Alcoholism: Everything One Needs To Know About Alcohol Addiction

Last Updated: June 3, 2020

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Alcoholism is the third highest cause of mortality in America. Currently, more than 8 percent of adults in the United States suffer from alcoholism. What is alcohol addiction? It is a state where an individual becomes dependent on alcoholic beverages. Is it possible to prevent chronic alcohol abuse or get rid of the dangerous habit of alcoholism addiction? Learn more about the definition of alcoholism and how alcoholism works.

What is Alcoholism – Recognizing The Disease

Alcoholism is the severest form of alcohol abuse. By definition, alcoholism is a physical dependence on intoxicating drinks. Individuals with this condition are unable to control or limit their drinking habits. They crave the euphoric effects of alcohol and feel compelled to drink. In addition, alcoholics drink to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Addiction refers to the excessive use of alcohol and inability to stop drinking. Simply put, it means too much, too often. This excessive consumption begins to affect the individual’s health, day-to-day functioning, and interpersonal relations with family, friends, and colleagues. Eventually, an alcohol addict becomes dependent and progresses to full-blown alcoholism.
What is alcohol abuse and is it possible to recognize chronic abuse or alcoholism? There are certain behaviors that indicate a person is or may be becoming addicted to alcohol, for example, he or she:

  • is unable to stop drinking or limit the number of drinks consumed
  • needs more and more drinks to feel the effects of drinking
  • has drinking patterns that are affecting family and work life
  • finds it difficult to curtail the number of drinks
  • begins to suffer health problems related to drinking
  • binge drinks or consumes several drinks at a time
  • begins drinking during the morning hours
  • expresses feelings of guilt
  • experiences physical symptoms such as blackouts due to inebriation

Effects of Alcohol Abuse Disorder

First things first, what is alcohol? It is a beverage that is typically manufactured through a fermentation process. Yeast and bacteria break down the sugars that are naturally present in the fermenting substance and produce an alcoholic beverage as a result. The longer the period of fermentation, the more the potency of the beverage.
The consumption of alcoholic drinks has a depressant effect on the central nervous system of the human body. It leads to a lowering of the respiratory rate and blood pressure. Drinkers tend to feel relaxed and more confident. The consumption of alcoholic beverages is known to make social situations easier by lowering inhibitions. In fact, drinking can turn a socially awkward or shy individual into a social butterfly. Some users report feeling drowsy, light-headed, or euphoric after as few as one or two alcoholic beverages.
Excessive consumption of alcoholic drinks has a number of negative health effects. Also, it can lead to social, vocational, financial, and mental health problems. Drinkers are not only at risk of addiction but may also suffer from several short-term effects. People who are addicted to alcohol may suffer from:

  • Slurred speech
  • Violent outbursts
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Impaired mental function
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Loss of coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma and/or death

The day after alcoholic beverages are consumed, some people experience what is commonly referred to as a hangover, with associated symptoms such as a headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and malaise.
When consumed in excess, alcohol is an addictive substance. Chronic drinkers develop a tolerance to alcoholic beverages, meaning they need to drink more and more to achieve the same effects. Over time, this leads to addiction and the body experiences withdrawal symptoms if intoxicating drinks are not consumed regularly.
What is the definition of alcohol abuse? Many people are under the false impression that social drinking cannot lead to addiction or that one has to drink every single day to qualify as having a drinking problem. But the truth is that any consumption of alcoholic beverages in excess is a dangerous habit, putting the user at risk of becoming an addict. Binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour span for men, or three for women, is a potentially fatal habit, even when practiced infrequently.
Despite their devastating effects, alcoholic drinks continue to be widely available. In fact, drinking is considered traditional in many cultures, and people perceive it as a way of “fitting in.” In American society, the media portrays the consumption of alcoholic beverages as a stylish activity. There is a false perception that drinking alcoholic beverages is a necessary social tool, a rite of passage, a status symbol, or a coping mechanism.

High-Risk Groups: Is A Loved One At Risk Of Alcoholism?

It is possible for anyone to become addicted to intoxicating beverages. Certain groups, however, are more prone to chronic alcohol abuse than others. These individuals include:

  • veterans,
  • teenagers,
  • college students,
  • professionals,
  • pregnant women.

Veterans, especially those who have served in a combat zone, are more likely to turn to alcoholic drinks to cope with the difficult emotions related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Active military members are also more likely to drink compared to the general population and are often diagnosed with chronic alcoholism.
Drinking games and wild parties are synonymous with having a good time and the college experience. This puts teenagers and college students at risk of developing an addiction to alcoholic drinks even before they graduate. Parties that are unchaperoned by a responsible adult are often where young adults consume alcoholic drinks and indulge in binge drinking.
For many working professionals in high-stress jobs, happy hour is a social norm and a way to unwind at the end of a busy day. Before they know it, many people find they have an addiction. In the beginning, most people are able to hold down their job and function normally, but eventually, alcohol begins to affect work and family life. High-functioning alcoholics tend to take longer to seek help because they often miss the signs of alcoholism or find it difficult to admit they have a problem with drinking.
Although pregnant women are not likely to drink more than others, consuming alcoholic beverages can have dangerous consequences for their unborn baby. There is no known safe limit for the consumption of alcoholic drinks during pregnancy. For this reason, abstinence is ideal when a woman is expecting.
It is a misconception that social drinkers cannot develope substance use disorder. When a large number of drinks is consumed over a short period, it can quickly become addictive, even if practiced infrequently.

Treating Addiction to Alcoholic Beverages

The first step in the treatment of chronic alcohol abuse is accepting there is a problem. The next step is to find the most appropriate treatment for the affected individual. For some people, a straightforward detox treatment works best. For others, a more personal treatment that allows the person to heal is needed.
The initial detox is the most challenging part of alcoholism recovery. An alcoholic typically experiences harsh withdrawal symptoms which require professional help during the detox stage. Healthcare providers also ensure the person stays on track and the withdrawal symptoms do not lead to further health complications. The most severe symptoms of withdrawal usually occur on the first two days of treatment.
Some of the treatment programs that help people who are addicted to alcohol, include:

  • Self-Help – Beating an addiction without professional help requires a great deal of resilience and self-restraint. It is a more private way of seeking recovery from alcoholism. There are plenty of online resources and books to help alcoholics and guide them through the alcohol addiction treatment process. Still, managing addiction alone is difficult and even cab be dangerous. That’s why it is important to consult with health specialists.
  • Cognitive Therapy – This is a form of counseling which involves talking about the problem with a professional and planning a way to deal with the dependence.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous – This is a well-known support group that consists of volunteers who are former alcoholics who help others in a variety of ways. The group is non-discriminatory and anybody can attend to seek help. Moreover, because many people in the AA have conquered alcoholism themselves, they are ideally suited to relate to the issues faced by alcoholics and guide them towards recovery.
  • Drugs – There are two pharmaceutical approaches to combat alcoholism. The first is a drug that induces vomiting and headaches when alcohol is consumed and whilst it is in the system. The mechanism of action of this drug is deterrence by producing nasty side effects. However, this drug does not curb the desire to drink, merely a reluctance to drink alcoholic beverages. The second type of pharmaceutical intervention curbs the cravings to drink and addresses the desire to consume alcoholic beverages in the long-term.
  • Live-In Programs – For some people, being away from temptation works. Moving to a residential facility where there is professional help, group therapy sessions, and a home environment proves extremely beneficial to such individuals. In this kind of setup, a variety of strategies are typically employed to help people battling alcoholism.

The final step in the treatment of alcoholism is to ensure the person does not slip back into old drinking patterns. It is a good idea to gradually re-introduce daily life activities and continue with AA sessions. This multi-pronged approach increases the chances of remaining abstinent.

Key Strategies for Preventing Alcoholism

The first, and perhaps most important step, to prevent alcoholism is to recognize the signs of chronic abuse, the most evident of which is binge drinking. Others signs of abuse include:

  • Drunk driving
  • Drinking during the daytime or first thing in the morning
  • Reliance on alcohol (drinking daily because the person feels they have to)
  • Mood shifts
  • Denial when confronted with drinking
  • Drinking-related violence
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or work
  • Possible lethargy

Page Sources

  1. Natalie M. Zahr, Edith V. Sullivan, Translational Studies of Alcoholism, Bridging the Gap,
  2. Eşel E, Dinç K., Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence and Implications on Treatment,
  3. Gardner JD, Mouton AJ, Alcohol effects on cardiac function,
  4. Unsworth DJ, Mathias JL, Traumatic brain injury and alcohol/substance abuse: A Bayesian meta-analysis comparing the outcomes of people with and without a history of abuse,

Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: June 3rd, 2020

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.


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