Drinking alcohol is ingrained in modern culture in many countries around the world. It’s a way to socialize, relax, and celebrate.
To quote the fictional TV cartoon character, Homer Simpson, “To alcohol, the cause of – and solution to – all life’s problems.” The joke is a reflection of what most people think – that social drinking is harmless. Yes, as long as you’re responsible about alcohol consumption, it can’t do any damage.
But do you know how long does it take to develop alcohol dependence? When does occasional social alcohol consumption turn into problematic alcoholism?
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the journey from social drinking to full-blown alcoholism and learn things like:
- How are people affected by alcoholism?
- How much alcohol is actually in your drink?
- How much alcohol is considered too much?
- How long does it take to get addicted to alcohol?
- Who is at risk of developing alcoholism?
How Severe is the Alcoholism Problem?
Alcohol is easily available and a fundamental part of popular culture. Yet, when you look at the statistics on the effects of excessive drinking, they are eye-opening.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 3 million deaths worldwide, which is more than 5 per cent of all deaths. Even more worrisome is the fact that more than 13 per cent of deaths in young adults between the ages of 20 and 39 years can be attributed to alcohol.
Alcohol is implicated as a causative factor in more than 200 diseases. It is responsible for significant social and economic losses.
Addiction to alcohol can take you by surprise. Before you know it, what starts as social drinking can turn into cravings and addiction. If you and your loved ones enjoy drinking occasionally, it’s good to know how long does it take to develop alcohol dependence. That way you are aware of risky drinking patterns. You know when you’re crossing the line and when to cut back. And you know how to help a friend or family member who may be alcoholic.
Do You Know What’s in Your Drink?
First, let’s get the basics sorted. Do you know what’s a standard drink?
Is it a pint of beer (16 ounces / 475 mL), a can of beer (11 ounces / 330 mL), or a glass of beer (4 ounces / 118 mL)?
Does a glass of whiskey with 40 per cent alcohol by volume count the same as a glass of wine with 12 per cent alcohol or a glass of beer with 4.5 per cent alcohol?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a leading authority on alcoholism, one standard drink contains 14 grams of pure alcohol, which translates to:
- 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5 per cent alcohol content)
- 9 fluid ounces of malt liquor (7 per cent alcohol content)
- 5 fluid ounces of wine (12 per cent alcohol content)
- 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, etc.) (40 per cent alcohol content)
Now that you know how much alcohol is in your drinks and what constitutes a standard drink, let’s find out how many standard drinks you can safely drink without worrying about how long does it take to develop alcohol dependence.
How Much Alcohol is Too Much?
If you’re trying to determine whether your (or a loved one’s) drinking habits are worrisome, it’s good to know the threshold for harmful drinking.
How much alcohol can you drink without putting your health at risk? What is the threshold for dangerous drinking patterns? When are you at risk of developing alcohol addiction?
Safe Drinking Limits
The NIAAA defines moderate drinking as up to two drinks a day for men and up to one drink a day for women. The recommendation is for men to drink no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks a week. For women, the drinking limits are no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week.
The limits for men and women are different because due to a variety of biological factors alcohol-related problems in women can occur with lower levels of alcohol consumption than men.
The good news is that people who drink within these limits have an extremely low risk (less than 2 per cent) of developing alcohol use disorders.
In other words, if you stick to these safe drinking limits, the answer to the question – how long does it take to develop alcohol dependence? – can be never.
Remember, to remain in the low-risk category, you must stick to both the daily as well as weekly guidelines. For example, if you’re a woman and you have three drinks a day five days a week (total 15 drinks/week), you’re drinking more than double the recommended weekly safe limit for women (7 drinks/week).
Also, low-risk does not mean no risk. Drinking alcohol, irrespective of the amount can be dangerous in certain situations, such as drinking and driving, drinking while pregnant, and combining alcohol with certain medications.
How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Alcohol?
There is no standard timeline that can predict how long it takes to develop alcohol dependence. That’s because there are so many variables.
It’s like asking how long it takes to drive from New York to Washington D.C. It will depend on how fast you drive, how bad the traffic is, and how many stops you may along the way. But, if you stick to the speed limit, you can reduce your chances of having an accident.
Similarly, you can minimize your risk of becoming an alcoholic if you follow the recommended drinking guidelines mentioned above.
It’s important to remember that alcoholism can creep up on you surprisingly quickly. To understand why let’s take a look at what happens when you drink.
When you swallow the first sip of an alcoholic beverage, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed to various organs in the body. Most of the alcohol is metabolized (broken down) in the liver. The human liver can process one standard drink per hour.
How quickly you consume alcohol, therefore, determines your blood alcohol content (BAC). In many countries around the world, a BAC of 0.08 per cent or higher means the person is legally intoxicated.
Many factors determine the BAC, including the number of drinks, how fast they are consumed, as well as the drinker’s body weight, age, and gender.
With time, a person who drinks regularly requires increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to become intoxicated. This can lead to an escalation in drinking with withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol.
To avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, an individual may begin drinking frequently, and ultimately, around-the-clock.
The Dangers of Binge Drinking
Another thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about how long does it take to develop alcohol dependence is binge drinking.
Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use (more than 5 occasions of binge drinking in the past month) are associated with an increased risk of developing alcohol dependence.
Binge drinking is defined as a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, which can occur if women have 4 drinks or men have 5 drinks in roughly 2 hours.
Who is at Risk of Developing Alcoholism?
Everyone is different. Many factors affect if and how quickly a person progresses from social drinking to alcohol addiction.
Here are some high-risk factors that can determine whether a person becomes addicted and how long it takes to develop alcohol dependence:
- Alcoholism runs in families. People with a family history of alcohol use disorders are at a higher risk.
- Those who begin drinking in early teens are at a higher risk of developing alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.
- There is a higher incidence of alcoholism in men, but women suffer more alcohol-related damage from chronic drinking.
- Everyone reacts to alcohol differently. This is influenced by age, gender, ethnicity, and body weight, among other factors.
There is no fixed timeline for how long it takes to develop alcohol dependence. Sometimes, a person can drink responsibly for decades without developing alcoholism, but then a major life event such as losing their job or going through a divorce pushes them over the brink.
Moreover, alcoholism does not happen overnight. There are three stages of alcoholism. The important thing is to recognize the signs and symptoms early and get help as soon as possible.
If you or a loved one has a worrisome drinking habit, take our self-assessment test to find out if it’s time to get help.
Since it is impossible to say how long it takes to develop alcohol dependence, a personalized approach is required. No matter how severe the alcohol dependence, you or a loved one can benefit from professional help for addiction. At Rosglas Recovery, we offer a range of programs, including individual and group counselling sessions, to help you live a life of sobriety.
To learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment programs, give us a call at +353 1 458 3575 to reach our office in Ireland or +1 646 918 8223 to reach our office in New York. All calls are private and confidential. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our team of specialists is available 24/7 to answer your questions.