance, drinking—and as a result, compel us to repeat what led to the experience time and again.11

AUD & The Brain

Alcohol can affect the brain in various ways. It impedes the brain’s communication pathways and can also affect the way the brain looks and functions. With continued, long-term, heavy drinking, the brain may experience alterations in its neurons.17 Additionally, alcohol misuse may cause lasting changes in the brain and perpetuate an AUD—which also makes people more susceptible to relapse.5

Alcohol misuse may also impact the brain through loss of memories. Alcohol-induced blackouts leave gaps in someone’s memory of events that happened while they were under the influence. The brain is unable to transfer memories from short-term to long-term storage because alcohol creates a temporary block.17

Alcohol can change both the structure of the brain and the functional regulation of key brain systems—those that control behavior including reward processing, impulse control, and emotional regulation.18

What Increases the Risk of Alcohol Addiction?

​​There isn’t one specific factor that causes a person to be an alcoholic, but rather alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the result of a complex interaction of several factors. These factors and more can all play a role in a person developing AUD:5

  • Genetics, including a family history of alcohol problems.
  • Environmental issues, such as exposure to childhood trauma, parental drinking behavior, and other individual life experiences.
  • Starting to drink at a relatively early age.
  • A history of problematic drinking, including repeated heavy drinking and/or binge drinking over time.
  • The presence of additional mental health issues.

What Are the Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction?

If you or a loved one has an alcohol use disorder (AUD), it may be time to get into a professional alcohol addiction treatment. The good news is, no matter how severe the problem may seem, addiction is a treatable disorder and recovery is possible.14

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that around 33% of people who receive treatment for an alcohol problem have no further symptoms 1 year later and many others can significantly reduce their drinking and have fewer alcohol-related problems.14

Like other types of chronic disease, addiction isn’t “cured,” but it can be successfully managed through a combination of therapies and services.15 What works for one person may not work for another, but effective treatment can be tailored to individual recovery needs. Understanding the types of treatment options can be an empowering and important first step on the path to recovery.15

If you or a loved one is struggling with AUD, treatment may be available at a rehab center near you or out of state. You can also learn more about the various treatment options by contacting your primary care physician (PHP) or a mental health practitioner.

How to Check Your Insurance Coverage for Alcohol Addiction Rehab

Searching for a rehab facility can feel overwhelming but knowing ahead of time what your insurance will cover can give you peace of mind. To learn about your specific coverage, you can:

  1. Contact American Addiction Centers at to speak with an admissions navigator. You’ll be able to share your story, discuss treatment options, verify your insurance, and start the admissions process when you’re ready.
  2. Fill out the form below to check what your plan covers.