Alcoholism is a disease involving an addiction to alcohol.
With alcoholism, the sufferer has physical and psychological cravings and continues to drink despite repeated alcohol-related problems. Alcoholism is chronic and progressive.
If your drinking negatively impacts on your ability to function in your daily life, you are probably suffering from alcoholism, which is also known as alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction and alcohol use disorder.
It differs from alcohol abuse, which is defined as having unhealthy or dangerous drinking habits, such as binge drinking.
Alcoholism involves excessive or addictive use, leading to three or more of the following:
- Withdrawal symptoms after reducing or stopping alcohol intake
- Losing control over the amount you drink
- Inability to stop
- Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from its after-effects
- Giving up important social or work-related activities to drink
Alcoholism causes or risk factors include a genetic predisposition to the disease, social factors such as the influence of family, peers and society, and psychological factors like acute stress levels. It is also linked to severe depression and anxiety.
What are its symptoms?
Alcoholism ranges from mild to severe, depending on the number of signs and symptoms you experience. These include:
- Continued use of alcohol even though you know it’s harmful
- Finding it impossible to stop
- Physical dependency
- Alcohol-associated illnesses
- Alcohol cravings
- Tolerance: you might need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to feel its effects
Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shaking hands
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Increased blood pressure
- Excessive sweating
Drinking over a long period can result in complications and serious health problems such as kidney and liver failure, digestive problems (like gastritis, peptic ulceration or pancreatitis), heart problems, diabetes complications, sexual dysfunction and menstruation issues, erectile dysfunction, eye problems, birth defects, bone damage, neurological complications, a weakened immune system, increased risk of cancer, and other problems.
How is it diagnosed?
An alcoholism diagnosis is not always straightforward as there is no specific diagnostic test.
Your doctor will most likely question you about your drinking habits, health and family history. The doctor will also consult with a family member for more information. This is followed by a physical examination.
Other tests include laboratory and imaging tests. These include blood, urine and liver-enzyme tests. Certain patterns of lab test abnormalities may suggest alcoholism. Organ damage may also be picked up.
Your doctor may also ask you to undergo a psychological evaluation.
What are your treatment options?
There’s no cure for alcoholism. Overcoming addiction can be a long process involving many different treatment options. These include detoxification, counselling, treatment of associated medical problems and support programmes.
- Detoxification: A detoxification programme can help break your body’s physical addiction to alcohol.
- Reprogramming behaviours: Alcoholics are often also addicted to the act of drinking and the circumstances around it. The patient will need to learn coping mechanisms to help control triggers.
- Support groups can be especially helpful for people as they go through treatment for alcoholism. A support group can help you connect to people who can answer questions, provide encouragement and direct you to resources for your recovery.
- Medication: The drug disulfiram (Antabuse) may help to prevent you from drinking, although it won't cure alcoholism. Naltrexone (Revia) blocks the good feelings alcohol causes. Acamprosate (Campral) may help you combat alcohol cravings once you stop drinking. There are a number of other medications available. You doctor will advise you on what are most suitable for your needs.
Left untreated, the prognosis is poor. You will most likely suffer recurrent relapses and eventually death.
Can it be prevented?
If your drinking is spiralling out of control, therapy and social support can help you cope. Medication is also important, especially for relapses.
If any risk factors apply to you, it's important to seek expert treatment before alcohol use progresses to alcoholism.
Early intervention is crucial.