Alcoholism
Last Edited: April 10th, 2012

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Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a serious and chronic condition in which the person becomes dependent or addicted to alcohol. While there are many degrees of alcoholism, all are very critical and warrant treatment and support. Individuals who are alcoholics may exhibit a number of symptoms and the addiction to the alcohol becomes so strong that work, family and all aspects of the individual’s life becomes affected by the disease.

Symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, Alcoholism symptoms include:

  • Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Feeling a strong need or compulsion to drink
  • Developing tolerance to alcohol so that you need an increasing amounts to feel its effects
  • Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances due to drinking
  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don't drink
  • Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as "blacking out"
  • Making a ritual of having drinks at certain times and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring you pleasure
  • Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn't available
  • Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in your car
  • Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good or drinking to feel "normal"

People who abuse alcohol may have many of the same signs and symptoms as people who have full-blown alcoholism. However, if you abuse alcohol but aren't completely addicted to it, you may not feel as much of a compulsion to drink. You may not have physical withdrawal symptoms when you don't drink. But alcohol abuse can still cause serious problems. As with alcoholism, you may not be able to quit drinking without help.

If you've ever wondered whether your drinking crosses the line into alcohol abuse or dependence, ask yourself these questions:

  • If you're a man, do you ever have five or more drinks in a day? One standard drink is equivalent to 12 ounces (354.9 milliliters) of beer, 5 ounces (147.9 milliliters) of wine or 1.5 ounces (44.4 milliliters) of 80-proof spirits.
  • If you're a woman, do you ever have four or more drinks in a day?
  • 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 how much you drink?
  • Are you annoyed when other people comment on or criticize your drinking habits?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you may have a problem with alcohol.

Since one of the hallmark feelings associated with alcoholism is denial, many individuals do not feel like their dependence on alcohol is serious enough to warrant help.

Causes

There is no one specific cause for alcoholism. Recent research has shown that there may be a genetic component to alcoholism as well as a host of environmental cues and factors. Other risk factors include the onset of drinking at a young age, being male as men tend to have higher rates of alcoholism than women, family history, a history of mental health problems like depression and having a social network that frequently drinks.

Complications

Alcohol is a powerful drug that affects the central nervous system as well as many other organs of the body. In fact, with chronic drinking, there is virtually no part of the body that is unaffected by the consistent alcohol in the system. For anyone who drinks alcohol, it lowers inhibition which can lead to poor judgment, reduced motor skills and muscle coordination.

The Mayo Clinic cites the following complications with alcoholism or excessive drinking.

Excessive drinking can cause a number of problems. Some of these include:

  • Reduced judgment and lowered inhibitions, leading to poor choices and dangerous situations or behaviors
  • Motor vehicle accidents and other types of accidents
  • Domestic problems
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • A higher likelihood of committing violent crimes

Health problems caused by excessive drinking can include:

  • Liver disorders. Drinking heavily can cause alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. After years of drinking, hepatitis may lead to the irreversible and progressive destruction and scarring of liver tissue (cirrhosis).
  • Digestive problems. Alcohol can result in inflammation of the lining of the stomach (gastritis) and can interfere with absorption of B vitamins and other nutrients. Heavy drinking can also damage your pancreas, which produces the hormones that regulate your metabolism and the enzymes that help digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
  • Heart problems. Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure and increases your risk of heart failure or stroke.
  • Diabetes complications. Alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from your liver and can increase the risk of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is dangerous if you have diabetes and are already taking insulin to lower your blood sugar level.
  • Sexual function and menstruation. Alcohol abuse can cause erectile dysfunction in men. In women, it can interrupt menstruation.
  • Eye problems. Over time, excessive alcohol use can cause weakness and paralysis of your eye muscles.
  • Birth defects. Alcohol use during pregnancy may cause fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting in giving birth to a child who has physical and developmental problems.
  • Bone loss. Alcohol may interfere with the production of new bone. This can lead to thinning bones (osteoporosis) and an increased risk of fractures.
  • Neurological complications. Excessive drinking can affect your nervous system, causing numbness of your hands and feet, disordered thinking, dementia, and short-term memory loss.
  • Increased risk of cancer. Chronic alcohol abuse has been linked to a higher risk of numerous cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast cancer.

Alcohol use leads to serious consequences for many teens, says the Mayo Clinic. Alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents are a major cause of teen deaths. Alcohol is also often a cause in other teenage deaths, including drowning, suicides and homicides. Teens who drink are more likely to become sexually active, have sex more frequently and engage in risky, unprotected sex than are teens who don't drink.

Treatment

Treatment for alcoholism may involve a number of support mechanisms. Sometimes the only way a person goes into treatment is through an intervention from a family member who recognizes the gravity of the problem.

Treatment for alcohol involves detoxification, which is accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, the establishment of a treatment plan with a professional support mechanism, counseling, support groups and in some cases, medications. Treatment may also include medical care for conditions that occurred because of or in correlation with the alcoholism like heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease and increased blood pressure.

If you are concerned about a loved one’s consumption of alcohol or your own, speak with a medical or a mental health provider. While the road to recovery is difficult, there are numerous support groups, treatment plans and resources available to anyone who wants to commit to abstaining from alcohol.