Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by a strong need or craving to consume alcohol, the inability to stop drinking once you’ve begun, psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms after stopping drinking, and an increasing tolerance to alcohol. There are genetic, psychological and environmental components to alcoholism. This is a progressive disease affecting about 30% of Americans.
According to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), it is estimated that 17.8% of the population have alcohol problems and 12.5% are alcohol-dependent. Alcoholism can affect any race, gender, income level, nationality and age. Men are more likely than women to become alcohol dependent. Alcohol abuse is also more common among young adults aged 18 to 29. People who begin drinking at age 14 are at higher risk of developing a dependence on alcohol than those who begin drinking after age 21. Alcoholism runs in families. Not only is this trait hereditary, but a person’s environment plays a role as well.
Though alcoholism affects an estimated 14 million people, the causes of alcoholism are relatively limited. Two of the most common causes are genetics and the environment. One published report indicates that among adult alcohol abusers, more than half say they have one or more blood relative that had or has an alcohol problem. Further, treatment experts have found that men are four times more likely to become alcoholic if their fathers were.
Identifying Symptoms of Alcoholism
The American Council on Alcoholism has developed some guidelines for identifying alcohol dependence: craving, preoccupation with drinking, physical dependence and building up tolerance.
Craving is when a person is unable to control the amount of alcohol they consume or when they have a strong need to drink. A preoccupation with drinking is characterized by obsessive thoughts of and an assigned value to alcohol that reduces a person’s quality of life and leads to making decisions that can cause self-harm and harm to others. Physical dependence can be identified by marked withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, hand tremors and anxiety. An alcohol abuser will develop a tolerance, meaning a greater amount of alcohol is needed to achieve the “high” the person desires.
Alcoholism is Treatable
Alcoholism can never be cured. However, addiction specialists have proven that this is a treatable disease. Because alcoholism is progressive, even if a person takes a long break from drinking, he is still susceptible to relapse. The most effective and safest treatment for alcoholism is abstinence. Many alcoholics take medications to reduce cravings and stress. Talk therapy also helps people to cope with the problems that caused them to start drinking. Today, holistic treatments like meditation, acupuncture and yoga are gaining popularity for their spiritual and relaxation properties.
Many alcoholics find that a supportive community of like-minded individuals, found in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, helps their recovery. Depending on their level of addiction, some people will require a safe, medical withdraw, which can be done in a residential addiction facility. Also known as rehab, patients stay anywhere from one week to detoxify their system, to several months so that patients can establish a firm, sober foundation from which to begin recovery.
Treatment for alcoholism can work. But like any chronic disease, there are varying results. There is no one treatment that will work for all alcoholics. While some people have been known to abstain from alcohol on sheer willpower, this is not the norm. Many alcoholics take medication combined with talk therapy and/or support groups. According to the NIAAA, a person who has been diagnosed as an alcoholic cannot simply cut down on her drinking. Those who try are not likely to succeed.