What Is Alcoholism?

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The terms “alcoholism” and “alcoholic” are often used to describe anyone who drinks heavily. The proper term for this condition is “alcohol use disorder,” and it refers to a serious disease. Learn more about the condition commonly known as alcoholism and how it affects an individual’s health and wellbeing. 

Alcoholism Symptoms

There are varying degrees of alcohol use. Some people drink heavily but do not become physically dependent on alcohol. Others may have just a few drinks and become addicted. Alcoholism is the most serious form of use.

Alcohol use disorder is classified as a mental illness and is diagnosed using these criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5):

In the past year, the individual has:

  • Had times when they ended up drinking more or for longer than they intended.
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t.
  • Spent a lot of time drinking, feeling sick, and recovering from other effects of drinking.
  • Wanted a drink so much they couldn’t think of anything else.
  • Found that drinking or being sick from drinking often interfered with taking care of the home or family, or job responsibilities, or school/academic performance.
  • Continued drinking even though it was causing trouble with loved ones.
  • Gave up or cut back on other hobbies and activities to drink.
  • More than once gotten into unsafe situations while drinking (such as driving under the influence or operating machinery).
  • Continued to drink despite negative mental or physical health problems, or after blackouts (memory lapses).
  • Had to drink more to get the desired effects, or found the same amount of alcohol did not affect them as much as before.
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, including trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, hallucinations, or seizures.

The presence of two or more of the above symptoms indicates an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Signs of Alcoholism to Watch Out For

Alcoholism is both a personal and social problem. While someone can hide their use to a certain extent, there are visible warning signs. If you notice any of the following behaviors in a loved one, they may be living with alcoholism.

The individual is:

  • Becoming isolated or withdrawn, avoiding friends or family members
  • Giving up activities they once enjoyed
  • Behaving differently, displaying traits such as:
    • Aggression
    • Anxiety
    • Depressed mood
    • Conflict with friends or family
    • Frequent mood swings
  • Displaying poor or decreased performance at work or school
  • Neglecting responsibilities around the home or within the family
  • Experiencing lapses in memory
  • Having legal trouble, such as a DUI arrest
  • Having interpersonal or professional problems such as fights with family members or loss of job
  • Drinking frequently and displaying an increased tolerance for alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite negative health consequences
  • Lying about or trying to hide alcohol consumption
  • Experiencing physical or mental health effects when not drinking

If you notice one or more of these symptoms in your loved one, they could have an alcohol use disorder.

Take our assessment to see if it could be an alcohol use disorder.

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Long-Term Health Effects of Alcohol Use

Over time, alcohol use causes negative health effects. Heavy drinkers are at risk for many health problems, including:

  • Liver disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, breast, liver, and more
  • Stomach ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Brain damage
  • Osteoporosis
  • Heart disease

Our culture often promotes drinking, especially among young adults. When you consider these serious health issues, however, it’s clear that drinking has serious risks.

The Problem of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is defined as drinking heavily in a short period of time. That usually consists of five or more drinks in two hours for men, and four or more drinks in two hours for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC states that most people who binge drink are not dependent on alcohol, but it still lists alcohol dependence as a risk factor associated with bingeing.

Excessive drinking can also lead to other serious health problems and negative effects, including car crashes, falls, physical or sexual assault, heart disease, cancer, and even homicide and suicide. You can even put yourself at risk for alcohol poisoning, a condition where you have toxic levels of alcohol in your body.

While binge drinkers may feel they are in control of their alcohol consumption, this may not be entirely true. Frequent alcohol use can lead to a dependence on the substance. Any time you engage in heavy drinking, you are putting yourself at risk for serious health consequences, including alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol Treatment Options

When you’re living with an alcohol use disorder, the best option is to seek professional help. There are many reputable, licensed treatment facilities that offer effective programs. Here is an overview of the types of programs that might be beneficial.

Detox

Early in recovery, you may need to complete a detoxification program. Detox is a period of time where you stop using alcohol and allow your body to rid itself of the alcohol in your system. Please be advised that detox can be dangerous and even life-threatening if attempted without medical help. You should always seek professional treatment before you stop drinking.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab consists of a stay in a hospital. Here, you will have 24-hour monitoring from doctors and other medical professionals. You will also have access to counselors and psychiatrists. This is a short-term treatment option for those who need intensive medical or psychiatric support.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment programs are similar to inpatient in some ways, but they take place in a homelike environment rather than a hospital. You will participate in various types of therapy and have 24-hour access to treatment staff.

Outpatient Rehab

Depending on the level of your dependence, you may be able to recover from outpatient rehab alone. This is also used as a next step after an inpatient stay. Outpatient treatment is more flexible and often allows you to maintain a job, schooling, or other responsibilities.

Outpatient alcohol treatment consists of group and individual counseling sessions. Many treatment centers now offer family therapy as well, since addiction affects the entire family. You may also benefit from Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), a treatment that combines traditional therapy with medications that lessen the effects of withdrawal and reduce cravings for alcohol.

Finding Support in Recovery

Even after completing a rehab program, you will still need to actively work to maintain sobriety. This requires support from your peers, your family and friends, and your community. Your treatment provider will be able to connect you with resources in your area. These could include Alcoholics Anonymous and similar support groups, appropriate recovery housing, government assistance programs, employment resources, community outreach programs, and more.

Ready to Take the First Step?

Rehab After Work is a licensed and accredited substance use treatment program. We have a variety of outpatient programs for adults and teens that can assist you in your recovery. To get help for yourself or a loved one, call (800) 238-4357. A trained member of our admissions staff will answer. There is no commitment to enter treatment; you can simply gather more information and ask any questions you have. If you prefer to communicate through email, you can fill out a form on our website and note your communication preferences.

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References:

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-use-disorder-comparison-between-dsm

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/297734.php

https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/215627.php

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/high-functioning-alcoholic#1

https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/alcohol/warning-signs/

https://www.drugrehab.com/addiction/alcohol/alcoholism/signs-and-symptoms/