What is Alcoholism?
When running a quick search online for “what is alcoholism,” a lot of different results come up. The truth is that there is no single definition for alcoholism. It is a complex and multifaceted disease of the mind, body, and spirit that is characterized by compulsive and hazardous drinking patterns.
Alcoholism is typically recognized as the most severe form, or latest stage, of alcohol abuse. People who identify as alcoholics will typically agree that they have the inability to control how much they drink and how often they drink. And, when they try to stop drinking, they are overwhelmed by cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms.
People who struggle with alcoholism may feel as though they are unable to function or get through the day without taking a drink. As a result, drinking may become the top priority in their lives, above more important things like family, work, and school. As time progresses, the disease of alcoholism takes foot in every facet of a person’s life – in work, school, family, relationships, health, and more.
Why Do People Abuse Alcohol?
There are many different risk factors for alcoholism and there are even more reasons why people abuse alcohol in the first place. Common reasons why people start drinking include:
- Reduce stress
- Feel happy
- Cope with grief and loss
- Cope with trauma
- Deal with anxiety
- Deal with shame
- Cope with loneliness
While it is common for teens to experiment with alcohol, alcoholism typically doesn’t develop until the 20s or 30s. Risk factors that may make a person more susceptible to alcohol addiction include:
- Drinking steadily over several years
- Starting to drink at an early age
- Having a family history of addiction
- Struggling with depression or other mental health problems
- Having a history of trauma
- Having bariatric surgery
- Other cultural and social factors
Some people who drink are able to do so in moderation, and they may even benefit from having a drink every now and then. Others don’t have this luxury, and they lose control the minute alcohol enters their system.
Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism
Not everyone who abuses alcohol is an alcoholic. There are major distinctions between abuse and addiction. Alcohol abuse can be defined as drinking more than is recommended for a healthy individual. In other words, alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that exceeds that of drinking in moderation.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, drinking in moderation means limiting one’s alcohol intake to 2 drinks or less per day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women. In the United States, one standard drink contains 14 grams of pure alcohol, equivalent to:
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 8-9 ounces of malt liquor
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquors
While drinking any more than this can be defined as alcohol abuse, doing so is extremely common. So, what constitutes heavy drinking and what constitutes addiction? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as 4 or more drinks a day for men or more than 14 drinks a week and 3 drinks or more for women or more than 7 drinks a week.
Alcohol abuse can also be defined as binge drinking on 5 or more days a month.
People who abuse alcohol may not be addicted to it. They may go on short benders, but be able to stop if they need to study or go to work. An alcoholic, on the other hand, won’t be able to simply stop drinking. Instead, they will try to stop, be unable to do so, and continue drinking despite the consequences.
While someone who abuses alcohol may be able to function with some given side effects, someone suffering from alcoholism will need professional alcohol treatment.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
Although alcoholism is a legitimate medical condition, the word “alcoholism” is not tied to any real medical diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM-V) is the standard for the classification of mental health disorders by mental health professionals in the United States. In other words, it is what doctors and psychiatrists use to make formal diagnoses of patients.
In the DSM-V, alcoholism is formally known as alcohol use disorder (AUD). In order for a person to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, he or she must meet at least 2 of the 11 criteria outlined in the DSM-V over a 12-month period of time. And, the severity of one’s AUD – mild, moderate, or severe – depends on the number of criteria met. People who meet more than 6 of the following criteria may have a severe alcohol use disorder.
- Drinking more than intended on multiple occasions
- Wanting to stop drinking or cut back on drinking but being unable to do so
- Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking
- Feeling strong urges to drink
- Drinking is interfering with one’s family, life, job, or school
- Continuing to drink despite alcohol causing problems in one’s life and relationships
- Giving up activities that were once enjoyed to drink instead
- Getting into dangerous, risky, or illegal activities while drinking
- Continuing to drink despite a worsening mental or physical health problem
- Needing to drink more alcohol to feel the effects (tolerance)
- Having withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol wears off
Anyone who experiences any number of these symptoms may have a drinking problem. The more criteria a person identifies with, the more severe their alcohol use is thought to be.
Diagnosing Alcohol Use Disorder
People who suspect they have a drinking problem should consult with a healthcare provider or addiction treatment specialist for a consultation. During the consultation, doctors will ask questions about the patients:
- Drinking habits
- History with going to alcohol rehab (if applicable)
- Medical history
- Treatment goals
- Relevant symptoms
The provider may conduct a thorough evaluation asking the patient questions about their drinking to determine the best course of treatment
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
As a chronic and progressive disease, alcoholism won’t go away on its own. And, it can damage virtually every organ in the body if left untreated. In fact, excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for 261 deaths each day, or 95,000 deaths each year. Heavy alcohol abuse is thought to shorten a person’s lifespan by almost 29 years.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant which means it slows down body functions. Drinking too much can lead to slurred speech, loss of muscle coordination, and inability to think straight. When abused long-term, alcohol can have fatal consequences.
Chronic alcohol consumption can impair one’s judgment, lower inhibitions, and reduce one’s overall ability to function. Complications that commonly occur among people struggling with alcohol use disorder include:
- Relationship problems
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Accidental injury
- Legal problems
- Criminal activity
- Risky or unprotected sex
- Mental health issues
In addition to these social and emotional effects, alcoholism can take a serious toll on someone’s health. For example, drinking too much alcohol over time can lead to:
- Digestive problems
- Liver disease
- Heart problems
- Menstruation issues
- Eye problems
- Birth defects
- Sexual dysfunction
- Weakened immune system
- Neurological issues
- Bone damage
Even worse, when a person who is addicted to alcohol tries to stop drinking, he or she will experience painful withdrawal symptoms, some of which are potentially fatal. Alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures, delirium tremens, hallucinations, and more, especially in high-risk patients. As a result, it is never advised for anyone to stop drinking without first consulting with a medical professional.
Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
The first step towards overcoming alcoholism is to stop drinking. However, stopping drinking isn’t always as easy as it sounds, especially once someone is hooked. Fortunately, there are comprehensive alcohol rehab programs available to help with detox, treatment, and aftercare.
To learn more about alcoholism or to find an alcohol rehab near you, contact one of our dedicated treatment professionals today.