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Alcoholism is the popular term for alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. These disorders involve repeated life problems that can be directly attributed to the use of alcohol. Both disorders can have serious consequences, affecting an individual's health and personal life, as well as having an impact on society at large.


The effects of alcoholism are far reaching. Alcohol affects every body system, causing a wide range of health problems. Problems include poor nutrition, memory disorders, difficulty with balance and walking, liver disease (including cirrhosis and hepatitis), high blood pressure, muscle weakness (including the heart), heart rhythm disturbances, anemia, clotting disorders, decreased immunity to infections, gastrointestinal inflammation and irritation, acute and chronic problems with the pancreas, low blood sugar, high blood fat content, interference with reproductive fertility, and weakened bones.

On a personal level, alcoholism results in marital and other relationship difficulties, depression, unemployment, child abuse, and general family dysfunction.

Alcoholism causes or contributes to a variety of severe social problems including homelessness, murder, suicide, injury, and violent crime. Alcohol is a contributing factor in at least 50% of all deaths from motor vehicle accidents. In fact, about 100,000 deaths occur each year due to the effects of alcohol, of which 50% are due to injuries of some sort. According to a special report prepared for the U.S. Congress by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the impact of alcohol on society, including violence, traffic accidents, lost work productivity, and premature death, costs our nation an estimated $185 billion annually. In addition, it is estimated that approximately one in four children (19 million children or 29% of children up to 17 years of age) is exposed at some time to familial alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, or both. Furthermore, it has been estimated that approximately 18% of adults experience an episode of alcohol abuse or dependence a some time during their lives.

Causes and symptoms

There are probably a number of factors that work together to cause a person to become an alcoholic. Recent genetic studies have demonstrated that close relatives of an alcoholic are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Furthermore, this risk holds true even for children who were adopted away from their biological families at birth and raised in a non-alcoholicadoptive family, with no knowledge of their biological family's difficulties with alcohol. More research is being conducted to determine if genetic factors could account for differences in alcohol metabolism that may increase the risk of an individual becoming an alcoholic.

The symptoms of alcoholism can be broken down into two major categories: symptoms of acute alcohol use and symptoms of long-term alcohol use.

Immediate (acute) effects of alcohol use

Alcohol exerts a depressive effect on the brain. The blood-brain barrier does not prevent alcohol from entering the brain, so the brain alcohol level will quickly become equivalent to the blood alcohol level. Alcohol's depressive effects result in difficulty walking, poor balance, slurring of speech, and generally poor coordination (accounting in part for the increased likelihood of injury). The affected person also may have impairment of peripheral vision. At higher alcohol levels, a person's breathing and heart rates will be slowed, and vomiting may occur (with a high risk of the vomit being breathed into the lungs, resulting in severe problems, including the possibility of pneumonia). Still higher alcohol levels may result in coma and death.

Effects of long-term (chronic) alcoholism

Long-term use of alcohol affects virtually every organ system of the body:

  • Nervous system. An estimated 30-40% of all men in their teens and twenties have experienced alcoholic blackout, which occurs when drinking a large quantity of alcohol results in the loss of memory of the time surrounding the episode of drinking. Alcohol is well-known to cause sleep disturbances, so that overall sleep quality is affected. Numbness and tingling may occur in the arms and legs. Two syndromes, which can occur together or separately, are known as
    Wernicke's and Korsakoff's syndromes. Both are due to the low thiamine (a form of vitamin B complex) levels found in alcoholics. Wernicke's syndrome results in disordered eye movements, very poor balance and difficulty walking, while Korsakoff's syndrome severely affects one's memory, preventing new learning from taking place.
  • Gastrointestinal system. Alcohol causes loosening of the muscular ring that prevents the stomach's contents from re-entering the esophagus. Therefore, the acid from the stomach flows backward into the esophagus, burning those tissues, and causing pain and bleeding. Inflammation of the stomach also can result in bleeding and pain, and decreased desire to eat. A major cause of severe, uncontrollable bleeding (hemorrhage) in an alcoholic is the development of enlarged (dilated) blood vessels within the esophagus, which are called esophageal varices. These varices actually are developed in response to liver disease, and are extremely prone to bursting and hemorrhaging. Diarrhea is a common symptom, due to alcohol's effect on the pancreas. In addition, inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) is a serious and painful problem in alcoholics. Throughout the intestinal tract, alcohol interferes with the absorption of nutrients, creating a malnourished state. Because alcohol is broken down (metabolized) within the liver, the organ is severely affected by constant levels of alcohol. Alcohol interferes with a number of important chemical processes that also occur in the liver. The liver begins to enlarge and fill with fat (fatty liver), fibrous scar tissue interferes with the liver's normal structure and function (cirrhosis), and the liver may become inflamed (hepatitis).
  • Blood. Alcohol can cause changes to all the types of blood cells. Red blood cells become abnormally large. White blood cells (important for fighting infections) decrease in number, resulting in a weakened immune system. This places alcoholics at increased risk for infections, and is thought to account in part for the increased risk of cancer faced by alcoholics (10 times the risk for nonalcoholics). Platelets and blood clotting factors are affected, causing an increased risk of bleeding.
  • Heart. Small amounts of alcohol cause a drop in blood pressure, but with increased use, alcohol begins to increase blood pressure into a dangerous range. High levels of fats circulating in the bloodstream increase the risk of heart disease. Heavy drinking results in an increase in heart size, weakening of the heart muscle, abnormal heart rhythms, a risk of blood clots forming within the chambers of the heart, and a greatly increased risk of stroke (due to a blood clot from the heart entering the circulatory system, going to the brain, and blocking a brain blood vessel).
  • Reproductive system. Heavy drinking has a negative effect on fertility in both men and women, by decreasing testicle and ovary size, and interfering with both sperm and egg production. When pregnancy is achieved in an alcoholic woman, the baby has a great risk of being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which causes distinctive facial defects, lowered IQ, and behavioral problems.


Two different types of alcohol-related difficulties have been identified. The first is called alcohol dependence, which refers to a person who literally depends on the use of alcohol. Three of the following traits must be present to diagnose alcohol dependence:

  • tolerance, meaning that a person becomes accustomed to a particular dose of alcohol, and must increase the dose in order to obtain the desired effect
  • withdrawal, meaning that a person experiences unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms when he or she does not
    drink alcohol
  • the tendency to drink more alcohol than one intends (once an alcoholic starts to drink, he or she finds it difficult
    to stop)
  • being unable to avoid drinking or stop drinking once started
  • having large blocks of time taken up by alcohol use
  • choosing to drink at the expense of other important tasks or activities
  • drinking despite evidence of negative effects on one's health, relationships, education, or job

Diagnosis is sometimes brought about when family members call an alcoholic's difficulties to the attention of aphysician. A clinician may begin to be suspicious when a patient suffers repeated injuries or begins to experience medical problems related to the use of alcohol. In fact, some estimates suggest that about 20% of a physician's patients will be alcoholics.

Diagnosis is aided by administering specific psychological assessments that try to determine what aspects of a person's life may be affected by his or her use of alcohol. Determining the exact quantity of alcohol that a person drinks is of much less importance than determining how his or her drinking affects relationships, jobs, educational goals, and family life. In fact, because the metabolism (how the body breaks down and processes) of alcohol is so individual, the quantity of alcohol consumed is not part of the criteria list for diagnosing either alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse.

One simple tool for beginning the diagnosis of alcoholism is called the CAGE questionnaire. It consists of four
questions, with the first letters of each key word spelling out the word CAGE:

  • Have you ever tried to Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have you ever been Annoyed by anyone's comments about your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt Guilty about your drinking?
  • Do you ever need an Eye-opener (a morning drink of alcohol) to start the day)?

Other, longer lists of questions exist to help determine the severity and effects of a person's alcohol use. Given the recent research pointing to a genetic basis for alcoholism, it is important to ascertain whether anyone else in the person's family has ever suffered from alcoholism.


Treatment of alcoholism has two parts. The first step in the treatment of alcoholism, called detoxification, involves helping the person stop drinking and ridding his or her body of the harmful (toxic) effects of alcohol. Because the person's body has become accustomed to alcohol, the person will need to be supported through withdrawal. Withdrawal will be different for different patients, depending on the severity of the alcoholism, as measured by the quantity of alcohol ingested daily and the length of time the patient has been an alcoholic. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. Mild withdrawal symptoms include nausea, achiness, diarrhea, difficulty sleeping, sweatiness, anxiety, and trembling. This phase is usually over in about three to five days. More severe effects of withdrawal can include hallucinations (in which a patient sees, hears, or feels something that is not actually real), seizures, an unbearable craving for more alcohol, confusion, fever, fast heart rate, high blood pressure, and delirium (a fluctuating level of consciousness). Patients at highest risk for the most severe symptoms of withdrawal (referred to as delirium tremens) are those with other medical problems, including malnutrition, liver disease, or Wernicke's syndrome. Delirium tremens usually begin about three to five days after the patient's last drink, progressing from the more mild symptoms to the more severe, and may last a number of days.

Patients going through only mild withdrawal are simply monitored carefully to make sure that more severe symptoms do not develop. No medications are necessary, however. Treatment of a patient suffering the more severe effects of withdrawal may require the use of sedative medications to relieve the discomfort of withdrawal and to avoid the potentially life-threatening complications of high blood pressure, fast heart rate, and seizures. Drugs called benzodiazepines are helpful in those patients suffering from hallucinations. Because of the patient's nausea, fluids may need to be given through a vein (intravenously), along with some necessary sugars and salts. It is crucial that thiamine be included in the fluids, because thiamine is usually quite low in alcoholic patients, and deficiency of thiamine is responsible for the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

After cessation of drinking has been accomplished, the next steps involve helping the patient avoid ever taking another drink. This phase of treatment is referred to as rehabilitation. The best programs incorporate the family into the therapy, because the family has undoubtedly been severely affected by the patient's drinking. Some therapists believe that family members, in an effort to deal with their loved one's drinking problem, sometimes develop patterns of behavior that accidentally support or "enable" the patient's drinking. This situation is referred to as "co-dependence," and must be addressed in order to successfully treat a person's alcoholism.

Sessions led by peers, where recovering alcoholics meet regularly and provide support for each other's recoveries, are considered among the best methods of preventing a return to drinking (relapse). Perhaps the most well-known such group is called Alcoholics Anonymous, which uses a "12-step" model to help people avoid drinking. These steps involve recognizing the destructive power that alcohol has held over the alcoholic's life, looking to a higher powerfor help in overcoming the problem, and reflecting on the ways in which the use of alcohol has hurt others and, if possible, making amends to those people. According to a recent study reported by the American Psychological Association (APA), anyone, regardless of his or her religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, can benefit from participation in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). The number of visits to 12-step self-help groups exceeds the number of visits to all mental health professionals combined.

There are also medications that may help an alcoholic avoid returning to drinking. These have been used with variable success. Disulfiram (Antabuse) is a drug which, when mixed with alcohol, causes unpleasant reactions including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and trembling. Naltrexone, along with a similar compound, Nalmefene, can be helpful in limiting the effects of a relapse. Acamprosate is helpful in preventing relapse. None of these medications would be helpful unless the patient was also willing to work very hard to change his or her behavior. In 2004, a new compound was discovered that blocks actions of chemicals in the brain that may lead to relapses. Clinical tests were still underway, but development of such a drug could have great potential in the medical management of alcoholism. Another study that year found that topiramate (Topamax), an antiseizure medication, was effective in treating alcohol dependence in 150 participants in a clinical trial. The authors called for further study of this possible treatment.

Alternative treatment

Alternative treatments can be a helpful adjunct for the alcoholic patient, once the medical danger of withdrawal has passed. Because many alcoholics have very stressful lives (whether because of or leading to the alcoholism is sometimes a matter of debate), many of the treatments for alcoholism involve dealing with and relieving stress. These include massage, meditation, and hypnotherapy. The malnutrition of long-term alcohol use is addressed by nutrition-oriented practitioners with careful attention to a healthy diet and the use of nutritional supplements such as vitamins A, B complex, and C, as well as certain fatty acids, amino acids, zinc, magnesium, and selenium. Herbal treatments include milk thistle (Silybum marianum), which is thought to protect the liver against damage. Other herbs are thought to be helpful for the patient suffering through with-drawal. Some of these include lavender (Lavandula officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), peppermint (Mentha piperita) yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Acupuncture is believed to both decrease withdrawal symptoms and to help improve a patient's chances for continued recovery from alcoholism.


Recovery from alcoholism is a life-long process. In fact, people who have suffered from alcoholism are encouraged to refer to themselves ever after as "a recovering alcoholic," never a recovered alcoholic. This is because most researchers in the field believe that since the potential for alcoholism is still part of the individual's biological and psychological makeup, one can never fully recover from alcoholism. The potential for relapse (returning to illness) is always there, and must be acknowledged and respected. Statistics suggest that, among middle-class alcoholics in stable financial and family
situations who have undergone treatment, 60% or more can be successful at an attempt to stop drinking for at least a year, and many for a lifetime.


Prevention must begin at a relatively young age since the first instance of intoxication (drunkenness) usually
occurs during the teenage years. In fact, a 2004 study found that girls experimented with alcohol and cigarettes at a younger age—20% by seventh grage—than boys. It is particularly important that teenagers who are at high risk for
alcoholism—those with a family history of alcoholism, an early or frequent use of alcohol, a tendency to drink to drunkenness, alcohol use that interferes with school work, a poor family environment, or a history of domestic
violence—receive education about alcohol and its long-term effects. How this is best achieved, without irritating the youngsters and thus losing their attention, is the subject of continuing debate and study.



National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 10th Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and
. National Institute of Health, 2000.


Koch Kubetin, Sally. "Girls Before Boys in Cigarette and Alcohol Use: Longitudinal Study." Pediatric News (March 2004): 29.

"Research Findings Suggest Compound Might Help in Fight Against Alcoholism." Drug Week
(January 9, 2004): 18.

Walling, Anne D. "Topiramate in the Treatment of Alcohol Dependence." American Family Physician
(January 1, 2004): 195.


Al-Anon, Alanon Family Group, Inc. P.O. Box 862, Midtown Station, New York, NY 10018-0862.
(800) 356-9996. 〈http://www.recovery.org/aa〉.

Alcoholics Anonymous. Grand Central Station, Box 459, New York, NY 10163.

National Alliance on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. 12 West 21st St., New York, NY 10010. (212) 206-6770.

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. 11426 Rockville Pike, Suite 200, Rockville, MD. 20852.
(800) 729-6686. http:\\www.health.org.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 6000 Executive Boulevard, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-7003.