A Closer Look at Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a medical condition in which alcohol is compulsively, chronically abused. This condition is one of addiction, and has a long history of treatment as a social ill rather than as a physical and mental illness. But with the ubiquity and acceptance of casual alcohol use, it can be challenging to determine if a problem exists.

What Is Alcoholism?

By definition, chronic alcoholism is present when an individual’s use of the substance is characterized by craving, increased tolerance, physical dependence, and loss of control over drinking behavior. An estimated one in 12 Americans has a problem with alcohol use.

What Are the Symptoms and Complications of Alcoholism?

Drunken behavior is not a telltale sign of alcoholism. Many alcoholics have such a high tolerance that their use is not necessarily detectable.

Left untreated, alcoholism leads to a slew of life-threatening health issues, including but not limited to hypoglycemia, high blood pressure, damage to all major organs, including the heart, brain, and liver (with one in five developing cirrhosis); visible enlarged blood vessels; pneumonia; tuberculosis; chronic gastritis; and pancreatitis. In addition to these problems, erectile dysfunction is common among male alcoholics. Drinking during pregnancy can cause health problems for the fetus, including preterm labor and fetal alcohol syndrome. Ongoing alcohol use is associated with a higher risk of many cancers: larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, stomach, pancreas, and upper GI tract.

Beyond physical health issues, alcoholism is associated with problems with work, school, home, relationships, and the law.

What Causes Alcoholism?

While experts don’t know exactly why some people become addicted to alcohol, it’s likely a combination of genetic, physical, psychological, and social factors.

Genetic factors are often considered the most important. Children who have one or more alcoholic parent are up to four times more likely to also abuse alcohol.

Alcoholism is more common among those who drank at an early age, have depression and/or other mental health issues, and who are part of a family or culture in which drinking is common.

How Is Alcoholism Diagnosed?

If you think you have a problem with alcohol, reflect on these questions:

  • Do I continue to drink even though it has problems in my life?
  • Do I continually need to increase the amount I drink to get the same effect?
  • Do I experience withdrawal symptoms when I try to stop drinking?
  • Do I use alcohol in situations when it’s unsafe to do so, like when driving, or inappropriate, like at work?
How Is Alcoholism Treated?

If you think you have a problem with drinking, talk to your doctor. He or she will ask questions about your drinking, perform a physical exam, and make treatment recommendations to help you control this chronic health condition. Most people who seek treatment undergo a combination of medical and psychological treatments, including:

  • Medication-assisted detox and withdrawal, which helps limit uncomfortable symptoms of abstaining from alcohol
  • Psychological counseling
  • Medications that produce a negative physical reaction when you drink as a deterrant or those that prevent cravings for alcohol
  • Ongoing support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Treatment for underlying mental health conditions as well as for complications of chronic drinking
  • Spiritual practices or alternative therapies such as yoga, meditation, or acupuncture.
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