By Gabriel Cade, MD
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has designated April as Alcohol Awareness Month. Alcohol is, of course, one of the most visible and accessible drugs in our society. Despite a growing understanding of the health risks and dangers of alcohol abuse, more Americans than ever before consume alcohol on a regular basis. As a society, we strive to take better care of ourselves and each other, and Mission Health hopes that this month you will try to better understand this serious issue as well as reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism.
Alcohol is a powerful and addictive drug. With 86 percent of the population admitting to drinking alcohol at some point and more than 65 million Americans reporting binge drinking in the past month, it is likely that you or someone you know deals with an alcohol use disorder. Alcoholics are not homeless people, or uneducated people, or criminals. Someone I know is an alcoholic. Someone I love is an alcoholic.
I work in the emergency department, and every day I take care of someone whose life or health is affected by alcohol — pancreatic disease, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, addiction disorder, physical trauma, social trauma. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, liver and breast. The deleterious effects of alcohol can alter every aspect of your own life and health as well as the community around you. Recognizing alcohol use disorder in yourself or in someone you care about is always the first step in getting help.
Alcohol use disorder is defined as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational or health consequences.” This means that you can see that alcohol is negatively affecting your life and you still can’t stop drinking. Like other kinds of addiction, this surpasses the idea of choice. There is a rewiring of the brain, a true physiologic change that prevents you from making better choices.
Alcohol takes precedence over friends, family, job, health. Individuals with alcohol use disorder start having problems at work or school. They become more dangerous, driving while drinking for example. They have legal trouble. They have health problems. They have black outs. They damage the relationships they have with friends and family members. They see that they’re having (and creating) these problems, and they can’t stop. Or, at least, most of them can’t without help.
Have you or has someone you know experienced any of the following situations?
- Craving alcohol and being unable to limit the amount.
- Failing to fulfill obligations at work or school or home because of alcohol.
- Using alcohol in situations where it’s unsafe.
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol and needing more to feel the same effect.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shaking.
At this level of physiologic addiction, it is extremely difficult to stop drinking and recognize the need for help. This applies to almost one in every 12 adults. You’re not alone if this describes you and a loved one and there are resources to help you.
- Talk to your friends and your family. As a society, we are fighting to overcome the stigma related to addiction, and this only happens when we talk about it, when we recognize how prevalent these problems are and how they affect all of us.
- Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re worried about your alcohol use or the alcohol use of someone you care about. Individuals with heavy and prolonged alcohol use disorder may need medical guidance and/or therapy to safely reduce their alcohol intake.
- Talk to people at your church or other people you trust in your community. Talking in safe space, where you feel most comfortable, is where this help starts.
Of course, the best tool is prevention. Parents, talk to your kids openly about alcohol and the effect it could have on their lives. We need to start educating and preparing the next generation to face addiction and, when we can’t, to face the stigma associated with addiction. We are all responsible for each other out there, and we at Mission Health are always ready to help you.
Gabriel Cade, MD is an Emergency Medicine physician at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital.