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What is Alcoholism: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Definition and Overview

Alcoholism is a condition wherein a person becomes dependent or addicted to alcohol. It is diagnosed when the individual has developed an unhealthy drinking habit that can harm him, his relationships, his work, his behavior, and his lifestyle. Despite these negative effects, alcohol dependent individuals nevertheless continue to drink.

Dependence on alcohol can be either physical or mental, which means that a person may feel the need to drink alcohol simply to get by. This strong craving or need is hard for him to curb.

Causes

The main cause of alcoholism is alcohol abuse and uncontrolled drinking habits that can easily develop into dependence. Once dependence is established, it is difficult for a person to sever his ties with alcohol. This is why alcoholism is regarded as a chronic disease that cannot be blamed on lack of willpower. Once the disease sets in, it will follow a predictable course and will present common symptoms.

The risk factors for developing dependence on alcohol include genes and life circumstances. A person’s exposure to alcohol, lifestyle, career situation, and external influences all play a role as well.

Key Symptoms


Alcohol abuse refers to the act of drinking too much or drinking more than the standard amount of alcoholic beverage, which is 1 can of beer, 1 mixed drink, or 1 glass of wine a day. The problem sometimes begins when a person cannot distinguish between normal drinking habits or alcohol abuse. Those with the tendency to develop alcohol abuse include:

  • A man who has at least 4 cans/drinks/glasses at a time
  • A man who has more than 14 drinks in a week
  • A woman who has at least 3 cans/drinks/glasses at a time
  • A woman who has more than 7 drinks in a week

A person is said to be dependent on alcohol when he encounters at least three of these problems within the span of a year:

  • Difficulty to quit drinking
  • Difficulty to control the amount of alcohol consumed
  • The need to drink an increasing amount of alcohol over time to achieve the same feeling
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when he stops drinking
  • Giving up other activities in order to drink alcohol
  • Spending a lot of time drinking alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite experiencing problems and negative effects such as broken relationships, drunk driving violations, and so on
  • Continuing to drink despite developing physical health problems
  • The need to drink even when he is alone
  • Drinking in the morning after waking up
  • Staying drunk for extended periods of time
  • Coming up with excuses to drink
  • Trying to hide drinking habits
  • Having blackouts after drinking
  • Worrying about when they will get their next drink

Alcohol dependent individuals experience withdrawal symptoms when they go without drinking for longer than they’re used to. These symptoms include:

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

If you experience any of the symptoms above, schedule an appointment with your general physician or family doctor. Alcoholism may be diagnosed during a routine checkup or when a concerned family member or friend steps in to help you seek medical help.

General physicians are trained to diagnose alcoholism. To do so, your doctor will ask questions regarding your health history, your symptoms, and other experiences that may relate with your drinking habits. A physical exam and a mental health assessment are typically conducted. Through mental health assessment tests, underlying causes of your drinking habits may be explored. One of the most common examples is the mental disease called depression.

Treatment for alcoholism is based on the severity of the problem and options include:

  • Detoxification
  • Group counseling therapy sessions
  • Medications to help you stay sober or to reduce alcohol cravings; antidepressants are often used based on the fact that many alcohol abusers are also battling depression.
  • Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous

Different types of therapies are also available. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT
  • Motivational interviewing or MI
  • Motivational enhancement therapy or MET

Take note, however, that due to the long-term nature of alcoholism recovery, continuous residential treatment with near constant evaluation may be required. Even with these treatment options, recovery from alcoholism is a long process and cannot be completed in just a few weeks.

However, to make sure that alcoholic habits do not recur, some medical professionals also try to solve the underlying cause, such as depression, that may be driving the individual towards alcohol. Depression is currently the number one cause of alcohol problems, with almost 1/3 of people suffering from major depression also suffering from alcohol dependence.

References:

  • Chick, Jonathan. Witte P., and Dr. Lorenzo Leggio. “Alcohol and Alcoholism.”
  • “Alcohol Research: Current Reviews.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  • “Long working hours and alcohol use: a systematic review and meta-analysis of published studies.
  • Garner B., Godley M., Passetti L., Funk Rodney, and William White. “Recovery support for adolescents with substance use disorders: The Impact of Recovery Support Telephone Calls provided by Pre-Professional Volunteers.” Journal of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism.
  • Virtanen M., Jokela M., Nyberg S., et al. (2015). “Long working hours and alcohol use: systemative review and meta-analysis of published studies and unpublished individual participant data.” BMJ.