Alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease that includes drinking problems, being preoccupied with alcohol or withdrawal symptoms from rapidly decreasing drinking.
Problems associated with drinking can occur before it has progressed to alcoholism. Binge drinking can lead to the same health and social problems related to alcoholism. Binge drinking may speed up the progression towards alcoholism.
Being in denial about a problem with alcohol is a part of alcoholism and other types of excessive drinking.
Symptoms of alcoholism include:
- Inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumption
- A strong compulsion to drink
- Development of alcohol tolerance
- Drinking alone or hiding
- Physical withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating and shaking
- Memory loss (black out)
- Rituals of having drinks at certain times
- Irritability when alcohol isn’t available
- Becoming intentionally drunk to feel good
- Financial, legal, employment or relationship problems due to drinking
- Losing interest in activities and hobbies
Alcoholism is influenced by genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors that have an impact on how it affects the body and behavior.
Becoming addicted to alcohol occurs gradually. Over time, drinking too much can change the normal balance of chemicals and nerve tracks in the brain associated with pleasure, judgment and the ability to control personal behavior. This may result in alcohol craving to restore good feelings.
Risk factors for alcoholism include:
- Steady drinking over time
- Age (people who start drinking at an early age have a higher risk of developing alcohol dependency)
- Family history
- Depression and other mental health problems
- Social and cultural factors (close friends or partner who drink regularly)
- Mixing medication and alcohol
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. Over time, it lowers the inhibitions and affects thoughts, emotions and judgment. Too much alcohol can affect speech, muscle coordination and vital centers of the brain. Heavy binge drinking can even cause a life-threatening coma or death.
Excessive drinking can also cause dangerous situations or behaviors such as:
- Motor vehicle accidents and other types of accidents
- Domestic problems
- Poor performance at work or school
- Increased likelihood of committing violent crimes
Health problems caused by excessive drinking include:
- Liver disease (hepatitis, cirrhosis)
- Digestive problems (gastritis, stomach and esophageal ulcers, pancreatitis)
- Heart problems (high blood pressure, enlarged heart, heart failure, stroke)
- Diabetes complications (increased risk of hypoglycemia)
- Sexual function and menstruation (erectile dysfunction, interrupted menstruation)
- Eye problems (involuntary rapid eye movement, weakness and paralysis of the eye muscles)
- Birth defects (fetal alcohol syndrome)
- Bone loss (osteoporosis)
- Neurological complications (numbness and pain in extremities, disordered thinking, dementia, short-term memory loss)
- Weakened immune system
- Increased risk of cancer (mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast cancer)
Alcohol addiction may be influenced by social factors, alcohol advertising, the psychological need for alcohol and genetic factors that increase the risk of addiction.
The following signs indicate a problem with alcohol:
- Loss of interest in activities and hobbies and in personal appearance
- Bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, problems with coordination and memory lapses
- Difficulties or changes in relationships with friends
- Problems at work or school
- Frequent mood changes and defensive behavior