April is National Alcohol Awareness Month
As the nation continues to grapple with the opioid epidemic, it can be easy to forget opioids are not in fact our nation’s most widely abused drugs. Despite the headlines, the increase in use of opioids like heroin and fentanyl, and the tragic increase in opioid overdose deaths, the most widely abused drug in the U.S. continues to be legal and accessible across our communities. That drug is alcohol.
Although I in no way mean to minimize the significant problems associated with the opioid epidemic, the fact that alcohol is legal has perhaps made us less conscious of its impact. And the impact of alcohol abuse is substantial.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 88,000 U.S. deaths are caused by excessive alcohol use annually, making it the third most common life-style related cause of death (behind smoking and poor diet/lack of exercise). By way of comparison, that’s almost twice the number of deaths from opioid overdoses – approximately 47,600 in 2017.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), problem drinking that becomes severe is given the medical diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD).
AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using. NIAAA estimates 16 million people in the United States have AUD, including more than 600,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17.
Risk factors for AUD include a family history of alcoholism, the age at which a person first drinks alcohol, or having a partner or friends that drink excessively. Some mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, have also been shown to increase the risk of an AUD.
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a number of physical health problems – memory problems, chronic disease (such as high blood pressure, stroke and liver disease) and cancers of the esophagus, liver, throat and colon, among others – as well as behaviors that can increase the risk of unintentional injuries, violence and sexually transmitted infections.
Of course, many people can drink alcohol responsibly and not encounter health or social problems. Because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable, it can be easy to overlook problem drinking, or to rationalize excessive drinking as the result of stress or just ‘blowing off steam’ once in a while. But the fact is, excessive drinking is a risk factor for alcohol dependence.
While diagnosis of AUD comes from a doctor or treatment professional, if you are concerned that you or a loved might have a drinking problem, there are some simple questions you can ask to determine if there might be a problem. For example, you might be at risk of an AUD if in the past year you:
Had times when you ended up drinking more or longer than you intended.
More than once wanted or tried to cut down or stop drinking but couldn’t.
Spent a lot of time drinking or being sick from the aftereffects.
Found that drinking or being sick from drinking often interfered with home, family, job or school.
Gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt.
Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious.
Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want.
Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these issues from drinking, there may be a problem and it is important to get help – so talk to your doctor or local treatment agency.
Like any substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe and have a wide range of consequences for an individual. But, also like any other substance use problem, recovery is always possible.
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.