Is Alcohol More Dangerous Than Heroin?

While the opioid epidemic continues to surge in the United States, an alcohol epidemic is all too often overlooked.  This is perhaps most notably due to the legalization and social acceptance of alcohol in our society, even when alcohol is responsible for approximately 100,000 deaths in the United States every year.  The mental, physical, social and financial effects of alcohol are indeed severe.  In addition to it being fatal, alcohol leads to a significant number of accidents and disease, and is a catalyst for sexual, physical and verbal abuse.  Understanding the negative effects of alcohol on an individual, a family and on society at large can help you make more informed and healthier decisions for you and your loved ones.

Why Is Alcohol an Epidemic?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately 15 million people ages 12 and older have an Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, and only 10% of those receive treatment for it.  An Alcohol Use Disorder, or what some might refer to as alcoholism, is characterized by a variety of symptoms such as increased tolerance to alcohol, withdrawal from alcohol, difficulty regulating alcohol consumption, and continued alcohol use despite adverse consequences to career, relationships, and other important life areas.  Alcohol Use Disorder can come in a variety of forms such as alcohol dependence, binge drinking, or problem drinking.

Alcohol related emergency department visits are on the rise, with over an estimated 6 million alcohol related emergency departments visits per year, increasing by over 200,000 on an annual basis.  Approximately 100,000 Americans die from alcohol related causes every year, which translates to an average of 274 deaths per day.  These deaths are a result of alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning, alcohol withdrawal, adverse effects of mixing alcohol with medication, disease caused by alcohol such as cirrhosis of the liver, and accidents, especially drunk driving accidents, among other alcohol related fatalities.

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol contributes to approximately 3 million deaths globally on an annual basis.  In 2016, alcohol was the seventh-leading risk factor in the world for premature death and disability, and was the first-leading risk factor for premature death among 15- to 49-year-olds.

Alcohol also contributes to an astronomical number of diseases, injuries, accidents, violence, mental health issues, homicides and suicides, abuse, and child neglect.  Additionally, alcohol misuse results in a significant economic burden.  According to NIAAA, alcohol misuse costs the United States approximately $249 billion annually as a result of medical, legal, and employment losses among other fiscal burdens.

It is not only alcohol abuse which can be problematic.  Various research shows that even drinking in moderation can lead to a variety of problems including risk of drowning, violence, and injury from accidents such as motor vehicle crashes.  Drinking in moderation can also contribute to a variety of diseases that can be fatal.  For those prescribed medication, even mild alcohol consumption can have harmful interactions leading to a variety of side effects including seizure or death.

Why Is Alcohol Fatal?

Alcohol can have a profound impact on the human body, especially to the liver, brain, heart, pancreas and immune system.  Alcohol related deaths can be caused by a variety of factors including:

Driving fatalities involving alcohol account for approximately 10,000 deaths per year.  This makes up approximately 29% of overall driving fatalities on an annual basis according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So, is alcohol more dangerous than heroin?  While the argument can be made that it is, doing so is somewhat futile.  More importantly perhaps is to recognize the widespread problems that alcohol can cause on individuals and on society, and take steps to addressing these issues through awareness, education, prevention and treatment.  This does not need to detract from the focus of opioid epidemic in any way or the devastation that opioids can bring, but rather can serve to enhance the focus and scope of substance misuse overall, and address all substance misuse comprehensively.

What Are Signs of Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence?

For a clinical diagnosed of Alcohol Use Disorder, one must meet certain criteria to be classified as such. However, it is important to note that just because one does not meet the criteria for having an Alcohol Use Disorder does not mean that their alcohol use is not problematic.  The fact of the matter is that if alcohol is having a negative impact on any area of your life such as relationships, physical health, mental health, career, finances, sleep hygiene, or any other such life area then your relationship with alcohol may be something that you should take a closer look at.

If you believe you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and if you are unable to reduce the amount of alcohol you are consuming or abstain from alcohol, then you should seek professional help from an addiction specialist or enter an alcohol addiction treatment program.

It is also important to know that withdrawing from alcohol without medical supervision can result in severe health consequences such as seizure and can be fatal.  As such, if you have a dependence to alcohol or experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms it is suggested to not stop cold turkey, but rather to seek out a medical doctor specializing in addiction, enter an alcohol detox or call 911.  For more information on alcohol withdrawal, please read, "Everything You Need To Know About Alcohol Withdrawal."

Some signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder include:

What Is The Treatment For Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol is one of the most preventable causes of death, but can only be prevented if you are aware that your relationship with alcohol is problematic and stay away from risky behavior while under the influence of alcohol.  If you believe that you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, there are various methods of treatment available. 

Since every individual is unique, there is no blanket method of alcohol treatment that will work for every single individual.  Some individuals may be able to learn to moderate their alcohol consumption and develop a healthy relationship with alcohol while others may have to abstain completely.

There are various levels of alcohol treatment available that may be more appropriate depending on the severity of alcohol use and history of any prior treatment episodes, in addition to other factors such as underlying mental health issues.  For example, there is medical detoxification for alcohol use, inpatient residential treatment for alcohol, and outpatient treatment for alcohol.  One may choose to go to a substance abuse treatment center for alcohol while others may prefer to see a therapist who specializes in addiction or a sober coach (recovery coach).  Others may be able to find freedom from alcohol through mutual help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, or other such groups.  For more information on alcohol and addiction treatment please read, "A Guide to the Different Pathways of Addiction Recovery."  For those who live in New York City, please read, "How To Find An Addiction Therapist In New York City."

Furthermore, there are various therapeutic approaches to alcohol treatment.  For example, Motivational Interviewing techniques may be used for someone who is ambivalent about their alcohol use or is not sure that they want to get sober.  Interventions can be beneficial for those who are resistant to getting help for their alcoholism.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a common technique used to help individuals change unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can lead to alcohol relapse.  There are also various holistic, wellness and spiritual based approaches that might focus on things such as connection with nature and with others, existential insights, meditation, or nutrition and exercise.  It is also important for family members to get their own support, as well as to involve family and other loved ones in the addiction treatment process.

If you enjoyed this article on alcohol addiction, you may also enjoy "What About The Alcohol Epidemic?"

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Lin Sternlicht & Aaron Sternlicht

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