Alcohol abuse is problem drinking that negatively impacts your life.
Alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a problem pattern of drinking where you can have the same issues as alcohol abuse. Alcoholism also includes continued drinking even when there are clear problems related to alcohol that affect your physical and mental health.
The cause of alcohol abuse or alcoholism is unknown. The genes that you inherit from your family and the environment that you live in may both play a role in developing an alcohol disorder.
These factors increase your chance of developing alcoholism:
- Gender: male
- Family members who abuse alcohol
- Starting to use alcohol at an early age
or non-medical use of prescription drugs
- Peer pressure
- Emotional stress
- Easy access to alcoholic beverages
Psychiatric disorders, such as
It is common to deny an alcohol problem. Alcohol abuse can occur without physical dependence.
Alcohol abuse symptoms include:
- Repeated home, school, or work problems due to drinking
- Risking physical safety while drinking
- Recurring trouble with the law, often including drinking and driving or fighting
- Having problems with relationships that are worsened by drinking alcohol
- Involvement in dangerous drinking situations (e.g., drinking and driving)
Symptoms of alcoholism include:
- Difficult relationships with family members, friends, and coworkers
- Craving a drink
- Unable to stop or limit drinking
- Needing greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effect
- Giving up activities in order to drink or recover from alcohol
- Drinking that continues even when it causes or worsens health problems
- Wanting to stop or reduce drinking, but not being able
Withdrawal symptoms if alcohol is stopped include:
The brain, nervous system, heart, liver, stomach, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and pancreas can all be damaged by alcoholism.
Some of the Organs Damaged in Alcohol Abuse
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Doctors ask a series of questions to assess possible alcohol-related problems, including:
- Have you tried to reduce your drinking?
- Have you felt bad about drinking?
- Have you been annoyed by another person's criticism of your drinking?
- Do you drink in the morning to steady your nerves or cure a hangover?
- Do you have problems with a job, your family, or the law?
- Do you drive under the influence of alcohol?
- Do you have abdominal pain, vomiting, or bleeding
The answers to these questions will help determine if you have an alcohol problem.
Blood tests may be done to look for signs that alcohol use is affecting your body, including:
- Looking at the size of your red blood cells
- Checking for alcohol-related liver disease and other health problems
Treatment for alcohol abuse or alcoholism is aimed at teaching you how to manage the disease. Most professionals believe that this means giving up alcohol completely and permanently.
The first and most important step is recognizing that a problem exists. Successful treatment depends on your desire to change. Your doctor can help you withdraw from alcohol safely. This could require hospitalization in a detoxification center. Healthcare staff will carefully monitor you for side effects. You may need medicine while you are undergoing detoxification.
Medicine can help relieve some of the symptoms of withdrawal and help prevent relapse. The doctor may prescribe medicine to reduce cravings for alcohol.
Medicines used to treat alcoholism and to try to prevent drinking include:
- Naltrexone—Blocks the high that makes you crave alcohol
- Disulfiram—Makes you very sick if you drink alcohol
- Acamprosate—Reduces your craving for alcohol
Therapy helps you to recognize alcohol's dangers. Education raises awareness of underlying issues and lifestyles that promote drinking. In therapy, you work to improve coping skills and learn other ways of dealing with stress or pain.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helps many people to stop drinking and stay sober. Members meet regularly and support each other. Your family members may also benefit from attending meetings of Al-Anon. Living with an alcoholic can be a painful, stressful situation.
Relapse is common in people who are recovering from an addiction. Treatment, like taking medicine and working with a therapist, may help reduce your chance of drinking and give you the support that you need if you do have a relapse.
If you are diagnosed with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, follow your doctor's
Realizing that alcohol causes problems helps some people avoid it. Suggestions to decrease the risk of alcohol-related problems include:
- Socialize without alcohol.
- Avoid going to bars.
- Do not keep alcohol in your home.
- Avoid situations and people that encourage drinking.
- Make new non-drinking friends or join groups engaging in non-alcohol related activities.
- Do fun things that do not involve alcohol.
- Avoid reaching for a drink when stressed or upset.
Limit your alcohol intake to a moderate level.
- Moderate is two or fewer drinks per day for men and one or fewer for women and older adults.
- A 12-ounce bottle of beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor is considered one drink.
- If you are a parent, having a good relationship with your children may reduce their risk of alcohol abuse.
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Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2000.
National epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at:
http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA70/AA70.htm. Published October 2006. Accessed August 23, 2012.
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Last reviewed February 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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