Alcoholism and alcohol abuse

Definition

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are two types of problem drinking.

Alcoholism is when your drinking causes serious problems in your life, yet you keep drinking. You also may have a physical dependence on alcohol. This means that you need more and more alcohol to feel drunk. Stopping suddenly may cause withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol abuse is when your drinking leads to problems, but you are not physically dependent on alcohol. These problems may occur:

Causes

No one knows what causes problems with alcohol. Health experts think that it may be a combination of a person’s:

Drinking a lot of alcohol can put you at risk for alcohol problems. You are more at risk for alcoholism if:

One drink is defined as a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1 1/2-ounce shot of liquor.

If you have a parent with alcoholism, you are more at risk for alcohol problems.

You also may be more likely to abuse alcohol or become dependent if:

Alcohol abuse is on the rise. In the U.S., about 3 out of 10 people drink at a level that puts them at risk for alcoholism.

If you are concerned about your drinking, it may help to take a careful look at your alcohol use.

Symptoms

If you have a drinking problem, you may:

Symptoms of alcohol dependence include:

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will:

These questions from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism can help screen for an alcohol problem:

Your health care provider may order tests to check for health problems that are common in people who abuse alcohol. These tests may include:

Treatment

Many people with an alcohol problem need to completely stop using alcohol. This is called abstinence. Having strong social and family support can help make it easier to quit drinking.

Some people are able to just cut back on their drinking. So even if you don’t give up alcohol altogether, you may be able to drink less. This can improve your health and relationships with others. It can also help you perform better at work or school.

However, many people who drink too much find they can’t just cut back. Abstinence may be the only way to manage a drinking problem.

DECIDING TO QUIT

Like many people with an alcohol problem, you may not recognize that your drinking has gotten out of hand. An important first step is to be aware of how much you drink. It also helps to understand the health risks of alcohol.

If you decide to quit drinking, talk with your health care provider. Treatment involves helping you realize how much your alcohol use is harming your life and the lives those around you.

Depending on how much and how long you’ve been drinking, you may be at risk for alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawal can be very uncomfortable and even life-threatening. If you have been drinking a lot, you should cut back or stop drinking only under the care of a doctor. Talk with your health care provider about how to stop using alcohol.

LONG-TERM SUPPORT

Alcohol recovery or support programs can help you stop drinking completely. These programs usually offer:

For the best chance of success, you should live with people who support your efforts to avoid alcohol. Some programs offer housing options for people with alcohol problems. Depending on your needs and the programs that are available:

You may be prescribed medicines to help you quit. They are often used with long-term counseling or support groups.

These drugs make it less likely that you will drink again or help limit the amount you drink.

Drinking may mask depression or other mood or anxiety disorders. If you have a mood disorder, it may become more noticeable when you stop drinking. Your health care provider will treat any mental disorders in addition to your alcohol treatment.

Support Groups

Support groups help many people who are dealing with alcoholism.

ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS (AA)

Alcoholics Anonymous is a self-help group of recovering alcoholics. Meetings offer emotional support and specific steps for people recovering from alcohol abuse or dependence. The program is commonly called a "12-step" approach. There are local chapters throughout the U.S. AA offers help 24 hours a day.

AL-ANON

Family members of a person with an alcohol problem often benefit from talking with others. Al-Anon is a support group for people who are affected by another person's drinking problem.

Alateen provides support for teenage children of people with alcoholism.

OTHER SUPPORT GROUPS

Several other support groups are available.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a person with alcoholism or alcohol abuse does depends on whether they can successfully cut back or stop drinking.

It may take several tries to stop drinking for good. If you are struggling to quit, don’t give up hope. Getting treatment, if needed, along with support and encouragement from support groups and those around you can help you remain sober.

Possible Complications

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse can increase your risk of many health problems, including:

Alcohol use also increases your risk for violence.

Drinking alcohol while you are pregnant can lead to severe birth defects in the baby. This is called fetal alcohol syndrome.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Talk with your doctor if you or someone you know may have an alcohol problem.

Seek immediate medical care or call your local emergency number (such as 911) if you or someone you know has alcohol dependence and develops severe confusion, seizures, or bleeding.

Prevention

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends:


Review Date: 2/9/2013
Reviewed By: David B. Merrill, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

This information should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. © 1997- 2007 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.