Debra Wood, RN
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.
Problems with alcohol are more common in men. Other factors that increase your chance of developing alcoholism include:
It is common to deny an alcohol problem. Alcohol abuse can occur without physical dependence.
Alcohol abuse symptoms include:
Symptoms of alcoholism include:
The brain, nervous system, heart, liver, stomach, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and pancreas can all be damaged by alcoholism.
Doctors ask a series of questions to assess possible alcohol-related problems, including:
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:
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 medication while you are undergoing detoxification.
Medication can help relieve some of the symptoms of withdrawal and help prevent relapse. The doctor may prescribe medication to reduce cravings for alcohol.
Medications used to treat alcoholism and to try to prevent drinking include:
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 medication 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.
Realizing that alcohol causes problems helps some people avoid it. Suggestions to decrease the risk of alcohol-related problems include:
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
Greater Toronto Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcohol use disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 30, 2012. Accessed August 23, 2012.
American Psychiatric Association.
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. Accessed August 23, 2012.
Ringold S, Lynm C. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
2/4/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Schinke SP, Fang L, et al. Computer-delivered, parent-involvement intervention to prevent substance use among adolescent girls.
5/14/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Vivitrol (naltrexone). US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at:
http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm106211.htm. Accessed August 23, 2012.
Last reviewed January 2015 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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