What Are the Treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on May 29, 2023
4 min read

Alcohol use disorder is what doctors call it when you can’t control how much you drink and have trouble with your emotions when you’re not drinking. Some people may think the only way to deal with it is with willpower, as if it’s a problem they have to work through all on their own.

But alcohol use disorder is actually a brain disease. Alcohol causes changes in your brain that make it hard to quit. Trying to tough it out on your own can be like trying to cure appendicitis with cheerful thoughts.

An important first step is to learn more about alcohol use disorder and your treatment options.

Alcoholism is a common and different term for alcohol use disorder. Milder cases -- when people abuse alcohol but aren’t dependent on it -- are as well.

Your doctor or another health care provider can help with the diagnosis. They may say you have alcohol use disorder if you:

  • Feel like you have to drink
  • Can’t control how much you drink
  • Feel bad when you can’t drink

When you meet with your doctor, talk about your goals. Are you trying to drink less or stop drinking completely? Together, you can start to make a treatment plan. You doctor also can refer you to a treatment center or experts who can help.

The one that’s right for you depends on your situation and your goals. Many people find that a combination of 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.

This is a key step if your drinking problem is severe. Detox isn’t a treatment by itself.

The goal is to stop drinking and give your body time to get the alcohol out of your system. That usually takes a few days to a week.

Most people go to a hospital or treatment center because of withdrawal symptoms like:

Doctors and other experts can keep an eye on you and give you medicine to help with your symptoms.

You can go through detox in two main ways:

Inpatient. This option may be best if you’ve been misusing alcohol heavily. You stay full time in a clinic, hospital, or a detox center. You’ll get around-the-clock help during your withdrawal.

Outpatient. You visit with your doctor or health provider for treatment during the day. Outpatient rehab can be safe if your condition is mild or moderate.

During or after your alcohol rehabilitation, seeing a therapist can help you learn new skills and strategies to help you stay sober for the long term. Psychologists, social workers, or alcohol counselors can teach you how to:

  • Change the behaviors that make you want to drink
  • Deal with stress and other triggers
  • Build a strong support system
  • Set goals and reach them

Some people just need a short, focused counseling session. Others may want one-on-one therapy for a longer time to deal with issues like anxiety or depression. Alcohol use can have a big effect on the people close to you, so couples or family therapy can help, too.

No medicine can “cure” alcohol use disorder, but some can help as you recover. They can make drinking less enjoyable so you don’t want to do it as much:

Drugs used for other conditions -- like smoking, pain, or epilepsy -- also may help with alcohol use disorder. Talk to your doctor to see of one of those might be right for you.

Giving up and staying away from alcohol can take persistence and hard work. Healthy habits and strategies for getting through daily life can be important to your recovery. Steps you can take include:

  • Surround yourself with family, friends, and others who support your goal. Be clear that you’re no longer drinking
  • Take care your body. Eat a health died, get plenty of sleep, stay active, and manage your stress
  • Engage in activities and hobbies that don’t involve alcohol

Group therapy or a support group can help during rehab and help you stay on track as life gets back to normal.

Group therapy, led by a therapist, can give you the benefits of therapy along with the support of other members.

Support groups aren’t led by therapists. Instead, these are groups of people who have alcohol use disorder. Examples include Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and other programs. Your peers can offer understanding and advice and help keep you accountable. Many people stay in groups for years.

Recovery can take a long time, so you may need ongoing treatment. And some people in recovery do relapse and drink again. If you do, don’t think you’ve failed. It’s often a stage in the process.