What is alcoholism?

What is Alcoholism?

The term “alcoholism” refers to a scientifically and medically recognized disease known as alcohol dependence syndrome, the most sever stage of a group of drinking problems which begins with binge drinking and alcohol abuse.

Alcoholism is not diagnosed by the amount or frequency of alcohol consumption, but by biological, social, and psychological changes in the drinker.  Ubiquitous myths and misunderstandings about alcoholism often justify continued drinking and feed into denial.  Alcoholism is actually an incredibly common disease, affecting one out of ten persons who drink.

This means that everyone of us knows quite a few alcoholics, and chances are they are not everyday drinkers, skid row bums, or folks who need to have a drink first thing in the morning.

Diagnosing alcoholism can be difficult.  The diagnosis depends on honest answers to a series of questions about drinking patterns and attitudes.  Alcoholism causes the alcoholic and his family to view patterns, thoughts, and behavior as unrelated to the alcohol, using denial, minimization, or rationalization.  The alcoholic may rationalize that she only drinks a few times a week, with friends, and so can’t be an alcoholic.  Or she might point to times she was able to control or abstain.  An alcoholic will often consider the ongoing family, emotional, and social problems to be caused by stress, disagreements, or emotional problems (such as depression or anger), failing to see the role that alcohol plays.

The very nature of the disease causes the alcoholic to change his thinking in order to continue further use.  Illogical thought processes obscure the alcoholic’s understanding of what is really happening to them.

Alcoholism is a treatable disease and many treatment and self help programs are available.  But the alcoholic and his family need to understand that no ‘cure’ is available.  Living with the disease, which usually means complete abstinence, is the only way to recovery.

Signs of Drinking Problems/Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcoholism manifests in different ways for different alcoholics, but there are commonalities and recognizable ‘symptoms’.  Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, and fatal disease.  It’s chronic because, once it’s there, it never goes away.  The disease is progressive in that, over any considerable length of time, the alcoholism will become worse, the symptoms and effects of drinking becoming increasingly severe over time.  And the disease is fatal; if unchecked, alcoholism leads to death through accidents or physical complications of protracted use.

Those who use alcohol may begin to show early signs of a problem, then progress to alcohol ‘abuse’ or ‘binge drinking’.  If drinking continues, they may later show symptoms of alcoholism or alcohol dependence.  Many recovering alcoholics believe that they were alcoholics before their first drink; they never drank the way ‘normal’ people did.

Early Signs of a Problem

Early sings of alcoholism include frequent intoxication, an established pattern of heavy drinking (4 drinks at a sitting for women, 5 for men), and drinking in dangerous situations, such as while driving.  Other early signs of problem drinking include black outs or a drastic change in demeanor while drinking.

Symptoms of Alcoholism/Alcohol Dependence

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV is used by social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health professionals to establish agreed upon diagnosis of various illnesses.  It defines alcohol abuse as drinking despite alcohol-related physical, social, psychological, or occupational problems, or drinking in dangerous situations.  The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases refers to “harmful use” of alcohol as drinking that causes physical or mental damage.  Alcoholics continue to drink in spite of the problems it has caused in their lives.

When alcohol abuse reaches the dependence stage, the person experiences all the above symptoms of ‘alcohol abuse’ in addition to at least three of seven other symptoms:

-neglect of other activities (such as work, family, recreation or hobbies may change, missed appointments)

-excessive use of alcohol (more that 5 drinks per sitting for women, 6 for men)

-impaired control of alcohol consumption (drinking more than planned, or drinking on days when you didn’t plan on it)

-persistence of alcohol use (you continue to drink, even after negative consequences)

-large amounts of time spent in alcohol related activities (evenings in bars, at parties, most evenings spent with alcohol in addition to family or social time, time spent recuperating from excessive drinking, and time spent planning or thinking about drinking)

-withdrawal symptoms and tolerance of alcohol

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal refers to a group of symptoms that may occur from suddenly stopping the use of alcohol after chronic or prolonged ingestion.

Not everyone who stops drinking experiences withdrawal symptoms, but most people who have been drinking for a long period of time, or drinking frequently, or drink heavily when they do drink, will experience some form of withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking suddenly.  Removing alcohol from the body means the body must adjust and return to normal chemical levels and metabolic processes.  This doesn’t happen overnight, or as soon as all the alcohol has been metabolized; it can be a process that takes months as the body heals and recovers.

There is no way to predict how any individual will respond to quitting.  If you plan to stop drinking and have been drinking for some time, you may want to consult with a medical professional about your plans to quit.

Withdrawal has both physical and psychological symptoms.  Generally speaking, withdrawal from any drug causes the opposite sensations that using the drug provided.

Psychological Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

-Feeling of jumpiness or anxiety

-Feelings of shakiness

-Irritablity or easily excited

-Emotional volatility, rapid emotional changes



-Difficulty thinking clearly

-Bad dreams

Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

-Changes in sleep (either excessive or insomnia.  This can continue to change for some time.)

-Craving for sugars and carbohydrates

The following are more severe: consult a doctor if you have any of the following:

-Headache, generalized pulsation

-Sweating, especially palms of hands and face



-Loss of appetite


-Heart palpitations

-Pupils change size (enlarged and dilated)

-Clammy skin

-Abnormal movements (jerkiness, unintentional movements)

-Tremor of the hands

-Involuntary, abnormal movements of the eyelids

-A state of confusion and visual or auditory hallucinations (DTs)




-Black outs

Getting Help and Support

With the proper medical care, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be greatly reduced or even eliminated.

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