What are alcohol abuse and alcoholism?
Alcohol affects people in different ways. Some people can enjoy a glass of
wine with food and drink moderate amounts of alcohol in social settings without
any problems. Having one or fewer drinks per day for women and two or fewer
drinks per day for men is considered moderate drinking, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
Drinking alcohol too much or too often, or being unable to control alcohol
consumption, can be a sign of a larger problem. Two different issues that some
people can develop are alcohol abuse or alcoholism, also known as alcohol
These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are marked
differences. People who abuse alcohol drink too much on occasion and their
drinking habits often result in risky behavior and poor judgment. But alcohol
abusers generally aren't dependent on alcohol. Alcoholism, on the other hand,
means a person needs alcohol to get through their day.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
says that about 18 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol
use disorders. These disorders can be disruptive and life-threatening.
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can cause serious health conditions. Alcohol
worsens certain disorders, such as osteoporosis. It can lead to certain
cancers. Alcohol abuse also makes it difficult to diagnose other health issues,
such as heart disease. This is due to the way alcohol affects the circulatory
What are the symptoms of alcohol use, abuse, and alcoholism?
A high concentration of
alcohol in the blood causes symptoms, such as:
- slurred speech
- slowing of reflexes
- a decreased ability to control bodily movements
- difficulty concentrating
- gaps in memory, or brownouts
- poor decision-making abilities
- risky behavior
- staying conscious but not having memory of your
actions, which is called a blackout
Very high concentrations of
alcohol in the blood can cause breathing problems, coma, or death.
Many people use alcohol with
no ill effects. But anyone can experience its effects, such as illness,
vomiting, or hangovers.
Drinking alcohol can also
You shouldn’t attempt to
drive or operate heavy machinery while under the effects of alcohol.
The symptoms of alcoholism
- a strong desire or craving to drink
- an inability to control cravings
- an inability to stop drinking
- an increased tolerance for alcohol
- lying about drinking
- attempting to drink without others knowing
- an inability to get through everyday activities
symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- drinking to relax
- driving under the influence of alcohol
- problems with family and friends because of
- neglecting responsibilities
- having legal problems because of alcohol
abuse alcohol may deny a problem, but there are ways to recognize alcohol abuse
in others. People who abuse alcohol may drink often and experience family,
work, or school problems because of drinking. However, they may downplay their
drinking or lie about the amount of alcohol they consume.
Who is at risk for alcohol abuse and alcoholism?
For some people, alcohol
abuse and alcoholism results from psychological or social factors. They may drink
to calm down or loosen up in social settings. Others use alcohol to cope with
psychological issues or stress in their daily lives.
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism
may also run in families. However, genetics doesn’t guarantee a problem with
alcohol. The exact causes of alcohol abuse and alcoholism are often unknown.
Alcohol abuse is more common
at certain points in life. Males, college students, and people going through
serious life events or trauma are more likely to abuse alcohol.
People who experience the
following are also more likely to deal with their problems with alcohol:
- emotional stress
This is dangerous because
alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism. This is because alcohol tolerance levels
can gradually increase. Some people start to drink more and more with each
How are alcohol abuse and alcoholism diagnosed?
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are
diagnosable conditions when they:
- impact relationships
- cause harm or injury
- have a negative effect on your quality of life
Diagnosing alcohol abuse can be
subjective. Concerned family and friends often try and help the person realize
their drinking is out of control, although they might not believe it.
Your doctor may ask you about drinking
habits and health history. They may also use blood tests to assess your overall
health, paying special attention to areas of the body most impacted by alcohol,
including the brain and other parts of the nervous system, as well as the heart
Complications caused by alcoholism
Many people with
alcoholism continue to drink even when they develop health problems related to
drinking. Loved ones sometimes notice a problem before the person does. It’s
important that the person dependent on alcohol acknowledges their problem. Unless
the person acknowledges that they have a problem, treatment will not be
successful as the person will not take treatment seriously and most likely will
not benefit from treatment offered.
Alcohol abuse can have
short-term and long-term effects, such as alcohol poisoning, sexual dysfunction,
and liver damage.
The short-term and
long-term effects of alcoholism include brain damage, cirrhosis, and an
increased risk of heart disease.
Someone with alcohol
dependence who stops drinking may have withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol withdrawal can be a medical
emergency. Seek medical help right away if someone experiences:
- severe vomiting
If you have alcoholism and a history of
withdrawal symptoms, see a doctor before quitting. You should also see a doctor
before quitting alcohol if you have other health conditions.
How are alcohol abuse and alcoholism treated?
The treatment for alcohol abuse and
alcoholism focuses on helping you learn ways to control the disease. Most
people who recover from alcoholism have to abstain from alcohol because drinking
alcohol in moderation is too hard for them. Abstinence is often the only way to
manage the disease.
Treatment involves helping people
understand their alcohol dependency and any problems in their life. It also
involves a commitment to staying sober or practicing healthier drinking habits.
Recovery from alcohol dependence can be a long process.
Treatment for alcohol abuse often
includes therapy, learning new coping skills, and finding healthy ways to
Doctors sometimes prescribe
medications to reduce the symptoms of withdrawal. Other medications can help you
quit drinking by blocking the feeling of intoxication or making you feel sick
when alcohol enters your body. Medication can also help reduce cravings.
Having support and seeking
professional treatment increases chances for recovery from alcohol dependence.
Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide support for people who are recovering.
What is the outlook for alcohol abuse and alcoholism?
People who abuse alcohol and people with alcoholism are at increased risk
for health problems, such as:
- mental health issues
- liver problems
- brain damage
- a weakened immune system
Even people who complete treatment have a risk of relapse. It’s important to
recognize warning signs and seek help if you’re concerned about having a
relapse. Continued therapy and support help minimize this risk.