FAQs on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
1. What is alcoholism?
Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a disease that includes the following four symptoms:
- Craving--A strong need, or urge, to drink.
- Loss of control--Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun.
- Physical dependence--Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety after stopping drinking.
- Tolerance--The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get "high."
For clinical and research purposes, formal diagnostic criteria for alcoholism also have been developed. Such criteria are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association, as well as in the International Classification Diseases, published by the World Health Organization. (See also "Publications," Alcohol Alert No. 30: Diagnostic Criteria for Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.)
2. Is alcoholism a disease?
Yes, alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.
Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his or her lifestyle. (See also "Publications," Alcohol Alert No. 30: Diagnostic Criteria for Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.)
3. Is alcoholism inherited?
Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism does indeed run in families. The genes a person inherits partially explain this pattern, but lifestyle is also a factor. Currently, researchers are working to discover the actual genes that put people at risk for alcoholism. Your friends, the amount of stress in your life, and how readily available alcohol is also are factors that may increase your risk for alcoholism.
But remember: Risk is not destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families doesn't mean that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic too. Some people develop alcoholism even though no one in their family has a drinking problem. By the same token, not all children of alcoholic families get into trouble with alcohol. Knowing you are at risk is important, though, because then you can take steps to protect yourself from developing problems with alcohol. (See also "Publications," A Family History of Alcoholism - Are You at Risk?; Alcohol Alert No. 18: The Genetics of Alcoholism.)
4. Can alcoholism be cured?
No, alcoholism cannot be cured at this time. Even if an alcoholic hasn't been drinking for a long time, he or she can still suffer a relapse. Not drinking is the safest course for most people with alcoholism.
5. Can alcoholism be treated?
Yes, alcoholism can be treated. Alcoholism treatment programs use both counseling and medications to help a person stop drinking. Treatment has helped many people stop drinking and rebuild their lives. (See also "Publication," Alcohol Alert No. 49: New Advances in Alcoholism Treatment.)
Reprinted with the permission of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.