How to Treat Alcohol Addiction

Do you know someone suffering from alcohol addiction? Are you an alcoholic and want to know how to treat alcohol addiction? We review here. Plus, a section at the end for your questions about treating alcohol addiction.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D.

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, is a well-known disease that affects people from all walks of life. Many people hesitate to get treatment because they do not recognize they have a problem. This article outlines signs of a problem and available treatment options. Finally, we invite you to ask your questions about alcohol problems in the comments section at the end of the page.


About 10% of drinkers go on to develop a drinking problem.

How Do People Get Addicted?

In 2014, more than 17 million Americans had a problem with alcohol. In fact, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) 2014 (PDF | 3.4 MB) show that slightly more than half (52.7%) of Americans ages 12 and up reported being current drinkers of alcohol. Most people drink alcohol in moderation. However, about 10% of people develop a drinking problem.

So, how does addiction to alcohol occur?

The answer is that drinking problems are different for everyone. Some people start drinking to relax, or to relieve stress. Others drink to be social and disbinhibited. Still other people seek intoxication to bury deep emotional pain.

What is common among all drinking problems is this:

  • Loss of control of drinking.
  • Cravings for alcohol.
  • Continued drinking despite harm to self or others.

Still, not everyone who consumes alcohol will become addicted. Alcohol abuse is not the same as addiction. Abusers are typically heavy drinkers who either binge drink or drink for effect.

Abusers of alcohol may not drink on a consistent basis. For example, maybe you’re binge drinking once a week. But when you do drink, you put yourself into risky situations or drinks enough to cause problems, such as alcohol poisoning. If this is happening to you…you may not be an alcoholic now, but you are certainly at risk of alcoholism.

Check your risk here: Rethinking Drinking.

Brain Changes

What are the main effects of alcohol?

  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty walking
  • Impaired memory
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Slurred speech

Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period may have brain deficits that persist well after he or she achieves sobriety.

Experts are finding that heavy drinking may have extensive and far–reaching effects on the brain, ranging from simple “slips” in memory to permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care. Moreover, even moderate drinking leads to short–term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

The bottom line is this: alcohol addiction is a brain disease that ends up taking control. Alcohol stimulates the pleasure reward system in the brain. The experience of pleasure reinforces the drive to drink repeatedly to avoid:

  • Discomfort
  • Life’s difficulties
  • Stressful situations
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Mental health problems

These are only some of the many factors that play into alcohol addiction. Factors that contribute to the potential of developing an alcohol use problem can be genetic (up to 50%), environmental, and social.

Signs of a Problem

If you have any of these symptoms, your drinking may already be a cause for concern. The more symptoms you have, the more urgent the need for change:

  • Blacking out and not being able to remember what happened while you were drinking.
  • Continuing to drink even though it causes trouble for your family or friends.
  • Continuing to drink even though it makes you feel depressed or anxious or adds to to another health problem. Or after having had a memory blackout.
  • Continuing to drink in spite of health problems that are made worse by alcohol (e.g. liver disease, heart disease, diabetes).
  • Engaging in dangerous activities, such as driving, while drinking.
  • Experiencing craving, or a strong need, or urge, to drink.
  • The presences of withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating.
  • Friends and family members are worried about your drinking.
  • You’ve given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink.
  • You’ve had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended.
  • You have to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want. Or, you find that your usual number of drinks has much less effect than before.
  • Legal problems, such as being arrested or harming someone else while drunk.
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex).
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t.
  • Problems at work or school because of drinking.

Am I Addicted?

Although alcohol use problems can be diagnosed only after a detailed interview and assessment with professional (see the “Who to Ask for Help” section below), there are ways you can begin to self-assess your situation.

The CAGE questionnaire is a useful screening tool designed to help you measure the severity of your drinking.  If you are not convinced you have an accurate insight into your drinking habits, you can use these four (4) questions for self-evaluation:

  • Have you ever thought you should CUT down your alcohol use?
  • Have you ever felt ANNOYED when people have commented about your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt GUILTY or badly about your drinking?
  • Have you ever used alcohol to EASE withdrawal symptoms, or to avoid feeling low after using?

If you scored one, there is a 75% chance you are addicted to alcohol.
If you scored two, there is an 85% chance you are addicted to alcohol.
If you scored three, there is a 99% chance you are addicted to alcohol.
If you scored four, there is a 100% chance you are addicted to alcohol.

Treatment with Medications

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications for treating alcohol dependence, and others are being tested to determine if they are effective.

  1. Acamprosate makes it easier to maintain abstinence.
  2.  Disulfiram blocks the breakdown (metabolism) of alcohol by the body, causing unpleasant symptoms such as nausea and flushing of the skin. Those unpleasant effects can help some people avoid drinking while taking disulfiram.
  3. Naltrexone can help people reduce heavy drinking.

It is important to remember that not all people will respond to positively to all medications, but for a subset of people, they can be an important tool in overcoming alcohol dependence.

Scientists are working to develop a larger menu of pharmaceutical treatments that could be tailored to personal needs. As more medications become available, people may be able to try multiple medications to find which they respond to best.

Treatment with Psychotherapy

Behavioral Treatments

The behavioral treatments for drinking problems are aimed at changing drinking behavior through counseling. All talk therapy is led by health professionals and supported by studies showing they can be beneficial. Behavioral treatments share certain features, which can include:

  • Coping with or avoiding the triggers that might cause relapse.
  • Developing the skills needed to stop or reduce drinking.
  • Helping to build a strong social support system.
  • Working to set reachable goals.

Specific types of psychotherapy treatments used for drinking problems include (but aren’t limited to):

Cognitive behavioral therapy can take place one-on-one with a therapist or in small groups. This form of therapy is focused on identifying the feelings and situations (called “cues”) that lead to heavy drinking and managing stress that can lead to relapse. The goal is to change the thought processes that lead to excessive drinking and to develop the skills necessary to cope with everyday situations that might trigger problem drinking.

Marital and family counseling incorporates spouses and other family members in the treatment process and can play an important role in repairing and improving family relationships. Brief interventions are short, one-on-one or small-group counseling sessions that are time limited. After receiving personalized feedback, the counselor will work with the client to set goals and provide ideas for helping to make a change.

Motivational enhancement therapy is conducted over a short period to build and strengthen motivation to change drinking behavior. The therapy focuses on identifying the pros and cons of seeking treatment, forming a plan for making changes in one’s drinking, building confidence, and developing the skills needed to stick to the plan

Mutual-support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs provide peer support for people quitting or cutting back on their drinking. Combined with treatment led by health professionals, mutual-support groups can offer a valuable added layer of support.


Before you reach out for help to treat alcohol addiction, you should know what to expect from the rehab process. In fact, in the weeks and months after you stop drinking alcohol, you have lots of work to do.

Many people find that a combination of both medication and talk therapy treatments works best, and you can get them together through a program. Some of these are inpatient or residential programs, where you stay at a treatment center for a while. Others are outpatient programs, where you live at home and go to the center for treatment.

There are different approaches to treating alcohol addiction, but the rehab process usually happens in the following stages:

Intake Evaluation

Intake consists of an initial meeting with doctors and addiction therapists. They will assess the severity of your alcohol abuse as well as diagnose any co-occurring mental health conditions, run drug tests, physical exams, and interview you. All of the gathered information from this initial assessment play a vital role in creating a treatment program tailored to your needs.

Detoxification From Alcohol

It is recommended that you always seek medical help when detoxing from alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can be a painful and medically serious condition for alcohol users, especially if past drinking has become chronic or excessive. This is why detox from alcohol is best completed under medical supervision. Clinical doctors can prescribe medications to treat symptoms, and pills to stop drinking, such as naltrexone, acamprostate, or disulfiram.

Alcohol Rehabilitation

To treat alcohol addiction, you do not only need to get alcohol out of your body, but you also need to develop life coping skills. During alcohol rehab, you will learn about the nature of alcoholism and begin to make cognitive behavioral changes in your thought processes. Educational sessions, psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, family therapy, and a number of accompanying interventions teach you how to stay sober after you get sober. The goal of rehab is to help you determine the causes of your drinking problem and to address them in a healthy and informed way.


The final step in the rehab process is aftercare planning. You will require guidance and continued support to ease the transition back into the “real world” once you are done with initial treatment. In case you attend a program away from home or a smaller program, you should be provided with recommendations to local resources. Aftercare services often include counseling and support group meeting.

To get the best alcohol addiction treatment possible you need a tailor made program. Tailored or customized alcoholism treatment programs are of utmost importance for long-term recovery success. Each person has a unique alcohol abuse history, individual past traumatic experiences, personal struggles, and emotional issues that may be the root cause of addiction. A good program needs to answer to these specific needs by adapting to whatever it is you require from treatment.


If you are considering professional treatment for alcohol problems one of the first questions you will probably have is, “How much will it cost?” In fact, one of the main reasons that people delay getting help is the costs involved.

The problem in offering a final cost is that there are so many variables involved, including the type of treatment you need and the length of time you will need to be in the treatment program.

Even private residential rehabilitation programs can vary widely in price. They can cost as little as $7,500 a month on the low end, to $10,000 to $20,000 for a higher quality program, all the way to $80,000 to $120,000 a month for luxury rehab programs designed for executives, celebrities, professional athletes and other high-profile person. Here are some general guidelines.

Medical detox or residential care can cost $500-650/day out of pocket.

Partial hospitalization can cost $350-450 per day

Outpatient care can cost $250-350 per day.

It is always best to verify your insurance benefits to see what and how much of certain services are covered.

Who To Ask For Help?

There are plenty of professionals to help you treat a drinking problem. Here are just a few ideas to get you started on the road to recovery:

1.Consult your family doctor. A doctor knows your general health history and can provide you with brief screening and assessments. Also, a doctor is well-positioned in your community to refer you to someone s/he knows. Your family doctor or general physician will also be able to prescribe medication for alcohol withdrawal to make the process easier. Doctors will also be able to offer advice on treatment options and help.

2. Look for an addictions specialist. This can include:

These professionals can help you talk about your thoughts and feelings during recovery, and help guide thought and behavioral changes. This process gets to the root of the drinking problem. Therapy could be within a group, individual, or include the family.

Also, keep in mind that clinical social workers address the mental issues of alcohol addiction. They can help you find housing and employment after recovery and aid the transition back into society. Clinical social worker are often found within treatment facilities and hospitals.

3. Call an Alcohol Abuse Helpline. These helplines exist to give you direction and information about where to look for help about your addiction issues. They primarily exist to provide you with basic resources and recovery options. You can use the number listed on this page, or access Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association’s (SAMHSA) National Hotline – 1-800-622-HELP (4357).

4. Go to an Alcohol Addiction Support Group. Support groups like 12 Step meeting and SMART Recovery offer outside help. These are non-profit groups of people. There are sponsors who have been sober for years that help newer recovering alcoholics, who are just a phone call away should an addict believe they are relapsing.

5. Go directly to an Alcohol Addiction treatment center. Alcohol addiction treatment centers usually offer in-house detox clinics, psychotherapy, and educational sessions. Many of these require persons to remain within the center throughout the treatment process, and offer 24-hour supervision to make sure a person is safe. Licensed physicians are on site to prescribe medications, if necessary. In addition, licensed clinical psychologists work with recovering persons to address their reasons for drinking.

6. Start with an alcohol detox clinic and then seek referral after withdrawal. Detox clinics offer support during the withdrawal stage of alcohol addiction treatment. Medical staff and physicians work with persons to ensure the withdrawal process goes safely and without complications. Detox clinics can also prescribe anti-drinking medications to help prevent relapse.

7. Talk to a trusted religious or spiritual leader. Talking to religious or spiritual leaders can help to prevent a relapse. It helps to get back into the community and find someone to talk to about your addiction and your thoughts.

Statistics And Facts

Think you’re alone in battling a drinking problem?

No way!

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70.1 percent reported that they drank in the past year; 56.0 percent reported that they drank in the past month. And according to the same study:

  • 6.2 percent of adults ages 18 and older had alcohol use disorder.
  • Overall, 8.4 percent of men 18 and older had a drinking problem.
  • Overall, 4.2 percent of women 18 and older had a drinking problem.

About 6.7 percent of adults who had alcohol use disorder in the past year received treatment. This includes 7.4 percent of males and 5.4 percent of females with alcohol use disorder in this age group.

As you can see with all these facts and statistics, you are not the only one with an alcohol problem, so don’t be ashamed and seek help.

Does Alcoholism Treatment Work?

Yes, alcohol addiction treatment works.

Even if you relapse, it does not mean that you have failed. Alcoholism is often conceptualized as a chronic relapsing disorder. Moreover, although addiction treatment helps you get rid of your need for drinking, there is more to the process of recovery.

In fact, the personal and societal benefits from living a sober life are numerous. In recovery you get to have:

  • A new purpose in life.
  • A process of healing from the brain and body effects of booze.
  • A stable life at home.
  • Better relationships with family and friends.
  • Improved physical and mental health.
  • Professional and educational advancements.

The great benefit of benzodiazepine rehab programs is building a new life that affords you to live alcohol-free… And it all starts when you get the treatment you need to stop drinking.

Why Me?

We don’t know.

Experts cannot predict who develops a drinking problem and who will not. In fact, the causes of drinking problems are complex. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Genetics Home Reference website, the condition is the result of a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, some of which have not been identified. Even more, experts have some main theories on why people some crave alcohol:

  1.  Heavy drinking may damage conscious processes that help us cope with drinking urges.
  2.  Because alcohol produces an elevated mood and can help relieve stress or anger, the unconscious learning process called reinforcement leads to repetition of the behavior. When cues for drinking are present, craving occurs.
  3. Alcohol use can become a habit which requires little conscious effort or attention, like driving down a familiar road. We can interrupt the habit, but it requires conscious effort.

REMEMBER THIS: You do not need to be controlled by an urge to drink. Alcoholism is both a psychological and physical dependency on alcohol. It can be thought of as a disease that affects the brain. The one thing that you need is HOPE. YOU CAN GET BETTER!

Do You Have Any Questions?

Do you have any questions about how to treat alcohol addiction? Maybe you have been through various types of treatment and want to offer a personal insight. Please leave your comments below and we will do our best to answer legitimate inquiries personally and as soon as possible.

Reference Sources: [1] NIAAA: Alcohol facts and statistc.
Aditional Reference Sources: NIAAA: Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help
NIH: Alcohol damaging effects on the brain
SA HEALTH: Ambulatory/home setting management of alcohol withdrawal
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D. is a general surgeon practicing women's focused medici...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.

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