For millions of American adults, having a cocktail or a glass of wine or beer is simply a way to enjoy a night out with friends, relax, or celebrate. They know when enough is enough, and they can stop themselves before things go too far. However, people with alcoholism cannot control their impulse to drink, often drinking to excess, which can put them or others in a dangerous situation.
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a disease in which your body becomes dependent on alcohol and its effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one in 12 Americans, or 17.6 million, suffers from this type of dependence on alcohol. (APA, 2012)
A person with an alcohol addiction cannot control when they drink, how much they drink, and how long they drink when they do consume alcohol. Addicted individuals cannot stop drinking even when it begins to interfere with their work, personal lives, or relationships.
People who have a dependence on alcohol also experience:
- cravings: a strong urge to drink, especially at unusual times
- physical dependence: withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, and anxiety when alcohol isn’t available
- tolerance: needing to drink more and more in order to achieve the same “feel-good” sensation
What’s the Difference between Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol abuse describes an unhealthy pattern of drinking and behavior. This can include excessive (binge) drinking that can interfere with a person’s ability to fulfill responsibilities at school, work, or to friends and family. People who abuse alcohol demonstrate many of the characteristics a person with alcoholism shows, but they have not become completely dependent on alcohol. That is, if they were to give up alcohol, they would not suffer the physical withdrawals and symptoms that an alcoholic would experience.
How Much Is Too Much?
The line between drinking socially and having an alcohol problem can be a very fuzzy for some people. Research shows, however, that for most adults, moderate alcohol consumption is no more than two drinks a day for men, or one drink for women and people over 65. A “drink” is 1.5 ounces of liquor, 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine. (APA, 2012)
Drinking more than this does not automatically mean you have an alcohol problem. However, it might be a sign that you drink too heavily, which could be laying the groundwork for a future problem.
How Is Alcoholism Diagnosed?
To diagnose an alcohol problem, your doctor will want to conduct a thorough physical, and will ask you a number of questions regarding your drinking habits. Your doctor may also want to speak with friends and family members who may be able to shed light on your drinking problems, habits, and responses.
No single test can diagnose alcoholism. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, to be diagnosed with alcoholism, one must meet certain criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
You may be diagnosed with an alcohol addiction if you have experienced three or more of the following episodes or experiences during a one-year period:
- Being unable or unwilling to quit drinking even after faced with a diagnosis that proves your alcohol dependency is having a physical or psychological impact on your body.
- Drinking over a longer period of time than you intended, or drinking more than you intended.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cut down or attempt to stop using alcohol. These symptoms include nausea, anxiety, and insomnia.
- Feeling remorse or regret for drinking, and having an ongoing desire to quit drinking.
- Finding yourself preoccupied with the idea of drinking, whether that’s planning your next time to drink, obtaining alcohol, hiding alcohol, or recovering from the effects of alcohol use.
- Giving up activities that once meant a lot to you, including social gatherings, hobbies, or recreational activities.
- Increasingly tolerant of the amount of alcohol you consume in order to feel intoxicated. (Mayo Clinic, 2012)
Alcoholism and chronic alcohol abuse can create other health problems, including liver disease, digestive problems, bone loss, and even cancer. To check for these complications, you may need additional tests and procedures to detect any physical effects of alcohol dependence.