Alcohol Use Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

Alcohol use disorder, causes, symptoms and treatment
A man holding a glass of alcohol
  • Aspire
  • Substance Use DisorderBlog

When we talk about Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), we’re peering into a world where drinking isn’t just a toast to joy, but a chain that binds many to a cycle of dependency. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll navigate through the foggy roads of AUD’s symptoms, dig into its root causes, and explore the various recovery centers all while keeping our conversation light and insightful.

Overview: What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder

To understand what is alcohol use disorder, it’s important to know that AUD is a medical diagnosis given when an individual’s drinking causes distress or harm. It encompasses various conditions such as alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, and alcoholism. AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.

The severity of alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe, based on the number of symptoms experienced. Symptoms of alcohol use disorder can include strong cravings for alcohol, inability to limit drinking, continuing to drink despite negative consequences, and physical withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Wanting to cut down on how much you drink or making unsuccessful attempts to do so
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, getting alcohol, or recovering from alcohol use
  • Feeling a strong craving or urge to drink alcohol
  • Failing to fulfill major obligations at work, school, or home due to repeated alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink alcohol even though you know it’s causing physical, social, or interpersonal problems
  • Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies
  • Using alcohol in situations where it’s not safe, such as when driving or swimming
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol so you need more to feel its effect or you have a reduced effect from the same amount
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink, such as nausea, sweating, and shaking

The presence of at least two of these symptoms indicates an alcohol use disorder. The severity of AUD is defined as mild (presence of 2 to 3 symptoms), moderate (presence of 4 to 5 symptoms), or severe (presence of 6 or more symptoms).

When to See a Doctor

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

Is Alcohol Use Disorder a Disease?

Yes, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is recognized as a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using. Like other chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease, AUD often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Substance use disorder, which includes AUD, can be quite challenging and complex to deal with. It requires continuous treatment and support in order to effectively manage the condition.

The brain changes associated with alcohol use disorder can make it difficult for people to control their use even when it has serious negative consequences. This loss of control is a hallmark of addiction. Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition, not a moral failing or lack of willpower.

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Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder

A man pouring alcohol in the glass

A combination of genetic, psychological, social, and environmental factors can increase the risk factors for alcohol use disorder. Understanding the alcohol use disorder causes is crucial for preventing and treating this complex condition.


Genetics play a role, with hereditability approximately 60 percent. That means that genes account for about half of the risk for AUD. Environmental factors, along with gene and environment interactions account for the remainder of the risk. People with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to develop AUD.

Psychological Factors

Psychological factors that may increase risk for problematic drinking include:

  • High levels of impulsivity
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor coping skills
  • Mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD
  • Trauma exposure, especially in childhood

Alcohol use may be an attempt to self-medicate difficult emotions, experiences, and mental health concerns.

Social and Environmental Factors

Social and environmental factors play a significant role in the development of alcohol use disorder. These factors can influence drinking habits and contribute to the risk factors for alcohol use disorder

Some of the riskiest social and environmental alcohol use disorder causes include:

  • Exposure to alcohol abuse in the home
  • Permissive parenting around alcohol use
  • Easy access to alcohol in the teen years
  • Peer pressure to drink to excess
  • Stressful life transitions like loss of a loved one, job loss, or divorce

While none of these factors guarantee problematic drinking, they do increase the risk, especially in combination with other risk factors.

Alcohol Use Disorder Diagnosis

An alcohol use disorder diagnosis is a process that involves a comprehensive evaluation by a healthcare professional. The diagnostic criteria for AUD are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the standard classification system used by mental health professionals in the United States.

During the diagnostic process, a healthcare provider will ask detailed questions about an individual’s drinking habits, patterns, and behaviors. They will inquire about the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption, as well as any unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop drinking. The healthcare professional will also assess the presence and severity of alcohol use disorder symptoms, such as:

  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Tolerance (needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect)
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Neglecting responsibilities due to alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences

In addition to evaluating symptoms of alcohol use disorder, the healthcare provider will also ask about the impact of drinking on various aspects of life, such as relationships, work, school, and health. They may inquire about any legal, financial, or social problems that have arisen due to alcohol use.

As part of the alcohol use disorder diagnosis, a physical examination may be conducted to assess the individual’s overall health and to look for any physical signs of alcohol misuse, such as liver damage, high blood pressure, or digestive issues. Blood tests may also be ordered to check for elevated liver enzymes, which can indicate liver damage, and to screen for other alcohol-related health problems.

It’s important to note that an AUD diagnosis is not based on a single factor or symptom, but rather on a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s drinking patterns, symptoms, and the impact of alcohol use on their life. The DSM criteria for alcohol use disorder specify that at least two symptoms must be present within a 12-month period for a diagnosis to be made.

The severity of AUD is determined by the number of symptoms present:

  • Mild: 2-3 symptoms
  • Moderate: 4-5 symptoms
  • Severe: 6 or more symptoms

An accurate alcohol use disorder diagnosis is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan. By identifying the presence and severity of AUD, healthcare professionals can recommend appropriate interventions, which may include behavioral therapies, medications, support groups, and lifestyle changes. A comprehensive AUD assessment also helps to identify any co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, which may require additional treatment.

If you suspect that you or someone you know may have alcohol use disorder, it’s essential to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional. They can perform a thorough assessment, provide an accurate diagnosis, and recommend the most appropriate course of treatment to help manage symptoms, reduce risk factors, and promote long-term recovery.

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Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

A person saying no to alcohol use

Treatment for alcohol use disorder aims to help people stop drinking to avoid the psychological, legal, financial, social, and physical consequences that can result from problematic drinking.

Treatment may involve a brief intervention, individual or group counseling, an outpatient program, or a residential inpatient stay. Working to stop drinking is very important to avoid the negative consequences of excessive alcohol use, but quitting is often accompanied by uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms which can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Headache
  • Insomnia

Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even dangerous for some people. Medically supervised detox can provide support to ease withdrawal symptoms and prevent complications for those who need it.

Behavioral Treatments

Counseling and therapy for groups and individuals help people identify the root causes of their alcohol use, repair relationships, and learn healthier coping skills and ways to prevent relapse. Common behavioral treatments include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people identify and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to drinking.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy uses motivational interviewing principles to help people build and strengthen their motivation to change drinking behavior.
  • Marital and family counseling incorporates spouses and family members to repair and improve family relationships.
  • Brief interventions are short, one-on-one or small-group counseling sessions that provide personalized feedback and advice.


Medications can help people stop drinking and avoid relapse. Three medications are currently FDA-approved for treating alcohol use disorder:

  • Naltrexone blocks the receptors involved in the rewarding effects of alcohol. It reduces cravings and the amount of alcohol consumed on drinking days.
  • Acamprosate works on multiple brain systems to reduce cravings, especially just after someone stops drinking.
  • Disulfiram causes unpleasant effects such as nausea and flushing of the skin when a person drinks alcohol. Knowing the unpleasant effects will occur if they drink alcohol can help some people avoid drinking.

Medications are most effective when used along with behavioral therapy and social support.

Support Groups

Support groups provide peer support and accountability to help people focus on sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous is a free self-help group where members support each other in their sobriety. Many people benefit from the social support and structure provided by mutual support groups.

Residential Treatment

Residential or inpatient treatment can provide intensive therapy, support, and planning for recovery for people who have been unable to stop drinking with other treatment approaches or who have co-occurring mental health conditions. Residential treatment centers offer a supportive environment free of alcohol with medical support and intensive therapy to build coping and relapse prevention skills.

Living With Alcohol Use Disorder

2 people frustated with alcohol use

Recovery from alcohol use disorder is a journey, not a destination. With treatment, many people are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives. But relapse is common, especially during times of stress or when the supportive structure of treatment ends. AUD is a chronic disease, so ongoing support through therapy, medications, lifestyle changes, and support groups is often needed to prevent relapse and maintain sobriety.

Relapse Prevention

An important part of AUD treatment is learning skills to prevent relapse. Helpful techniques include:

  • Identifying and avoiding high-risk situations
  • Building a strong sober support network
  • Managing stress in healthy ways
  • Finding alternative ways to relax and have fun
  • Continuing to attend therapy or support group meetings

With a solid relapse prevention plan, a person is more likely to maintain sobriety even when faced with triggers.

Lifestyle Changes

Making healthy lifestyle choices can aid recovery and help repair some of the physical and psychological damage caused by alcohol misuse.

Some of the most important healthy lifestyle changes include:

  • Eating a healthy diet rich in essential nutrients
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing
  • Prioritizing sleep
  • Avoiding caffeine and nicotine
  • Staying hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is especially important since alcohol use can lead to dehydration. A healthy lifestyle supports both physical and mental health in recovery.

Helping a Loved One With AUD

Watching a loved one struggle with alcohol use disorder can be painful. Although you can’t force someone to get sober, your support can encourage them to seek help.

Some tips for supporting a loved one:

  • Express your concerns in a caring way
  • Avoid criticizing or shaming
  • Offer to help them find treatment
  • Avoid enabling behaviors by setting clear boundaries
  • Take care of your own well-being and seek support for yourself if needed

Recovery is most successful when a person’s support network gets involved. Consider attending counseling sessions with your loved one if asked and look for support groups for families and friends of people with AUD.


Are you or a loved one struggling with alcohol addiction? Aspire Recovery Center of Frisco can help.

Our compassionate experts understand the unique challenges of alcohol use disorder (AUD). We offer personalized treatment plans to address the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of recovery.

Aspire Frisco’s substance use programs can support you with:

  • Evidence-based therapies: Counseling and behavioral strategies to develop new coping mechanisms and prevent relapse.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (if suitable): Can help manage cravings and support sustained sobriety.
  • Holistic support: We address the whole person to promote lasting recovery.

You don’t have to fight this alone. Take the first step towards healing and a brighter future. Contact Aspire Frisco today and let us support you on your journey to recovery.

Call 469-249-9363 or email


Frequently Asked Questions

Girl offering a glass of beer containing alcohol

1. How can I tell if I have alcohol use disorder?

If you find it difficult to control your alcohol consumption, continue to drink despite negative consequences, spend a lot of time drinking, feel strong cravings for alcohol, or experience physical withdrawal symptoms, you may have AUD. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you suspect you have a problem with alcohol.

2. Is alcohol use disorder curable?

AUD is a chronic disease, meaning it cannot be cured but can be managed with treatment. Many people are able to achieve and maintain sobriety with a combination of behavioral therapy, medications, peer support, and lifestyle changes.

3. How long does treatment for AUD last?

The length of treatment depends on the severity of the disorder and the type of treatment. Brief interventions can be as short as one to four sessions, while longer outpatient or inpatient programs can last several months. Ongoing therapy and peer support are often recommended long-term to maintain recovery.

4. Can I recover from AUD on my own?

Overcoming AUD on your own is very difficult and potentially dangerous due to the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms. Professional treatment and support substantially increase the likelihood of achieving and maintaining sobriety.

5. What should I do if I relapse?

Relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed. Reach out for help immediately, whether by contacting your therapist, going to a support group meeting, or talking to a trusted friend or family member. Relapse is often a sign that you need to adjust your treatment plan with additional support and coping strategies.

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