Whether or not alcoholism is a curable disease is a common question among many, including those dealing with addiction as well as loved ones and friends who might be trying to help someone with the disease. Though there may be no easy “cure” for alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, the condition is treatable. Ongoing treatment and continued recovery efforts can be helpful in successfully managing alcoholism and preventing relapse in the long term.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic condition characterized by a loss of control over drinking alcohol despite adverse social, occupational, or health effects.1 Common features of alcoholism include:2
- Cravings for alcohol and a persistent desire to continue drinking.
- An inability to cut back or stop drinking, even after attempts are made to do so.
- Feeling anxious, irritable, or other negative emotional states when not drinking.
It is important to note that some people with episodic, heavy drinking behavior might not necessarily meet the criteria for AUD, though such use can still be problematic. For example, binge drinking is a pattern of drinking behavior in which a person drinks enough alcohol to lead to a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08% or higher.3 For men, it typically takes about 5 drinks to reach this BAC in around two hours, and in women, around 4 drinks.3
While binge drinking in itself doesn’t mean someone has an AUD, it’s an unhealthy pattern that increases your risk of developing it. People who binge drink may also be at greater risk of getting certain types of cancers, being involved in accidents (i.e., car accidents), engaging in violence, and having suicidal thoughts and behaviors while under the influence of alcohol.2
Is It Safe to Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?
If you have become physically dependent on alcohol, attempts to suddenly quit drinking can be risky when done without the supervision of medical health professionals. In some instances, when a person struggling with chronic or long-term alcohol abuse quits drinking, they may experience symptoms ranging from mild to physically dangerous.4 These may include:4
- Mood swings.
- Loss of appetite.
- Increased heart rate.
- High blood pressure.
- Shakes or tremors.
- Delirium tremens. (rare)
In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can result in more severe symptoms, and may be associated with potentially life-threatening complications, including hyperthermia, fluid and electrolyte depletion, hallucinations, delirium, and seizures.4 Going through medical detox under the supervision of health professionals can help you withdraw safely from alcohol.4
Alcohol Addiction Treatment Types
Detox alone doesn’t constitute comprehensive treatment for AUD. Because alcoholism may be best managed with ongoing recovery efforts, once you’ve successfully detoxed from alcohol, additional addiction treatment can help you learn how to avoid triggers, learn healthy coping mechanisms, prevent relapses and manage behaviors that may have led to AUD in the first place. Many treatment programs involve a combination of behavioral therapy, counseling, and medical care to help you manage AUD and related health issues, and will help you chart your long-term aftercare goals prior to program completion.5
There are numerous levels of care when it comes to alcohol addiction treatment, including:6
- Inpatient/residential: Residential treatment provides a 24/7 setting for ongoing treatment after detox and facilitates support and supervision in recovery and an intensive focus on relapse prevention.
- Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP): A partial hospitalization program is sometimes utilized as a step-down from an inpatient program. It provides similar types of therapy as an inpatient program, but a person can go home when the day is over.
- Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): An intensive outpatient program provides treatment 2-3 times a week, usually for 2-4 hours at a time. IOPs are best suited to those with alcohol/drug-free home environments and a solid support system.
- Standard Outpatient: Standard outpatient treatment varies and could include daily or weekly (2-3 times a week) session with an individual counselor and in a group setting. In some cases, outpatient therapy/counseling sessions may be arranged to take place during evenings and weekends so participants feel less disrupted in their daily routines.
Will I Relapse After Treatment?
When a person finishes either an inpatient or outpatient course of treatment, many will continue to participate in an aftercare program to help maintain recovery. Aftercare efforts, such as attendance of 12-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous or other mutual-support groups, may help people who have gone through treatment maintain their recovery trajectory.7
Relapse rates for alcoholism are similar to rates for other chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes or asthma.8 Even if you’ve followed your medical treatment plan, relapse may occur—but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means you need to speak with your doctor to resume rehab, modify your aftercare plan, or try another treatment.8
What Types of Aftercare Programs/Support is Available?
Aftercare is important element of ongoing recovery, and there are numerous outlets of aftercare to choose from. Some people prefer spiritually based 12-step groups, while others prefer approaches to recovery or aftercare that are not group-based. Some options for aftercare include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step group that was founded to help people who wanted to stop drinking. It’s a valuable aftercare component for many in recovery from AUD.
- Narcotics Anonymous is a 12-step program that provides the support of peers in recovery from substance use disorders.
- SMART Recovery is a science-based aftercare support program. Unlike 12-step programs, it does not emphasize the concept of a higher power as it relates to recovery and can be helpful to people who are looking for a more self-empowered approach to sobriety.
- Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are self-help programs that assist family members of a person with an AUD or a substance use disorder.
- Sober living houses are residential homes that provide drug- and alcohol-free living environments to support recovery.
Although alcohol use disorder is a complex, chronic disease, it is treatable but requires ongoing treatment to sustain lasting recovery. With a goal of life-long sobriety, aftercare programs can further support the progress made during rehabilitation, making it less likely that a person will use drugs or alcohol after treatment.7
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder.
. MedlinePlus. (2020). Alcohol use disorder.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined.
. Bayard, M., Mcintyre, J., Hill, K.R., Woodside, J. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. American Family Physician 69(6): 1443-1450.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment approaches for drug addiction.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2008). What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families.
. Frydrych, L. M., Greene, B. J., Blondell, R. D., & Purdy, C. H. (2009). Self-help program components and linkage to aftercare following inpatient detoxification. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 28(1), 21–27.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.