Alcoholism is a term previously used to refer to someone with alcohol abuse issues, specifically physical dependence on alcohol. While the blanket term is no longer used medically, many people struggle with some form of alcohol use disorder, including alcoholism, which is now called alcohol dependence.
In fact, alcohol is the most abused substance in the United States, with approximately 18 million U.S. adults struggling with alcohol abuse, addiction or dependence.
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is now viewed on a spectrum, with disorders ranging from mild to moderate or severe.
Symptoms of an alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) include:
- being unable to limit alcohol use or abuse
- lack of interest in social activities or hobbies which used to interest the person
- wanting to stop drinking, but being unable to do so successfully
- drinking alcohol while doing high-risk activities, like driving
- spending a lot of time or resources drinking
- developing a tolerance, or no longer feeling the effects of alcohol unless consuming a large amount
- experiencing cravings when not drinking or attempting to stop
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or attempting to stop
- disruptions at school, work or home due to alcohol use
- drinking to curb withdrawal symptoms
- continuing to drink alcohol even when facing negative consequences, like trouble in relationships
Not everyone with an alcohol use disorder will display all of these symptoms, but a person who exhibits two or more of these symptoms during the same 12-month period is considered to have an alcohol use disorder.
What Is Alcoholism? Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorders come in three forms: alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, and alcohol dependence.
Abuse of alcohol can occur in a number of ways, the two most common of which is binge drinking and heavy alcohol use.
Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that results in a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 g/dL. Though there is no set rate for when this BAC will be reached, it typically occurs with four drinks for women and five for men in about two hours. People who binge drink may be considered to have an alcohol use disorder if they have binge drank at least one day per month in a 12-month period.
Heavy Alcohol Use
A person may struggle with heavy alcohol use if they binge drink at least five days a month. Someone with a heavy alcohol use disorder may drink heavily several days a month for several consecutive months.
Alcohol abuse such as binge or heavy drinking puts a person at an increased risk for developing alcohol addiction or dependence.
A person with an addiction to alcohol becomes mentally reliant on it. They may become preoccupied with drinking alcohol, begin experiencing cravings for it or believe they cannot feel good or happy without it. Some people become addicted to alcohol after first using it in an attempt to self-medicate certain feelings or conditions, like anxiety or depression.
Alcohol is one of the few substances that can also cause physical dependence. When a person drinks alcohol, it causes a chemical reaction within the brain, while producing feelings of calm and relaxation. With continued abuse, a body gets used to these feelings, so much so that the body and brain adjust to having alcohol in order to produce feelings of happiness.
Once the body is used to having alcohol to feel happy, the brain will convince the person they cannot feel good without it—it’s at this point that withdrawal symptoms occur, such as tremors, headache, nausea, and vomiting, if a person tries to stop drinking alcohol. Withdrawal is what often causes a person to keep drinking in order to abate or avoid the symptoms.
Effects Of Alcoholism On The Brain And Body
Alcohol affects the brain and body in many ways. Whether a person drinks a lot on one occasion, multiple occasions or long-term, the effects of alcohol can be far-reaching.
The more a person drinks and the longer they struggle with alcohol abuse, the more at risk they become for adverse effects. However, research shows that even moderate drinking done over a long period of time can have consequences for a person’s health.
Short-Term Effects Of Alcoholism
Short-term effects of alcohol abuse may put a person at risk for harmful behaviors due to the effects produced by alcohol and/or worsen pre-existing health conditions.
Short-term effects of alcoholism may include:
- injuries or accidents due to drinking and engaging in high-risk activities like swimming, driving or working with fire
- violent activities or outbursts, such as physical fights with a partner
- committing a violent crime or act, such as homicide, suicide or sexual assault
- engaging in the risky sexual behavior, like unprotected sex, putting a person at risk for contracting sexually transmitted or communicable diseases
- miscarriage, stillbirth or other birth and developmental defects for children born to pregnant women who drink alcohol
Not every person who abuses alcohol will experience these effects. Alcohol affects each person differently depending on a number of factors, including how much and how often they drink, how fast their body metabolizes alcohol, if they have eaten at the time they drank, body fat percent and if the person has developed a tolerance to alcohol.
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Long-Term Effects Of Alcoholism
People who drink alcohol heavily over an extended period of time not only put themselves at risk for the short-term effects of alcohol use, but also increase their chances for the development of adverse health conditions.
Alcohol affects many parts of the body, including the brain, heart, liver, pancreas and immune system. The body can only process so much alcohol at any one time, so when a person drinks heavily, excess alcohol is stored and wreaks havoc on the body.
Long-term effects of alcoholism can include:
- increased risk of developing cancer of the breast, esophagus, liver, mouth, and throat
- development of high blood pressure, liver disease, pancreatitis or digestive issues
- damage to the heart: cardiomyopathy (stretching/drooping of heart muscles), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), stroke
- learning and memory troubles, including poor school or work performance or developing dementia
- development or worsening of mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression
- development of alcohol addiction or dependence
When To Get Help For Alcoholism
Because alcohol is socially acceptable and a legal substance, it can be hard to know when to get help for a loved one who may be at risk for alcoholism. In general, if a person displays two or more of the symptoms of alcoholism over an extended period of time (several months in the same 12-month period) it may be time to seek help.
If a person struggles with quitting use of alcohol, has withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or has lost a job, get in trouble at school or run into legal trouble due to drinking, these may be signs an alcohol use disorder is present. Fortunately, there is hope for people suffering from alcohol abuse who want to become substance-free and regain their lives.
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Finding Treatment For Alcoholism
Because alcohol can result in physical dependence and strong psychological addiction, the best treatment can be found in an inpatient rehab program.
Inpatient addiction treatment allows the person to be surrounded by expert care 24 hours a day, access medical help to successfully complete detox and be connected with aftercare resources so they can enter recovery fully equipped for managing their addiction.
Rehab programs will vary by treatment center but may include medically supervised detox, medication-assisted treatment, counseling, behavioral therapy, alternative therapies and more.
People who get into and remain in treatment are shown to have effective outcomes, including remaining sober and improving their occupational functioning.