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What is Alcohol Dependence Syndrome?

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Alcohol dependence syndrome is a condition that can go by several other names. Alcohol dependence syndrome is also called alcoholism, alcohol addiction, and an alcohol use disorder. 

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, no matter what you label it when you have an addiction and dependence on alcohol, it’s a serious but treatable medical condition. 

According to the Mental Health Services Administration, untreated alcoholism or alcohol dependence can lead to serious consequences. 

Alcohol addiction can cause adverse effects like physical health problems and mental health concerns, affecting your job, relationships, and finances.


Patterns of Alcohol Use

Many people in the United States drink excessively, at least in terms of a healthy level defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most adults who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics.

  • Excessive drinking can include binge drinking, four or more drinks on a single occasion as a woman, or five or more drinks at once if you’re a man. 
  • If you have eight or more drinks a week as a woman, that’s considered heavy alcohol use. 
  • For men, 15 or more drinks a week is excessive based on guidelines from organizations like the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Medical Association. 

While excessive alcohol intake or heavy drinking can come with its own risks and problems, alcohol dependence is a chronic condition.

Regardless of whether someone has a diagnosable substance use disorder or alcohol-related problem, there are costs of excessive drinking. The CDC estimates excessive alcohol use leads to around 88,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.

When someone is an excessive drinker, they can often do things on their own to cut down on their alcohol intake. For someone with true alcohol dependence, more intensive interventions are often needed. 

The term alcohol abuse can often go along with the conversation about excessive alcohol use. 

Alcohol abuse occurs when you drink even though you’re experiencing problems because of it. Around 90% of people who show patterns of abusing alcohol aren’t dependent.

That doesn’t mean that excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol misuse can’t turn into dependence. They can and do when people don’t take the steps they need to early on.


What is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence syndrome is a chronic medical condition that can lead to long-term changes in the brain. One defining characteristic of dependence from chronic alcohol exposure is that you have withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking.

To avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, people with alcohol use might continue their harmful drinking patterns. 

Alcohol dependence syndrome causes are often complex. They can include factors that relate to your genetics, your mental health and any mental disorders you may have, and your environment.

When you have an alcohol dependence, the symptoms include:

  • Tolerance: Developing an alcohol tolerance goes hand-in-hand with alcohol dependence. Tolerance means you need to drink more significant amounts to get the same effects of alcohol. For example, you could regularly have five drinks per day instead of three to get the desired effects of alcohol. You might notice your heavy drinking days continue to go up. 
  • Withdrawal: Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include insomnia, anxiety, tremors, and mood swings. Some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be severe and require immediate medical attention for patients with alcohol dependence. Treatment of alcohol withdrawal can include prescription and over-the-counter medications and monitoring of vital signs by a healthcare provider. 
  • Drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms: Often, we’ll see people that have alcohol dependence syndrome will drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms, like having the shakes. They might also say they’re drinking to get rid of a hangover.
  • Alcohol craving: When you have a compulsive desire to drink, it’s an indicator of dependence.
  • Drinking more than you intend: Whether you drink larger amounts, drink for longer than you plan to, or can’t cut down or stop when you try, all can be signs of dependence. 
  • Harmful drinking: If you drink in situations where it can be dangerous, such as when you’re behind the wheel, that can be a sign of alcohol dependence. People with alcohol use disorders might put themselves and others in dangerous situations when drinking and getting access to alcohol. 


Types of Alcohol Dependence Syndrome

Along with several contributing alcohol dependence syndrome causes, there are also some different types of alcohol dependence syndrome.

The subtypes of alcoholics and alcohol-dependent people are categorized based on someone’s age, when they started drinking, their family history, and other factors.

  • A young adult subtype is a group that tends to start drinking at an early age, developing dependence on alcohol by the time they’re around 24 on average. They have low rates of co-occurring mental health conditions, with moderate rates of other types of substance abuse.
  • When you hear someone talking about functional alcoholics, this is considered one of the types of alcohol dependence syndrome. This group tends to be middle-aged, and they can have jobs and relationships, despite their addiction and dependence.
  • An intermediate familial subtype is a group that often starts drinking at a younger age and develops alcohol dependence by the time they’re in their early 30s. These people are highly likely to have had immediate family members with an alcohol problem. They also tend to have a higher rate of psychiatric disorders like depressive disorder. 
  • People in the young antisocial subtype often start drinking at the youngest age and develop alcohol dependence by the time they’re 18. More than half the members of this group show signs of an antisocial personality disorder. This subtype also has the highest addiction rates to other psychoactive substances and is alcohol-dependent. 
  • In the chronic severe subtype group, which is the smallest and least common, many group members have a family member with alcoholism. This group is likely to experience other major mental health disorders and psychiatric symptoms like bipolar disorder, major depression, and panic disorder. The vast majority of this group has acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop their recurrent alcohol use. 

Alcohol dependence syndrome


What is An Alcohol Use Disorder?

When we talk about alcohol dependence syndrome, we primarily refer to the physical signs and symptoms of being dependent on alcohol. Dependence is different from addiction or an alcohol use disorder, at least technical. Addiction and dependence do often occur together but don’t have to.

Symptoms and criteria for alcohol use disorder can include the same things we see in dependence.

  • Continuing to drink even though you know there are legal, health, or social problems happening as a result
  • Wanting to cut back on your alcohol intake but being unsuccessful in doing so
  • Spending a lot of time getting alcohol, consuming it, and recovering from the effects
  • Giving up other activities or interests because of your alcohol use
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Having strong cravings and an overwhelming desire to drink
  • Loss of control over drinking occurs in patients with alcohol use disorder


Alcohol Withdrawal

If you are dependent on alcohol and try to stop drinking, you may have withdrawal symptoms.

  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will usually peak from 24 to 72 hours after you last have alcohol, but milder symptoms can persist for weeks or more.
  • Treatment may occur in an outpatient environment for someone with mild to moderate symptoms.
  • Inpatient treatment is often required for someone with moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include hallucinations, fever, seizures, confusion, and instability in vital signs.


Treating Alcohol Dependence Syndrome

The prevention of alcohol dependence syndrome requires that you’re mindful of your use of alcohol and typical drinking pattern. It’s often a slow process to develop a dependence, and since alcohol is so culturally accepted, we don’t realize our drinking patterns are becoming problematic. 

That’s one-way alcohol dependence varies from a substance use disorder involving illegal drugs. We see illegal drugs as being more harmful inherently than alcohol, so spotting a problem can be easier. 

For some people, participating in a program like Alcoholics Anonymous or other self-help groups can help them break their heavy drinking habits. For someone with dependence and addiction, a rehab program may be needed. 


Alcohol Detox in Southern California

If you or a loved one has problematic drinking habits, reach out to The Right Time Recovery at 800-630-1218.

Options for the treatment of alcohol dependence are available, including supervised detox and intensive, individualized care programs tailored to your unique needs. Behavioral interventions and behavioral treatments in a qualified treatment setting can have numerous beneficial effects.

We can work with alcoholic patients and people who work with drug use disorder and co-occurring mental disorders to help them begin their recovery journey and reduce the risk of relapse.