Alcoholism is one of the most common forms of addiction plaguing modern society. With its widespread availability and acceptance, alcohol is common across all demographics, placing anyone at risk for developing alcoholism. Although most people who consume alcohol may not realize it, alcohol is a depressant drug and it is arguably the most dangerous of all drugs. Most surprisingly is that alcoholism and alcohol abuse are very similar, and alcohol abuse is just as dangerous as alcoholism. Most people who consume alcohol have abused it, or currently abuse it, and are simply unaware of the definition of alcohol abuse, and how closely related it is to alcoholism.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is defined as a chronic disorder characterized by dependence on alcohol, repeated excessive use of alcoholic beverages, the development of withdrawal symptoms on reducing or ceasing intake, morbidity that may include cirrhosis of the liver, and decreased ability to function socially and vocationally.ⁱ
Many people wonder what does and does not constitute alcoholism, as there are a number of reckless behaviors and negative consequences associated with alcohol consumption. Some of these behaviors and consequences include:
- DUI charges
- Drinking alcohol until blackout occurs
- Severe hangovers after heavy drinking
- Unfulfilled obligations at home, work and/or school as a result of drinking
- Accidents resulting from alcohol intoxication
- Becoming sick from drinking alcohol
- Getting into fights and confrontations while under the influence of alcohol
- Engaging in risky behavior (such as unprotected sex or driving) while under the influence of alcohol
While these behaviors do not constitute alcoholism, they are signs of alcohol abuse, and that can be just as deadly as alcoholism. There is really only one thing that separates alcoholism from alcohol abuse, and that is dependence. If an individual is unable to cut down or stop his or her alcohol intake because he/she is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when such attempts are made, then he or she is an alcoholic. This should not be confused with someone who abuses alcohol, and despite claiming to want to cut down on drinking, does not do it because he or she does not want to. Alcoholics may want to stop drinking with every fiber of their being, but be physically incapable of doing so on their own because of withdrawal symptoms. Some of the withdrawal symptoms can be life threatening, depending on the severity of alcoholism, and they include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Vivid and disturbing nightmares
- Dilated pupils
- Rapid heart rate
- Hand and/or body tremor
- Delirium tremons, which includes
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Severe confusion
It is important to have a medical consultation before attempting to stop drinking alcohol cold turkey, if physical dependence to alcohol is a concern.
Why is Alcohol Abuse Dangerous?
Many people who drink alcohol have experienced one or more negative consequences from their alcohol consumption at one time or another. It may have been a hangover the next day, or it may have been a DUI or getting sick, but most would prefer not to refer to their own alcohol consumption as abuse. The fact of the matter is that most of the ways in which people drink alcohol, and behave while under the influence of alcohol constitutes alcohol abuse. Since the only thing separating alcohol abuse from alcoholism is physical dependence, many people are dangerously close to alcoholism than they may think. While there is no measurement of when an individual may cross the line from alcohol abuse to alcoholism, there are some more severe signs of alcohol abuse that may indicate a growing problem with an individual’s alcohol consumption. Some of these signs include:
- Lying about the amount, frequency, and times of alcohol consumption
- Becoming irate or hostile when asked about alcohol consumption
- Hiding alcohol around one’s home, vehicle, and/or workplace
- Needing more and more alcohol to become intoxicated
- More Frequent occurrences of uncontrolled behavior while drinking alcohol
- Deteriorating health or poor personal grooming
- Neglecting major responsibilities to drink alcohol
- Feeling shaky (usually in the mornings) until consuming alcohol
- Multiple failed attempts to cut down or stop drinking alcohol for a period of time
Many of these signs indicate a larger problem than occasional alcohol consumption. It is important to understand that just because alcohol abuse doesn’t sound as bad as alcoholism, it is just as dangerous and potentially deadly. Alcohol should always be consumed responsibly, and no sign of alcohol abuse is conducive with responsible alcohol consumption.
Alcohol abuse has several dangers and negative consequences as well, which can include:
- Incarceration and criminal charges relating to alcohol consumption
- Troubled or broken relationships resulting from alcohol consumptions
- Health issues such as liver disease resulting from chronic and excessive alcohol consumption
- Personal or property damage from accidents and/or fights while under the influence of alcohol
- Inability to maintain or get a job because of chronic and compulsive drinking
- Financial troubles resulting from neglect of responsibility and costs associated with other negative consequences related to alcohol abuse
How Does Alcoholism Develop?
Alcoholism develops from alcohol abuse, and for every individual the thin line between the two conditions is different. Some people may develop alcoholism very early in their alcohol consumption, while others may abuse alcohol heavily for several years, and never develop alcoholism. So how can this be? Researchers have identified several factors that may play a role in who is at higher risk for alcoholism, and they include:
- Family genetics
- Age alcohol consumption began
- Mental health
- History of drug abuse or addiction
An individual who is at a higher risk for alcoholism is not necessarily going to develop the disease, just as someone who is not at particularly high risk may become and alcoholic. More important than risk factors, are what individuals do in their lives, and the patterns of alcohol consumption in which they engage. According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately 18 million Americans suffer from alcoholism which is defined as:
- A strong need or urge to consume alcohol
- Inability to stop drinking alcohol once begun
- Physical withdrawal symptoms when not drinking alcohol
- A need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to get drunk
One of the conditions most commonly associated with alcoholism is the development of other illnesses and diseases. This is because of the damaging effects alcohol has on a various parts of the human body. Although cirrhosis of the liver is the most common and well known disease to affect alcoholics, their bodies suffer a series of traumas from the brain to the liver.
Prolonged chronic drinking or binge drinking in one setting cause heart problems such as:
- High Blood Pressure
- Liver Problems
Heavy drinking over prolonged periods can cause the following issues with the liver:
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic Hepatitis
Heavy and chronic alcohol consumption can cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances and severely damage digestion abilities
Alcoholism Can Be Treated
Although alcoholism is a dangerous and deadly disease, it can be treated, just as any other addiction can. When an individual struggles with alcoholism, he or she is physically addicted to alcohol, and should always consult a medical professional before attempting to quit drinking “cold turkey”. If a medical detoxification is required, that is the first step in recovery from alcoholism. Once detoxification has been completed, it is essential to participate in an addiction treatment program. The benefits of an addiction treatment program can be endless, but the goals are to equip every individual with the knowledge, skills, and tools to maintain sobriety once the program has been completed. Addiction rehab centers are not intended to cure anyone, as addiction does not have a cure. The goal of addiction rehab programs is to give addicts the skills they need to keep themselves sober. Some of the ways in which this is done are as follows:
- Discovering and addressing underlying issues and trauma that may have contributed to, or caused alcoholism
- Individual therapy to understand one’s own personal struggle with alcoholism, and the emotional trigger that may lead to relapse
- Group therapy to connect and relate to others with similar struggles and goals. Many friendships forged in group therapy carry on once the program has been completed.
- Establishment of various activities and hobbies that are healthy and conducive to recovery that can be continued once the program has been completed
- Aftercare programs for an alcoholic to develop a plan for maintained sobriety with his or counselor. These plans usually include things like employment, residence, support groups, continued activity, and continued individual therapy
The importance of addiction treatment for a disease like alcoholism is especially important because unlike every other drug, alcohol is easily obtainable and socially accepted. In everyday life, alcohol is ubiquitous in ads, restaurants, stores, and social gatherings. For an alcoholic who does not have a strong foundation in recovery and solid skills and tools to abstain from drinking amidst the many pressures and easy availability of alcohol, relapse is a near inevitability.
If you, or someone you love is suffering from alcoholism, please don’t stand by and allow it to claim another life. Treatment is available, and it can work. Call us now at 1 (866) 445-4137 to speak with a counselor who will talk with you about your situation and work with you to determine the severity of alcoholism, and the most effective form of treatment to overcome it. There are over 12,000 addiction treatment programs in the United States, and we will help you to narrow down the options and find the form of treatment that works best for you, or your alcoholic loved one. Please don’t wait. Alcoholism is progressive, and it will end in death if help is not received, so please call now, and reclaim a life of health and happiness, free from addiction. We are here to help.