Alcohol affects people in different ways. Some people can enjoy a glass of wine with food and drink moderate amounts of alcohol in social settings without any problems. Having one or fewer drinks per day for women and two or fewer drinks per day for men is considered moderate drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drinking alcohol too much or too often, or being unable to control alcohol consumption, can be a sign of a larger problem. Two different issues that some people can develop are alcohol abuse or alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependency.
These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are marked differences. People who abuse alcohol drink too much on occasion and their drinking habits often result in risky behavior and poor judgment. But alcohol abusers generally aren't dependent on alcohol. Alcoholism, on the other hand, means a person needs alcohol to get through their day.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that about 18 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorders. These disorders can be disruptive and life-threatening.
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can cause serious health conditions. Alcohol worsens certain disorders, such as osteoporosis. It can lead to certain cancers. Alcohol abuse also makes it difficult to diagnose other health issues, such as heart disease. This is due to the way alcohol affects the circulatory system.
A high concentration of alcohol in the blood causes symptoms, such as:
- slurred speech
- slowing of reflexes
- a decreased ability to control bodily movements
- difficulty concentrating
- gaps in memory, or brownouts
- poor decision-making abilities
- risky behavior
- staying conscious but not having memory of your actions, which is called a blackout
Very high concentrations of alcohol in the blood can cause breathing problems, coma, or death.
Many people use alcohol with no ill effects. But anyone can experience its effects, such as illness, vomiting, or hangovers.
Drinking alcohol can also lead to:
You shouldn’t attempt to drive or operate heavy machinery while under the effects of alcohol.
The symptoms of alcoholism include:
- a strong desire or craving to drink
- an inability to control cravings
- an inability to stop drinking
- an increased tolerance for alcohol
- lying about drinking
- attempting to drink without others knowing
- an inability to get through everyday activities without drinking
The symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- drinking to relax
- driving under the influence of alcohol
- problems with family and friends because of drinking
- neglecting responsibilities
- having legal problems because of alcohol
People who abuse alcohol may deny a problem, but there are ways to recognize alcohol abuse in others. People who abuse alcohol may drink often and experience family, work, or school problems because of drinking. However, they may downplay their drinking or lie about the amount of alcohol they consume.
For some people, alcohol abuse and alcoholism results from psychological or social factors. They may drink to calm down or loosen up in social settings. Others use alcohol to cope with psychological issues or stress in their daily lives.
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism may also run in families. However, genetics doesn’t guarantee a problem with alcohol. The exact causes of alcohol abuse and alcoholism are often unknown.
Alcohol abuse is more common at certain points in life. Males, college students, and people going through serious life events or trauma are more likely to abuse alcohol.
People who experience the following are also more likely to deal with their problems with alcohol:
- emotional stress
This is dangerous because alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism. This is because alcohol tolerance levels can gradually increase. Some people start to drink more and more with each passing day.
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are diagnosable conditions when they:
- impact relationships
- cause harm or injury
- have a negative effect on your quality of life
Diagnosing alcohol abuse can be subjective. Concerned family and friends often try and help the person realize their drinking is out of control, although they might not believe it.
Your doctor may ask you about drinking habits and health history. They may also use blood tests to assess your overall health, paying special attention to areas of the body most impacted by alcohol, including the brain and other parts of the nervous system, as well as the heart and liver.
Many people with alcoholism continue to drink even when they develop health problems related to drinking. Loved ones sometimes notice a problem before the person does. It’s important that the person dependent on alcohol acknowledges their problem. Unless the person acknowledges that they have a problem, treatment will not be successful as the person will not take treatment seriously and most likely will not benefit from treatment offered.
Alcohol abuse can have short-term and long-term effects, such as alcohol poisoning, sexual dysfunction, and liver damage.
The short-term and long-term effects of alcoholism include brain damage, cirrhosis, and an increased risk of heart disease.
Someone with alcohol dependence who stops drinking may have withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms include:
Alcohol withdrawal can be a medical emergency. Seek medical help right away if someone experiences:
- severe vomiting
If you have alcoholism and a history of withdrawal symptoms, see a doctor before quitting. You should also see a doctor before quitting alcohol if you have other health conditions.
The treatment for alcohol abuse and alcoholism focuses on helping you learn ways to control the disease. Most people who recover from alcoholism have to abstain from alcohol because drinking alcohol in moderation is too hard for them. Abstinence is often the only way to manage the disease.
Treatment involves helping people understand their alcohol dependency and any problems in their life. It also involves a commitment to staying sober or practicing healthier drinking habits. Recovery from alcohol dependence can be a long process.
Treatment for alcohol abuse often includes therapy, learning new coping skills, and finding healthy ways to manage stress.
Doctors sometimes prescribe medications to reduce the symptoms of withdrawal. Other medications can help you quit drinking by blocking the feeling of intoxication or making you feel sick when alcohol enters your body. Medication can also help reduce cravings.
Having support and seeking professional treatment increases chances for recovery from alcohol dependence. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide support for people who are recovering.
People who abuse alcohol and people with alcoholism are at increased risk for health problems, such as:
- mental health issues
- liver problems
- brain damage
- a weakened immune system
Even people who complete treatment have a risk of relapse. It’s important to recognize warning signs and seek help if you’re concerned about having a relapse. Continued therapy and support help minimize this risk.
Written by: Anna Zernone Giorgi and Valencia Higuera
Published on Sep 12, 2013
Medically reviewed on Jul 29, 2016 by [Ljava.lang.Object;@58379e63