Alcoholism is characterized by a preoccupation with alcohol and impaired control over alcohol intake. Alcoholism is a chronic, often progressive disease. Left untreated, alcoholism can be fatal.
You may continue to abuse alcohol despite serious adverse health, personal, work-related and financial consequences. Alcoholism usually involves physical dependence on alcohol, but genetic, psychological and social factors contribute to the addiction as well.
It’s possible to have a problem with alcohol, but not display all the characteristics of alcoholism. This is known as “alcohol abuse,” which means you engage in excessive drinking that causes health or social problems, but you aren’t dependent on alcohol and haven’t fully lost control over the use of alcohol.
Alcohol abuse is practiced by about 30% of drinkers and alcoholism is suffered by about 9% of drinkers. Approximately 50% of alcohol produced is drunk by 10% of drinkers.
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse cause major social, economic and public health problems. Various treatments are available, and self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous can provide ongoing support for people recovering from alcoholism.
Signs and symptoms
Before treatment or recovery, most people with alcoholism deny that they have a drinking problem. Other indications of alcoholism and alcohol abuse include:
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
- Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as “blacking out”
- Making a ritual of having drinks before, with or after dinner and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
- Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring pleasure
- Feeling a need or compulsion to drink
- Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn’t available
- Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in the car
- Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good or drinking to feel “normal”
- Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances
- Building a tolerance to alcohol so that you need an increasing number of drinks to feel alcohol’s effects
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — if you don’t drink
People who abuse alcohol may experience many of the same signs and symptoms as people who are alcoholic. However, alcohol abusers don’t feel the same compulsion to drink and usually don’t experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they don’t drink. A dependence on alcohol also creates a tolerance to alcohol and the inability to control drinking.
If you’ve ever wondered if your own alcohol consumption crosses the line of abuse or dependence, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you need a drink as soon as you get up?
- Do you feel guilty about your drinking?
- Do you think you need to cut back on your alcohol consumption?
- Are you annoyed when other people comment on or criticize your drinking habits?
- Have you tried repeatedly to stop drinking and failed?
If you answered yes to two or more questions, it’s likely that you have a problem with alcohol. Even one yes answer may indicate a problem.
Factors that may contribute to alcoholism
- Genetics. Certain genetic factors may cause a person to be vulnerable to alcoholism or other addictions.
- Emotional state. High levels of stress, anxiety or emotional pain can lead some people to drink alcohol to block out the turmoil. Certain stress hormones may be associated with alcoholism.
- Psychological factors. Having low-self esteem or depression may make you more likely to abuse alcohol.
- Having friends or a close partner who drinks regularly — but who may not abuse alcohol — could promote excessive drinking on your part. It may be difficult for you to distance yourself from these “enablers” or at least from their drinking habits.
- Social and cultural factors. The glamorous way that drinking alcohol is portrayed in advertising and in the media may send the message that it’s OK to drink excessively.
Family and friends
Because denial is frequently a characteristic of alcoholism, it’s unlikely that people who are dependent will seek treatment on their own. Often it takes family members, friends or co-workers to persuade them to undergo screening for alcoholism or to seek treatment.
CAUTION; Suddenly stopping drinking for heavy drinkers without medical supervision can be fatal.