What Is Alcoholism? Risk Factors, Symptoms & Treatment
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Samantha Miller, MBChB
Consuming alcohol is a socially accepted activity. From happy hours to family gatherings, alcoholic beverages are a common staple at social events geared toward adults. However, alcohol consumption is not without risk. That is, some individuals may consume an unhealthy amount of alcohol, or find that they are living with an addiction to it. With this in mind, we are taking a look at alcohol-related disorders, including alcoholism, which, oftentimes, are illnesses that folks are not entirely aware of, even if they are actively impacting their lives and health.
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a spectrum of illness caused by the consumption of excess alcohol. AUD can be mild, moderate or severe and is characterized by cravings for alcohol; a loss of control over how much or how often alcohol is consumed; an increased tolerance to the effects of alcohol; and a development of negative physical or psychological symptoms if alcohol is not consumed. Severe forms of AUD are commonly referred to as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, which occurs when an individual has a dependence on alcohol consumption.
Much like any other drug addiction, alcoholism causes an individual living with it to have an uncontrollable desire to consume excessive quantities of alcohol. Alcoholism tends to develop as a result of a period of alcohol abuse or consumption of unhealthy amounts of alcohol. Unhealthy consumption can refer to the sheer volume of alcoholic beverages consumed in one sitting, or the frequency in which alcohol is consumed on a weekly basis.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend keeping to a limit of two (2) or less drinks per day for men and one (1) or less drink per day for women.One alcoholic drink contains 14g (0.6oz) of pure alcohol. Examples of one alcoholic drink include:
- 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol)
- 1.5 fluid ounces of liquor (40% alcohol)
- 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
Binge drinking is defined by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) as consuming five (5) or more drinks in a day for men, or four (4) or more drinks in a day for women.
Heavy Alcohol Use
SAMSA defines heavy alcohol use as engaging in binge drinking on five (5) or more days in a month. Exceeding daily recommended limits, binge drinking, and heavy alcohol use are all associated with the development of alcohol-related health problems.
Causes & Risk Factors
There is no specific cause that leads to the development of an AUD. A person can develop a condition over time due to various factors in their life. Some studies have suggested a correlation between alcohol use disorders and genetics. However, an inherited dependency on alcohol can also stem from being around a parental figure who is abusing alcohol or dealing with alcoholism. In other words, it is difficult to determine whether alcoholism is, indeed, inherited or influenced by environmental factors.
Risk factors for the development for alcoholism include:
- Having a parent who lives with alcoholism
- Low self-esteem
- Relationship problems
- Being surrounded by people who suffer from alcohol use disorders, including alcoholism
- Easy access to alcohol
- Suffering from hardships, especially economic or emotional hardships
- Live in an environment where excessive alcohol consumption is not only accepted, but encouraged
Signs & Symptoms
Common signs of alcoholism include:
- High irritability or emotional distress unless alcohol is being consumed
- Endangering oneself for the sake of drinking (drunk driving, drinking with a health condition)
- Inability to control the consumption of alcohol
- Drinking alone
- Constantly looking for excuses to consume alcohol
- Using alcohol for celebratory purposes (drinking after a good day at work)
- Using alcohol to appease a troubling situation (drinking after a bad day at work)
- Inability to resist alcohol at the mere sight or smell of it
- Hiding the addiction
- Becoming violent or emotionally unstable while drinking
- Missing work, school or important events due to constant inebriation
- Physically and emotionally neglecting oneself
- Ignoring one's physical appearance, or a lack of personal hygiene
Common symptoms of alcoholism include:
- Uncontrollable shakes and tremors, especially around the hands after alcohol has not been consumed for a long period of time
- Memory loss
- Blacking out
- Inability to think clearly
- Mood swings
- Constantly smelling like alcohol
Many of these symptoms fall under the category of alcohol withdrawal. Any person who is showing significant signs and symptoms of alcoholism needs to seek out professional assistance immediately.
Treatment for AUD & Alcoholism
While the primary treatment for alcoholism is to stop drinking completely, one may find that the addiction to alcohol is so strong that quitting is difficult, especially without professional assistance. If the alcohol dependency is not too severe, a person can start slowly reducing the amount of alcohol that they are consuming on a weekly basis to more moderate levels.
However, those who have been living with alcoholism for quite some time may have a much more challenging time when it comes to managing their addiction. Treatment centers and facilities are available to assist with severe cases of alcoholism.
In fact, just going without a single drop of alcohol in an addict's system for 24 hours is enough to cause a severe case of alcohol withdrawal, also known as delirium tremens. This can result in:
- Severe confusion and agitation
- Loss of bodily function
It is for this reason that professional help is necessary when it comes to helping a person with alcoholism wean off alcohol. Once that person's health is stabilized, they may be released from a treatment facility into the care of friends or family members. However, the treatment does not stop there; as with any addiction, there is no "cure." Instead, one must manage their addiction in order to prevent a relapse. Support groups for those going through alcohol recovery can be a crucial component when it comes to preventing a relapse. These programs offer peer support via counselors, mentors, and other folks who are dealing with alcohol dependency.
Those concerned about themselves, or a loved one who is living with alcoholism, should speak with a doctor or healthcare professional for further assistance.
- "Alcohol Use Disorder" via Medline Plus
- "Alcohol Use Disorder" via National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- "Drinking Levels Defined" via National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- "Alcohol" via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- "Alcohol misuse" via National Health Service
- "2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans" via U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- "Alcohol Use Disorder" via BMJ Best Practice
- "Alcohol use disorder" via Mayo Clinic