Alcohol Addiction/Substance Abuse

What is Alcoholism?

Originally published at

Alcoholism is a long-term chronic disease in which a person has developed an unhealthy addiction to alcohol. It goes by several names, including "alcohol dependence syndrome" and "alcohol use disorder".

Any person affected by alcoholism (also known as an alcoholic) has a very high tolerance to the substance, is unable to use it in moderation and has extreme physical withdrawals without it.

In the U.S., there are close to 14 million people who are either alcohol abusers or alcoholics. Here are more statistics on this deadly disease:

  • Adolescents who have begun drinking prior to turning 15 years old have double the chances of developing a dependence on alcohol as adults who started drinking at 21+
  • Although alcoholism affects both men and women, there are nearly three times as many more alcoholics that are men (9.8 million) than women (3.9 million)
  • 25% of women who have an eating disorder are also alcoholics
  • 40% of American-Indian women are alcohol dependent
  • Close to 20% of suicide victims are found to be alcohol dependent

As reported in multiple questionnaire-based, self-conducted reports performed in 2002 by Knight et al, about 31% of college students showed results of an alcohol abuse problem and 6% were alcohol dependent.

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, American taxpayers pay an average of $40 to $60 billion dollars annually on car accidents, medical care, criminal activity, social programs and production loss caused by alcohol abuse and alcoholism

Signs of Alcoholism

In general, there are several signs to look for in a person that can help you detect if he/she is an alcoholic. These include:

  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol over an extended period of time
  • Spending a lot of time and money consuming alcohol
  • Strongly desiring alcohol at all times of the day
  • Strongly desiring alcohol without being in the appropriate social setting
  • Choosing to drink alcohol instead of taking part in their responsibilities
  • Displaying social problems after drinking alcohol
  • Experiencing health problems after drinking alcohol
  • Engaging in risky behavior while drinking
  • Stopping drinking brings about extreme withdrawal symptoms
  • Needing significantly more alcohol than others to reach the same level of intoxication
  • Resisting or being unable to cut back on drinking

Common Causes of Alcoholism

There are many factors that can lead to alcoholism. However, there are a few common reasons people turn to heavy and regular drinking in the first place. Some of these include:

To relieve stress. When a person uses alcohol to relax from the many stresses of everyday life, they are likely to develop a dependence on the drug. Because alcohol is a depressant and sedative, many take comfort in the soothing feeling that comes over them while intoxicated. However, by drinking too often, it requires more and more alcohol to produce the same results, causing people to become heavy and frequent drinkers.

To neglect responsibilities. While some people drink after dealing with their daily stresses, some alcoholics neglect their responsibilities altogether, including taking care of their families, attending school or work, caring for themselves and more.

To overcome anxiety or a traumatic event. Some people are naturally anxious or have experienced a traumatic situation that has caused them to have perpetual anxiety. Drinking lowers people's inhibitions and makes them more comfortable in social situations, which can become addictive for those who use it this way.

To become isolated. There are many people who do not have strong support networks, who have a lack of mobility, who have limited access to transportation, etc. It's common for these types of individuals to develop an addiction to alcohol in attempts of embracing that loneliness.

To feel good. Some simply enjoy being high. For those people, continual use of the drug eventually causes an addiction, which can quickly become a complete dependence.

Family members had an addiction. Growing up with members of the family-those you look up to most as a child-who are alcoholics can make it confusing for people to see that it's not the norm to drink so much and so often. For them, it's common to develop the habit themselves.

To cope with loss. Losing someone can take a serious toll on a person's mental and emotional stability. Drinking can be a way to cope with that loss, even if they know it's only a temporary distraction from their situation.

Alcoholism and Its Effects on a Person's Health

Alcoholism can have both long- and short-term effects on an individual. For many alcoholics, there are many health problems associated with their destructive drinking behavior, such as:

  • Brain damage, including Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome
  • Liver damage
  • Inflammation of the pancreas
  • Problems with immune-system functionality
  • Heart problems, including an irregular heartbeat
  • An increased risk for mental illnesses, including depression
  • An increased risk for developing cancer
  • Damage to the fetus (if a woman drinks during pregnancy)

Signs of Withdrawal

An alcoholic will often exhibit signs of withdrawal if they've been without the drug for a certain amount of time. Some less extreme signs (often in the earlier stages) may include the following:

  • Depression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Trembling
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Tiredness
  • Sweating
  • Lack of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Inability to sleep
  • Restlessness

More extreme signs (often in the later stages) may include:

  • Extreme confusion and irritability
  • Fever
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations (tactile, auditory and visual)
  • Heart rate fluctuation
  • Increased blood pressure

Because these symptoms can be very dangerous to a person's health, it's important to remember that alcohol withdrawal should always be medically observed and treated professionally.

Treating Alcoholism

Treating alcoholism can be done, but its success depends on a number of factors. These include an alcoholic's:

  • Current state of health
  • Available social support
  • Level of motivation
  • Preexisting psychiatric disorder (if one applies)

Additionally, because alcoholics have become physically dependent on the substance, it's important to know that many alcoholics do not want to seek treatment. It's up to friends, family and other people in their lives to help them want to seek treatment for their disease.

If someone wants to use conventional medicine to treat their addiction, there are three stages the treatment is divided into:

  1. Detoxification - stopping use of alcohol altogether (this can be a medical emergency, so it's important to have a professional help with this)
  2. Rehabilitation - attending counseling and taking medications-this step can be done in-patient or out-patient
  3. Maintenance of Sobriety - taking steps on one's own behalf to refrain from alcohol use; attending regular group therapy sessions, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA); getting a sponsor

If you or someone you know is ready to seek treatment for alcoholism, know what your choices are. You can also learn more about support options and alcohol resources that are available to you.

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