What is an Alcoholic? Alcohol Use Disorders Explained

Alcohol use disorders are extremely common in the United States, with nearly 15 million people ages 12 and older reporting having an AUD.1

Despite their prevalence, AUDs can be tricky to understand. When someone refers to an alcoholic, they are most likely referring to someone who has an alcohol use disorder. However, different terms have been used interchangeably to refer to a person’s unhealthy alcohol use for centuries.

Confused yet? That’s okay. Whether you are attempting to understand alcoholism for the first or fiftieth time, you’ve likely arrived with some questions – and we’re here to answer your questions and help you understand AUDs.

Is having an alcohol use disorder the same thing as being an “alcoholic”?

What types of alcohol use disorders exist? Read on to discover the answers to these pertinent questions.

An alcoholic man suffering from alcohol use disorder is drinking a glass of liquor while sitting next to bottles of alcohol.

What is an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, an alcohol use disorder is “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” An AUD may range from being mild or moderate to severe. However, only a licensed doctor can diagnose an alcohol use disorder and determine whether an AUD is mild, moderate, or severe.2

AUDs encompass all of the conditions that various people may refer to as alcoholism, alcohol addiction, alcohol abuse, or alcohol dependence. So, if someone calls another person an “alcoholic”, they might actually be speaking about someone with a mild, moderate, or severe AUD.2

Doctors use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), to diagnose AUDs and determine the severity of an AUD if it’s present.

Criteria for an AUD, according to the DSM-5, are as follows:

  • You spend a lot of time drinking or trying to obtain alcohol.
  • You struggle to stop drinking alcohol and have had many failed attempts to cut back on your alcohol use.
  • Continuing to drink despite legal, financial, and personal consequences.

Just because someone has “problems with alcohol” or engages in binge drinking does not mean that they have an alcohol use disorder. However, binge drinking may place people at a higher risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorders

Alcohol use disorders inflict people of all ages, races, religions, genders, and socio-economic statuses. However, certain factors can increase the risk of someone developing an alcohol use disorder at some point in their life. Some of these risk factors include:3

  • Drinking at an early age. Drinking at an early age can negatively impact a developing brain.
  • Genetics and family history. Certain genetic predispositions may be a contributing factor to the cause or development of an alcohol use disorder. Those who have parents or other family members with substance use disorders or substance abuse problems may be at a higher likelihood for developing a substance use disorder.
  • Other co-occurring mental health conditions or a history of trauma. People with co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, a personality disorder, an eating disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may be at an increased likelihood for developing a substance use disorder (SUD) of any kind, including an AUD.
  • Gender.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms (And Their Dangers)

When someone has drunk heavily for long periods of time, their body may adjust to having alcohol in their system – this is called dependence. After someone adjusts to having alcohol in their system, or “depends” on it for normal bodily functioning, they may begin to need more alcohol to produce the same euphoric effects and keep their body in overall homeostasis. This is called tolerance. If someone develops dependence, they’ve also likely developed tolerance to alcohol.

Developing a tolerance to alcohol is dangerous, mainly because it requires that a person drinks more to receive the same effects they once did from drinking less amounts of alcohol.

If someone develops an alcohol use disorder, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking alcohol. However, if someone is indeed dependent upon alcohol, they will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop consuming this drug.

Withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous and even deadly. Withdrawal symptoms of alcohol dependence may begin within 8 hours of someone’s last drink, and may encompass:4

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Fatigue.
  • Irritability.
  • Nightmares.
  • Headache.
  • Sweating.
  • Clamminess.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Tremor of hands and body.
  • Fever.
  • Seizures.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Severe confusion.

Please keep in mind that alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, so if you are unsure of whether you will experience alcohol withdrawal, it is best to speak with your physician and determine whether you may or may not need the assistance of a medical detox center.

Reach out to Hotel California by the Sea

We specialize in treating addiction and other co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD. Our Admissions specialists are available to walk you through the best options for treating your addiction.

Potential Negative Consequences of Alcohol Use Disorders

Unfortunately, alcohol use disorders can wreak havoc on your health and also the health and wellbeing of those around you.

Even those who do not qualify for an alcohol use disorder can still experience negative health impacts as a result of their drinking.

For example, long term drinking may cause conditions such as:5

  • High blood pressure.
  • Heart disease.
  • Stroke.
  • Liver disease.
  • Digestive symptoms.
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, and other parts of the body.
  • Learning/memory issues.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Mental health conditions or issues, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Social and marital issues.
  • Professional problems.
  • Unemployment.
  • Alcohol use disorders or alcohol dependence.

Additionally, besides the potential long term health consequences of drinking, alcohol increase the risk for negative short-term consequences, such as injuries (including a higher risk for motor vehicle crashes), alcohol poisoning, violence, risky sexual behaviors, miscarriages, stillbirth and more.

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Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorders

Though alcohol use disorders are chronic, relapsing brain conditions, recovering from alcohol abuse is not only possible, but probable, with the proper treatment. What is “proper treatment” for one patient may differ greatly from what is proper treatment for another patient, which is why it’s essential for healthcare providers to practice individualized and customized treatment for alcohol use disorder patients.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), successful addiction treatment should revolve around the following principles, understandings, and assumptions:6

  • “Addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior.
  • No single treatment is right for everyone.
  • People need to have quick access to treatment.
  • Effective treatment addresses all of the patient’s needs, not just his or her drug use.
  • Staying in treatment long enough is critical.
  • Counseling and other behavioral therapies are the most commonly used forms of treatment.
  • Medications are often an important part of treatment, especially when combined with behavioral therapies.
  • Treatment plans must be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.
  • Treatment should address other possible mental disorders.
  • Medically assisted detoxification is only the first stage of treatment.
  • Treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to be effective.
  • Drug use during treatment must be monitored continuously.
  • Treatment programs should test patients for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases as well as teach them about steps they can take to reduce their risk of these illnesses.”

There are plenty of FDA-approved treatments for alcohol use disorders, all of which have been determined to increase the chances for people struggling with alcohol abuse issues to recover or stay recovered. Some of these include:

  • Inpatient alcohol treatment.
  • Outpatient alcohol treatment.
  • Alcohol detoxification.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for alcohol use.
  • Peer support groups (including online support groups).
  • 1-on-1 cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, or other experiential therapies.
  • Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions.

Hotel California by the Sea treats alcohol use disorders and customizes our treatment methods to fit the needs of our patients. In turn, this facilitates long term recovery from alcohol abuse and happy, recovered clients.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, you aren’t alone, and with the proper treatment, you can recover from your addiction. Contact Hotel California by the Sea today to learn more about alcohol use disorders, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
  3. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
  4. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm#:~:text=Over%20time%2C%20excessive%20alcohol%20use,liver%20disease%2C%20and%20digestive%20problems.&text=Cancer%20of%20the%20breast%2C%20mouth,liver%2C%20colon%2C%20and%20rectum
  6. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction