What is Alcoholism and Alcohol Addiction?

Are you wondering whether you may be an alcoholic? Are you concerned a family member or friend has alcoholism? If you hope to find out more about alcoholism and alcohol addiction, you arrived at the right place. Alcoholism touches the lives of everyone involved, including the drinker and those around him or her. Read on to find out more about what alcoholism is, what causes it, the medical diagnosis for alcoholism, and how to treat it.

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Alcohol Consumption in United States Society

Have you ever thought about alcohol as the most widely-distributed, legal drug available? Offered for sale in nearly every restaurant, gas station, grocery store, and corner shop, alcohol provides millions of Americans a way to relax after a long day. When used in moderation, alcohol livens up a social event and provides a way to pass time with others.

Draft beer commercials are commonplace during televised sporting events. Hard liquor companies take out full-page magazine space to advertise. Alcohol is deeply ingrained in our society whether we like it or not, but it's not always a bad thing.

Tens of millions of Americans safely use alcohol each year. Data collected by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2015 revealed that:

  • 86.4 percent of those 18 and older drank alcohol at some point during their life
  • 70.1 percent of these people drank alcohol in the past year
  • 56.0 percent of these individuals drank alcohol in the past month

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as drinking that brings blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.08. This equates to roughly 5 drinks for men and 4 drinks for women within about two hours.

Binge drinking is still common among many Americans. The 2015 NIAAA report showed:

  • 26.9 percent of those 18 and older participated in one binge drinking episode in the past month
  • 7.0 percent of these individuals participated in 5 or more binge drinking episodes in the past month

Alcohol quickly turns on those who live with alcohol addiction, though. People who can never use alcohol safely exist everywhere and they aren't just a homeless individual living under a bridge. Alcoholism and alcohol addiction affect people from all walks of life, from doctors and lawyers to soccer moms and blue-collar dads, even down to high school and middle school students.

When someone crosses the line from hard drinker to an alcoholic, there exists little chance of them ever drinking normally again. "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic," the old saying goes. Children of alcoholic parents or parents of alcoholic children are all too familiar with the destruction alcohol in excess often causes.

What is Alcoholism? What is Alcohol Addiction?

The term "alcoholism" was first used by Magnus Huss in 1849, used to describe the consequences of drinking heavily for long periods of time. Huss described alcoholism as a chronic disease characterized by relapses, long before Alcoholics Anonymous was ever around to confirm this understanding.

alcohol addiction

Since then, AA helped to popularize the term alcoholism among regular people. In AA, any individual can decide whether they are an alcoholic based on two qualifications: "If, when you honestly want to you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take."

Alcoholism is more of a general term used to describe someone who has a drinking problem. The term alcoholism is no longer used by medical professionals; it is used mostly by everyday people to refer to someone who drinks too much.

Alcohol addiction is a more specific term. Addiction is an incurable disease in which a person compulsively uses a substance such as drugs or alcohol, regardless of the consequences that result. Addiction is used more commonly to refer to drug addicts, but alcohol addiction is also a correct use of the term.

Someone with alcohol addiction often exhibits withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, sweats, and agitation when they haven't had a drink for some period of time. They usually rely on alcohol to get through their day.

About 17 million American adults, or 7.2 percent of the population, live with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). What is the difference between an AUD and alcoholism, though?

Alcohol Use Disorder is the official medical diagnosis of alcohol addiction outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM specifies 11 criteria that describe the symptoms of an AUD. In order to be diagnosed with one, an individual must exhibit at least two of the criteria within a 12-month period.

As the DSM receives reviews and revisions, the name and categorization of AUD shifts. The current edition, the DSM-5, outlines the following criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder:

  1. Drinking more or for a longer period of time than intended.
  2. Trying to cut down or stop entirely but lacking the ability to do so.
  3. Spending excessive time drinking or sick as a result of drinking.
  4. Experiencing craving, or desiring a drink so badly it results in an inability to focus on the present task.
  5. Drinking or feeling sick as a result of drinking takes away time from home and family, work, or school.
  6. Drinking despite the trouble caused with friends or family.
  7. Limiting or quitting once-enjoyable activities to drink instead.
  8. Participating in harmful or dangerous situations as a direct result of drinking.
  9. Continuing to drink in spite of or to hide feelings of anxiety, depression, or other health problem.
  10. Developing a tolerance to alcohol.
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when separated from alcohol for any period of time.

The DSM categorizes Alcohol Use Disorders in three levels: mild, moderate, and severe. The classification of a person's AUD depends on the number of criteria they meet.

  • Mild: 2 or 3 symptoms
  • Moderate: 4 or 5 symptoms
  • Severe: 6 or more symptoms

If you wonder whether you or someone you know has an AUD, quickly run over the list of criteria and ask yourself whether the signs show. It is best to receive a diagnosis from a medical professional but you can gather an idea from the DSM-5 guidelines.

Functioning alcoholic is a term used to describe someone who may not seem like an alcoholic when you view their exterior. They may hold a high-ranking position at a corporate office or teach a class of high schoolers. Perhaps they're president of the PTA or in law enforcement. You can even refer to a full-time student as a functioning alcoholic.

While there no hard definition of a functioning alcoholic exists, it usually describes someone capable of carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities while abusing alcohol.Other terms used are "functional alcoholic" or "high-functioning alcoholic." They often cover their alcoholism and leave little trace or evidence of their consumption.

Functioning alcoholics often deceive themselves. They believe since their exterior makes it look like everything is put together that it is so. This is a dangerous mode of thinking. Functioning alcoholics often find themselves in harmful, dangerous, or disastrous situations, such as driving while intoxicated.

What Causes Alcoholism? How Do You Know if You'll Become an Alcoholic?

Alcoholism develops when you drink so much that your brain becomes accustomed to the effects of alcohol. But what causes some people to drink to excess, regardless of consequences, while others can stop after a few drinks while out with friends?

The exact cause of alcoholism is still unknown. There is no determining factor for whether or not someone becomes an alcoholic. Currently, researchers consider a combination of environmental and biological factors as the cause of alcoholism or Alcohol Use Disorder. They still cannot point to one or the other as having a greater impact.

You may have heard the saying, "Alcoholism runs in families." It's true in that when you find out someone is an alcoholic, oftentimes you immediately look to their parents. Were their parents alcoholics or addicts? Is it "in their genes?"

Though researchers have yet to determine a specific "alcoholism gene," they understand that genetics affect the likelihood of someone developing alcohol addiction. There are a variety of genetic factors at play when considering the biological cause of alcoholism.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism initiated the Collaborative Studies on Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) study in 1989. The study follows families heavily impacted by alcoholism in search of a genetic cause or predisposition. Through continued research, NIAAA hopes to further understand the biological impact on alcohol addiction.

Environmental factors refer to any outside source of influence. For example, the location you grew up in, your family's income level, the school you attended, or the presence of an alcoholic or drug addict in your childhood.

Poverty does not create an alcoholic but can encourage the use of alcohol. Many claim that liquor stores always survive and often thrive during a recession. The numbing effects of an alcohol buzz can help people escape from the reality of their situation, especially money problems.

If you grew up with a parent, sibling, or other close influence who was an alcoholic or addict, you have a higher chance of developing alcoholism or drug addiction. Like all other environmental factors, it is not a direct cause of alcohol addiction. Many children who grow up in alcoholic homes push back against the influence of alcohol and drugs in their own lives. Still, when you grow up in a home where drinking is normalized, you are more likely to turn to alcohol as a solution.

Adolescents who experiment with drugs and alcohol while young also show a greater likelihood of developing alcoholism. If you learn to enjoy the effects of alcohol early on or use it to escape emotions or life problems, commonly the trend carries over into adulthood.

How Do You Know if You Are an Alcoholic?

Do you wonder whether your alcohol use has crossed over into problem drinking, alcohol addiction, or Alcohol Use Disorder territory? Has a loved one's drinking progressed past regular use into something more serious?

The criteria from the DSM-5 above provide a framework for determining the presence of an alcohol problem. Ask whether any of the 11 criteria apply to your or your loved one's drinking. If entirely honest it is easy to decide whether alcohol takes a casual or active role in your or your loved one's life.

You can also take something like an alcohol addiction quiz to assess the impact alcohol has in your life. Taking a quiz can help you answer objectively. The desire to justify your actions or the actions of your loved one may take over, but seeing pre-written answers laid out makes it easy.

Another option is to speak with your doctor about your concerns. They can conduct an assessment or refer you to an appropriate party. Your doctor knows you and your physical health and can help you address your situation and answer your questions.

Some addiction treatment facilities provide free assessments or screenings for alcohol addiction. Through the use of a session with an alcohol addiction counselor or doctor, they can help you decide the best course of action.

Oftentimes if you're wondering whether you or your loved one is an alcoholic, there is some level of a problem. Most "normal" drinkers do not question their alcohol intake or congratulate themselves for a job well done when they only drank one beer at dinner. Questioning the presence of alcoholism usually stems from the existence of consequences or repercussions of drinking.

What Resources are Available for Alcoholics?

If you or someone you love struggles with alcoholism or alcohol addiction, many resources exist to help them find a solution. The two most common options are addiction treatment and 12-step programs.

Addiction treatment takes place in a supervised environment consisting usually of individual and group therapy as well as educational sessions. 12-step programs are free and provide a sense of community among you and those with whom you attend meetings.

There is no right or wrong way to get sober. Though some people prefer one method over another, whatever keeps you or your loved one sober is a great option. Don't allow prejudices against certain methods keep you from trying them out. You may find something that changes your life.

There are various types of alcohol addiction treatment from intensive inpatient overnight programs to low-frequency drug and alcohol counseling sessions. The severity of your alcoholism will determine the best type of treatment for your situation.

If you or your loved one are heavily dependent on alcohol, withdrawals may be a part of the detox process. If the dependency is severe enough, medical detox will help lessen the withdrawal symptoms and keep you safe during the detox period.

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) are another option, perfect for those who go to school or work full-time. IOP often takes place during the evenings so you can take care of your daily responsibilities and attend treatment afterward.

Once you or your loved one get sober, residing in sober living is a great option. This provides a consistent, clean, and sober environment in which to focus on recovery. Depending on where you live, there are a variety of sober livings to fit many different financial situations. Some offer residential living based on a sliding-scale fee, focused more on helping recovering alcoholics than making a profit.

Still, the downside to addiction treatment and residential housing is the cost. Although more affordable with insurance, addiction treatment simply is not an option for some recovering alcoholics. If this is the case for you, attending Alcoholics Anonymous is another option, offered for free in nearly every city throughout the United States.

Founded in 1939 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, Alcoholics Anonymous today helps over two million recovering alcoholics worldwide. There are no dues or fees to be a member of AA; it remains intact due to voluntary contributions in accordance with its traditions.

Depending on your location, dozens of AA meetings gather each week in towns and cities throughout the world. By working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, many recovering alcohol addicts find themselves clean and sober for days to decades. AA teaches alcoholics in recovery a new way of living with an altruistic focus.

Alcoholics Anonymous is not for everyone, though. There are some people who are very vocal about their disagreement with the program. Before making judgments based on preconceived notions, the best idea is to attend a meeting for yourself. Make your own decision on whether or not AA will help you find sobriety and recovery from alcoholism.

If you decide it's not for you, there are other programs like SMART Recovery or Secular Organizations for Sobriety.

Alcoholism often tears through the lives of everyone involved, anyone who comes in contact with the alcoholic. Again, there is no one "right" way to get sober, just as there is no single way a person develops an alcohol addiction. By keeping an open mind about recovery and the options available, you or your loved one can receive the chance at a clean and sober life.