Alcoholism is a chronic disease in which your body becomes dependent on alcohol. When you have alcoholism, you lose control over your drinking. You may not be able to control when you drink, how much you drink, or how long you drink on each occasion.

What is it?

If you have alcoholism, you continue to drink even though you know it's causing problems with your relationships, health, work or finances.

It's possible to have a problem with alcohol but not have all the symptoms of alcoholism. This is known as "alcohol abuse," which means you drink too much and it causes problems in your life although you aren't completely dependent on alcohol. If you have alcoholism or you abuse alcohol, you may not be able to cut back or stop without help. A number of approaches are available to help you recover from alcoholism, including medications, counseling and self-help groups.


Alcoholism symptoms include:

  • Not being able to limit the amount of alcohol you consume
  • Feeling a strong need or compulsion to drink alcohol
  • Developing tolerance to alcohol so that you need an increasing amounts to feel its effects
  • Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances due to drinking
  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don't drink
  • Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as "blacking out"
  • Making a ritual of having drinks at certain times and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring you pleasure
  • Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn't available
  • Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in your car
  • Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good or drinking to feel "normal"

When drinking crosses the line into alcohol abuse or dependence, ask yourself these questions:

  • If you're a man, do you ever have five or more drinks in a day? One standard drink is equivalent to 354.9 milliliters of beer, 147.9 milliliters of wine or 44.4 milliliters of 80-proof spirits.
  • If you're a woman, do you ever have four or more drinks in a day?
  • Do you need a drink as soon as you get up?
  • Do you feel guilty about your drinking?
  • Do you think you need to cut back on how much you drink?
  • Are you annoyed when other people comment on or criticize your drinking habits?
  • If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you may have a problem with alcohol.


Alcohol addiction — physical dependence on alcohol — occurs gradually. Over time, drinking too much changes the balance of chemicals in your brain associated with the pleasurable aspects of drinking alcohol. Excessive, long-term drinking can affect the balance of these chemicals, causing your body to crave alcohol to restore good feelings or to avoid negative feelings.

Risk factors

Risk factors for alcoholism include:

  • Steady drinking over time.
  • Drinking too much on a regular basis for an extended period can produce a physical dependence on alcohol.
  • Age. People who begin drinking at an early age are at a higher risk of alcohol dependence or abuse.
  • Sex. Men are more likely to become dependent on alcohol than are women. However, women are at greater risk of developing some medical complications linked to drinking, such as liver disease.
  • Family history. The risk of alcoholism is higher for people who have a parent who abused alcohol.
  • Depression and other mental health problems. It's common for people with a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression to abuse alcohol or other substances.
  • Social and cultural factors. Having friends or a close partner who drinks regularly could increase your risk of alcoholism. The glamorous way that drinking is sometimes portrayed in the media may also send the message that it's OK to drink excessively.


Alcohol depresses your central nervous system. In some people, the initial reaction may be stimulation. But as you continue to drink, you become sedated. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and affects your thoughts, emotions and judgment. Too much alcohol affects your speech and muscle coordination and affects vital centers of your brain. A heavy drinking binge may even cause a life-threatening coma.

Excessive drinking can cause a number of problems. Some of these include:

  • Reduced judgment and lowered inhibitions, leading to poor choices and dangerous situations or behaviors
  • Motor vehicle accidents and other types of accidents
  • Domestic problems
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • A higher likelihood of committing violent crimes

Health problems caused by excessive drinking can include:

  • Liver disorders. Drinking heavily can cause alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. After years of drinking, hepatitis may lead to the irreversible and progressive destruction and scarring of liver tissue (cirrhosis).
  • Digestive problems. Alcohol can result in inflammation of the lining of the stomach (gastritis) and can interfere with absorption of B vitamins and other nutrients. Heavy drinking can also damage your pancreas, which produces the hormones that regulate your metabolism and the enzymes that help digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
  • Heart problemsExcessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure and increases your risk of heart failure or stroke.
  • Diabetes complications. Alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from your liver and can increase the risk of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is dangerous if you have diabetes and are already taking insulin to lower your blood sugar level.
  • Sexual function and menstruation. Alcohol abuse can cause erectile dysfunction in men. In women, it can interrupt menstruation.
  • Eye problems. Over time, excessive alcohol use can cause weakness and paralysis of your eye muscles.
  • Birth defects. Alcohol use during pregnancy may cause fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting in giving birth to a child who has physical and developmental problems.
  • Bone loss. Alcohol may interfere with the production of new bone. This can lead to thinning bones (osteoporosis) and an increased risk of fractures.
  • Neurological complications. Excessive drinking can affect your nervous system, causing numbness of your hands and feet, disordered thinking, dementia, and short-term memory loss.
  • Increased risk of cancer. Chronic alcohol abuse has been linked to a higher risk of numerous cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast cancer.

Alcohol use leads to serious consequences for many teens. Alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents are a major cause of teen deaths. Alcohol is also often a cause in other teenage deaths, including drowning, suicides and homicides. Teens who drink are more likely to become sexually active, have sex more frequently and engage in risky, unprotected sex than are teens who don't drink.

How do you treat it?

  • Many people with alcoholism enter treatment reluctantly because they don't recognize that they have a problem. An intervention from loved ones is needed to help some people recognize and accept that they need to get help. If you're concerned about a friend or family member, talk to your G.P. for advice about how to approach that person about his or her drinking.
  • Various treatments are available to help people with alcohol problems. Depending on the circumstances, treatment may involve a brief intervention, an outpatient program or counseling, or a residential inpatient stay.
  • The first step in treatment is to determine whether you're alcohol dependent. If you haven't lost control over your use of alcohol, treatment may involve reducing your drinking. If you're dependent on alcohol, simply cutting back is ineffective. Giving up alcohol entirely must be part of your treatment goal.

Treatment for alcoholism include:

  • Detoxification and withdrawal. Treatment for alcoholism may begin with a program of detoxification, which generally takes four to seven days. You may need to take sedating medications to prevent shaking, confusion or hallucination (delirium tremens) or other withdrawal symptoms. Detoxification is usually done at an inpatient treatment center or at a hospital.
  • Learning skills and establishing a treatment plan. This usually involves alcohol-abuse specialists. It may include goal setting, behavior modification techniques, use of self-help manuals, counseling and follow-up care at a treatment center.
  • Psychological counseling. Counseling and therapy for groups and individuals support recovery from the psychological aspects of alcoholism. You may benefit from couples or family therapy — family support can be an important part of the recovery process.
  • Oral medications. An alcohol-sensitizing drug called disulfiram (Antabuse) may help prevent you from drinking. Disulfiram won't cure alcoholism, nor can it remove the compulsion to drink. But if you drink alcohol, the drug produces a physical reaction that includes flushing, nausea, vomiting and headaches. Naltrexone, a drug long known to block the good feelings alcohol causes, reduces the urge to drink. Acamprosate (Campral) may help you combat alcohol cravings. Unlike disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate don't make you feel sick soon after taking a drink.
  • Injected medication. Vivitrol, a version of the drug naltrexone, is injected once a month by a health care professional. Although similar medication can be taken in pill form, the injectable version of the drug may be easier for people recovering from alcohol dependence to use consistently.
  • Continuing support. Aftercare programs and support groups help people recovering from alcoholism or alcohol abuse to stop drinking, manage relapses and cope with necessary lifestyle changes. This may include medical or psychological care or attending a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Treatment for psychological problems. Alcoholism commonly occurs along with other mental health disorders. You may need psychological counseling (psychotherapy), medications, or other treatment for depression, anxiety or another mental health condition.
  • Medical treatment for other conditions. Common medical problems related to alcoholism are high blood pressure, increased blood sugar, liver disease and heart disease.

Residential treatment programs

For a serious alcohol problem, you may need a stay at a residential treatment facility. Many residential treatment programs include individual and group therapy, participation in alcoholism support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, family involvement, activity therapy, and working with counselors and professional staff experienced in treating alcoholism.

Lifestyle solutions

Coping with alcohol abuse or dependence usually requires that you change your habits and make different lifestyle choices.

  • Consider your social situation. Make it clear to your friends and family that you are not drinking. You may need to distance yourself from friends and social situations that impair your recovery.
  • Develop healthy habits. For example, good sleep, regular exercise and eating well all can make it easier for you to recover from alcoholism.
  • Do things that don't involve alcohol. You may find that many of your activities involve drinking. Replace them with hobbies or pastimes that are not centered around alcohol.

Complimentary Therapies

There are a number of alternative medicine techniques that may be helpful when recovering from alcoholism. These include:

  • Yoga. Yoga's series of postures and controlled breathing exercises may help you relax and manage stress.
  • Meditation. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress.
  • Acupuncture. With acupuncture, hair-thin needles are inserted under the skin. It may relieve cravings for alcohol and ease withdrawal symptoms. Acupuncture may also reduce anxiety and depression.
  • Spiritual practice. People who are involved with some kind of regular spiritual practice may find it easier to maintain recovery from alcoholism or other addictions. For many people, gaining greater insight into their spiritual side is a key element in recovery.

Coping and support

Many people who have alcoholism and their family members find that participating in support groups is an essential part of coping with the disease, preventing or dealing with relapses, and staying sober.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a self-help group of people recovering from alcoholism. AA offers a sober peer group as an effective model for achieving total abstinence. The AA program is built around 12 steps, which are straightforward suggestions for people who choose to lead sober lives. As guides to recovery, the 12 steps help those with alcoholism to accept their powerlessness over alcohol. They stress the necessity for honesty about the past and present.

Recovery in AA is based on accepting the unique experience of each person. Through listening and sharing stories, people who abuse or are dependent on alcohol learn they aren't alone.

How can Alcoholism be Prevented

Early intervention is important to prevent alcoholism in teens. For young people, the likelihood of addiction depends on the influence of parents, peers and other role models; susceptibility to advertising; how early in life they begin to use alcohol; the psychological need for alcohol; and genetic factors that may increase their risk of addiction.

If you have a teenager, be alert to signs and symptoms that may indicate a problem with alcohol:

  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
  • Bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and memory lapses
  • Difficulties or changes in relationships with friends, often characterized by joining a new crowd
  • Declining grades and problems in school
  • Frequent mood changes and defensive behavior

You can help prevent teenage alcohol use. Start by setting a good example with your own alcohol use. Talk openly with your child and spend quality time together, but respect your child's need for independence. Let your child know what behavior you expect — and what the consequences will be if he or she doesn't follow the rules.