What Is Alcoholism? Definition, Signs & Treatment
Last Updated: November 1, 2023
Although people drink alcohol for many reasons, heavy drinking has many dangerous short- and long-term health risks, including addiction.
“Alcoholism” is a term that is often thrown around to describe people who struggle with drinking, but not everyone understands the meaning of this term. It’s important to recognize that alcohol addiction is a legitimate medical condition, and in the clinical world, it’s referred to as an alcohol use disorder.
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the clinical term applied to people with an alcohol addiction, and it’s the politically correct term for alcoholism. Individuals with AUD experience brain changes that make controlling or stopping their drinking difficult. Because of these brain changes, alcohol use becomes compulsive, and a person will continue to drink even when they face negative consequences associated with alcohol use.
Signs and Symptoms of an Alcoholic
- Strong alcohol cravings, which may lead them to drink early in the day
- Spending a significant amount of money on alcohol
- Giving up other activities and hobbies in favor of alcohol use
- Continuing to drink, even when it causes problems with important relationships, such as with a spouse or children
- Being unable to function at work because of alcohol misuse
- Drinking when it places a person in danger, such as driving under the influence
- Showing withdrawal side effects when not drinking
- Developing a high tolerance so that large amounts of alcohol must be consumed before any effects of intoxication are present
Reasons People Drink
People may drink for many different reasons. When they drink in moderation and consider the risks associated with alcohol use, they may be able to enjoy the occasional drink without developing an alcohol use disorder. However, when alcohol consumption is excessive, any of the following reasons for drinking can lead to an AUD.
To Relieve Stress
Research on people who consume alcohol found that binge drinking is often used as stress relief. Alcohol consumption may be viewed as a way to relax and reduce stress levels, but over time, using this as a coping mechanism can lead to problems with drinking.
As an Unhealthy Coping Mechanism
Drinking can also become a way of coping with unpleasant emotions or mental health problems. Studies have found this is especially true for people who live with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Alcohol may temporarily boost a person’s mood and alleviate anxiety, becoming an unhealthy coping mechanism for psychological distress and other life problems.
To Alleviate Social Anxiety
For people who struggle with anxiety in social situations, alcohol may provide temporary relief by boosting confidence and reducing shyness. Research has shown that social motives, such as fitting in and being more social, are common motivators for drinking.
Short- and Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse
While drinking may become a coping mechanism, the truth is that the relief associated with alcohol is only temporary, and heavy drinking comes with short- and long-term health risks, including addiction.
Over the short term, alcohol intoxication increases the risk of:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Risky sexual behavior leading to sexually transmitted infections
- Unwanted pregnancy
A person who drinks heavily can also develop alcohol poisoning, which can be life-threatening. Finally, alcohol use is associated with violence and sexual assault.
Over the long term, alcohol misuse is linked to numerous health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Digestive system problems
- Increased risk of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon and rectum
- Immune system dysfunction
- Problems with learning and memory
- Increased risk of dementia
- Mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety
Treatment Options for Alcoholism
Given the health risks and negative consequences associated with alcohol misuse and addiction, it’s important to reach out for professional treatment if you develop problems related to alcohol. The following forms of treatment are commonly offered to those with alcohol addictions.
In most cases, alcohol addiction treatment begins with a medical detox program to help patients through withdrawal. Even mild withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, anxiety and sleep disturbance, can be unpleasant. A medical detox program can offer supportive care and, if necessary, medical intervention to minimize withdrawal side effects.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe and potentially life-threatening for some people. In severe cases of withdrawal, patients can experience seizures or delirium tremens, which can be fatal if untreated. A medical detox program reduces the risk of these serious complications.
After completing a medical detox program, it’s important to transition into an ongoing alcohol rehab. Some programs fall under the residential level of care, meaning patients live on-site at a treatment center. Others are outpatient, which allows patients to attend appointments at a clinic or facility and return home afterward. Regardless of the specific level of care, alcohol use disorder is typically treated with a combination of talk therapy, support groups and medications.
After completing an alcohol rehab program, staying connected to the recovery community through an aftercare program is important. Aftercare services include support group meetings and perhaps ongoing counseling appointments to help you maintain the relapse prevention skills you developed while in rehab.
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Contact us today to learn more or get started with your recovery. Our Recovery Advocates will answer any questions, gather personal information and recommend the best treatment program for your needs. You may be able to be admitted the same day you call us!
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Ferrarelli, Leslie K. “Binge drinking for stress relief.” Science Signaling, April 7, 2015. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Lars Sjödin, Lars; Larm, Pete; Karlsson, Patrik; Livingston, Michael; Raninen, Jonas. “Drinking motives and their associations with alcohol use among adolescents in Sweden.” Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, June 2021. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” April 14, 2022. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Kaur, Darpan; Ajinkya, Shaunak. “Psychological impact of adult alcoholism on spouses and children.” Med J DY Patil Univ, 2014. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Bayard, Max; Mcintyre, Jonah; Hill, Keith; Woodside, Jack. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician, March 15, 2004. Accessed August 21, 2023.