What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a serious disease where a person craves alcohol and continues to drink even after having problems caused by alcohol, such as being fired from a job or losing a significant other. They may become dependent on it and require alcohol to function every day. Alcoholics sometimes have problems with other people, school, work, and even the authorities. There is no one cause for alcoholism. While many people develop a dependence on alcohol, there are also other factors. These factors are upbringing, genetics, mental health, and social pressure.
Alcoholism tends to be hereditary, which suggests that genes may play a significant role in whether a person will become alcohol dependent. Children of alcoholics often become alcoholics themselves, although some people believe that the fact they were raised by alcoholics is more of a factor than genetics. Social pressure can put many people at risk for alcohol dependence. The media often portrays drinking in a glamorous light, and people whose friends or close family members drink regularly are often more likely to drink themselves. If this begins at an early age, people are much more likely to become alcoholics.
Mental illness is a common reason that people drink. Sometimes people who have a mental health problem, such as depression, try to self-medicate themselves with alcohol. They don’t see that they have a problem and so they drink to make themselves feel better. This can quickly escalate, as alcohol causes chemical changes in the brain leading to a physical dependence where people suffer from withdrawal symptoms if they don’t have alcohol in their system. At first they drink to help themselves feel better, but then they have to drink to keep feeling good so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Is Alcoholism Dangerous?
Alcoholism doesn’t happen overnight. It can take as little as a month or it may take years before a person is truly an alcoholic. The more that a person drinks, the more damage is done. Around 18 million Americans abuse alcohol, with some 70 million dealing with the effects in their families. Domestic violence is a serious social problem that comes from alcoholism, meaning the disease affects everyone around the alcoholic. Those who suffer from alcoholism are often in trouble with the law and usually have personal problems. They may also have trouble holding down a job or attending school. Alcoholics are involved in nearly half of all of the traffic deaths in the United States. They also engage in risky behavior, putting themselves at risk for serious injury, diseases such as STDs, and other accidents.
There are many physical dangers involved in alcoholism. Alcohol damages the liver, and can cause alcoholic hepatitis, a condition where the liver becomes inflamed. Eventually, this can progress to cirrhosis, where the live is scarred and irreversibly damaged. Cirrhosis can be deadly. Alcohol also causes nutritional problems, as it makes it harder for the body to absorb the nutrients that it needs and the stomach can become inflamed. Alcohol use can lead to heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke, sexual problems, menstruation problems, weakness and paralysis in the eyes, bone loss, and increases the risk of cancer. Alcoholism is dangerous for diabetics, as it can interfere with how the liver releases glucose, causing hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. The nervous system can also be affected, leading to numbness in the hands and feet, short-term memory loss (blackouts), dementia, and disordered thinking. Drinking while pregnant can result in fetal alcohol syndrome, where the baby develops developmental, physical, and behavioral problems.
What Are Possible Signs of Alcoholism?
While no two people are alike, there are many possible signs of alcoholism. You can abuse alcohol and not have full-blown alcoholism, meaning you can stop it before you become a serious alcoholic. Be honest with yourself. If you answer yes to the following questions, you may have an alcohol problem.
Can Alcoholism Be Cured?
Alcoholism cannot be cured but it can be treated. The treatment for alcoholism is different for every person. Medical care may be required for those who have a serious physical illness from alcohol while mental health services may be required for others. Treatment starts with detoxification, known as “detox,” where a person has to go through withdrawal from the alcohol. Once that is finished, the person then must undergo counseling. Counseling sessions teach a person how to deal with their problems without drinking and gives them ways to avoid drinking. Treatment can last from just a few weeks to years, depending on what a person needs. Some people do fine with out-patient services while others have to stay at live-in treatment centers or even hospitals.
Withdrawal symptoms can be serious. Some people experience sweating, anxiety, nausea, and shaking as their bodies are getting used to being without alcohol. Sometimes people experience hallucinations or even seizures, which can be fatal. Some experience a loss of appetite, rapid heart rate, raised body temperature, and an increase in blood pressure. These symptoms are temporary, and while they are unpleasant, are much less serious than the consequences of alcoholism.
Certain medications can help when a person is undergoing treatment for alcoholism. Disulfiram (Antabuse) can help keep someone from drinking, as it causes an unpleasant physical reaction to the alcohol, such as headaches and vomiting. Another drug that helps is Naltrexone (ReVia) which blocks out the good feelings that alcohol gives alcoholics, making them less likely to want to drink. Vivitrol is the injectable version of naltrexone and can sometimes be easier for a recovering alcoholic to use properly since it’s given by a health care professional. Acamprosate (Campral) is a drug that helps people fight their cravings for alcohol but won’t make a person feel sick.
Those recovering from alcoholism require continuing care in order to keep from drinking. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous can help people manage their lives and avoid relapsing. Some people will need to see a mental health professional for treatment of an underlying condition such as depression and others will need treatment for medical problems such as liver disease. Families can also help and there are groups such as Al-Anon that can help families learn about their loved one’s illness and how to help them.
AA and Alcohol Recovery Resources