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Alcoholism: Definition, Symptoms, Effects, Causes, Treatment & Rehab


Alcoholism (alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction), also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic and progressive disorder characterized by a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. It is a condition in which a person has an impaired ability to control their alcohol consumption and experiences negative consequences as a result of their drinking.

Alcoholism Statistics

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects about 14.5 million adults (aged 18 and older) in the United States. This represents about 5.8% of all U.S. adults.

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides statistics on the global burden of alcohol use. According to the WHO, in 2019, an estimated 237 million men and 46 million women had alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol deaths per year worldwide

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, about 3 million deaths every year are caused by the harmful use of alcohol, representing about 5.3% of all deaths.

Alcoholism: Definition, Symptoms, Effects, Causes, Treatment & Rehab

There are many different issues concerning alcoholism that need to be studied in order to better understand this damaging disease. More explicitly, there are health-related, emotional, behavioral, social, and physical facets of this disease that result in predictable and observable health hazards and destructive behaviors that together form the effects of alcoholism.

And by the way, research has not uncovered any evidence that any of the effects of alcoholism are positive. In a word, alcoholism is a disease that will eventually result in debilitating and life threatening circumstances.

One of the key facts about alcohol-drinking is that for most people who drink, alcohol is a pleasant experience, especially when they engage in social functions. In the majority of cases, therefore, drinking in moderation is not harmful for most adults.

A relatively large number of people, however, simply cannot consume ANY alcoholic beverages due to the negative consequences they experience when drinking.
Interestingly, the more a person reads about and understands the facts about alcoholism, the more the consequences of this disease can become apparent and the more an individual can becomes able to either avoid this disease or seek treatment and start the alcohol recovery process if he or she suffers from this disease.

One thing, however, is clear: the more and the longer people drink in an abusive and excessive manner the more likely they will experience the negative outcomes associated with chronic alcohol abuse or suffer from the effects of alcoholism.

A Definition of Alcoholism

Also known as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence, alcoholism is a disease that includes the following symptoms:
  • Craving: A strong and continuing compulsion or need to drink.
  • Physical dependence: Withdrawal symptoms when a person stops drinking after a period of excessive drinking. Such symptoms include: anxiety, sweating, nausea, and "the shakes."
  • Loss of control: The inability to limit one's drinking over time or on any given occasion.
  • Tolerance: The need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol in order to "feel a buzz" or to "get high."

Is Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse the Same Thing

Many of us think that alcohol abuse and alcoholism are the same. This is incorrect and something that is clearly not based on the facts about alcoholism. Alcohol abuse, unlike alcoholism, does not include physical dependence, loss of control due to drinking, or an extremely strong desire for alcohol.

Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that results in one or more of the following circumstances in a twelve-month period of time:
  • Drinking in situations that can result in physical injury; for example, driving a vehicle or operating machinery.
  • Failure to attend to important responsibilities at work, home, or school.
  • Experiencing recurring alcohol-related legal problems. Examples include getting arrested for - driving under the influence of alcohol, damaging someone's property, or physically hurting someone while drunk.
  • Continued drinking in spite of ongoing relationship problems that are the result of drinking.

Is Alcoholism Genetic

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is considered to be a complex condition that likely results from a combination of genetic, environmental, and social factors.

Researches have shown that there is a genetic component to alcoholism. Studies have found that individuals with a family history of alcoholism are at a higher risk of developing the disorder themselves. Studies of identical twins, who share 100% of their DNA, have also found a significant correlation between the development of alcoholism in both twins.

However, it is important to note that genetics is not the only factor that determines a person's risk for developing alcoholism. Environmental factors, such as stress, trauma, and access to alcohol, can also play a role in the development of the disorder. Additionally, cultural and social influences, such as peer pressure, can also contribute to the development of alcohol use disorder.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Symptoms of alcoholism can include:
  • Drinking more or for a longer period of time than intended
  • Difficulty controlling or reducing alcohol consumption
  • Neglecting responsibilities and relationships due to alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol
  • Giving up important activities in order to drink
  • Using alcohol in dangerous or risky situations
  • Continuing to drink despite physical or psychological problems caused by alcohol
When the topic of "symptoms of alcoholism" is discussed, many people focus on the physical symptoms of alcoholism and exclude many of the other alcoholism symptoms.

As a result, it is important to emphasize the point that other alcoholism symptoms such as social, spiritual, and psychological symptoms of alcoholism exist and can be just as debilitating and agonizing as physical alcoholism symptoms.

Psychological Symptoms of Alcoholism

  • Loss of control
  • Sleep problems
  • The collapse of the alibi system
  • An increase in failed promises and resolutions to one's self and to others
  • Anxiety
  • Obsession with drinking
  • Loss of interests
  • Unreasonable resentments
  • Loss of willpower
  • Aggression
  • Cloudy thinking
  • Poor concentration
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Denial of the effects of alcohol
Unfortunately, the "high" and the "buzz" that were so pleasant during the early days of drinking frequently transform into a need to drink just to make it through the day. When a person experiences such a "loss of control," he or she may not only experience physical symptoms of alcohol dependence such as blackouts and "the shakes" but also emotional components of alcoholism.
That is, many people who are alcohol dependent experience a psychological addiction to alcohol that manifests itself as an overwhelming desire to drink. These cravings can be so strong that in many instances psychologically and physically addicted individuals will do almost anything for their next "fix" including lying, stealing, and other types of crime.

Emotional signs that someone may have a alcohol addiction include the following:
  • solitary drinking
  • drinking alcohol as a way to forget problems or to "mellow out"
  • blaming other for one's problems
  • anti-social behavior
  • withdrawal or keeping secrets from friends and family
  • loss of interest in activities were important
  • changes in friendships, such as associating only with friends who drink
  • a preoccupation with figuring out how to get alcohol
  • failed attempts to stop drinking
  • anger, anxiety, or depression
  • unexplained mood swings

Social Symptoms of Alcoholism

  • Financial insecurity
  • Difficulties and arguments with family or friends
  • Devaluation of personal relationships
  • Unemployment
  • Blaming problems on others and on things external to themselves
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Difficulties performing at work or home
  • Legal problems
  • Serious relationship and work-related problems
  • Withdrawal from social activities

Spiritual Symptoms of Alcoholism

  • Self-pity
  • Discontentment
  • Dysthymia (mild chronic depression)
  • Self-centeredness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Feeling useless
  • Fearful
  • Resentment

Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism

It is clear that alcoholism physically affects people while they are addicted and also when they want to recover from this disease and, unfortunately, experience withdrawal symptoms. One way to look at the physical symptoms of alcoholism is to focus on the typical alcoholic behaviors in the various stages of alcoholism.

Symptoms of Alcoholism Physical - First Stage

The following represents some of the alcoholism symptoms and behaviors in the first stage of alcoholism:
  • Increasing tolerance
  • Gross Drinking Behavior - more frequent drinking of greater amounts
  • A conscious effort to seek out more drinking opportunities
  • Boasting and a "big shot" complex
  • Lack of recognition by the person that he or she is in the early stages of a progressive illness
  • An ability to drink great amounts of alcohol without any apparent impairment

Symptoms of Alcoholism Physical - Second Stage

The following represents some of the alcoholism symptoms and behaviors in the second stage of alcoholism:
  • Sporadic loss of control
  • More frequent blackouts
  • Drinking because of dependence rather than for stress relief
  • Chronic hangovers
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop drinking
  • Physical problems increase
  • Increasing tolerance
  • Sneaking extra drinks before social events
  • Gulping the first few drinks to feel the "buzz" faster

Symptoms of Alcoholism Physical - Third Stage

The following represents some of the alcoholism symptoms and behaviors in the third stage of alcoholism:
  • Neglect of necessities such as food
  • The development of an alibi system - an elaborate system of excuses for their drinking
  • Half-hearted attempts at seeking medical aid
  • Aggressive and grandiose behavior
  • Avoidance of family and friends
  • Eye-openers
  • Increased tremors
  • Frequent violent or destructive behavior
  • A decrease in alcohol tolerance
  • Problems with the law (e.g, DUIs)
  • The start of physical deterioration
  • Loss of control has become a pattern

Symptoms of Alcoholism Physical - Fourth Stage

The following represents some of the alcoholism symptoms and behaviors in the fourth stage of alcoholism:
  • Moral deterioration
  • Loss of tolerance for alcohol
  • "The shakes"
  • Benders, or lengthy intoxications
  • The "DTs"
  • Continual loss of control
  • Unreasonable resentments and hostility toward others
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations

Symptoms of Alcoholism Withdrawal 

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a group of symptoms exhibited by people who quit drinking alcohol after a pattern of excessive and continuous consumption. These symptoms can range from mild to moderate to severe and include both psychological and behavioral aspects.

Mild to Moderate Withdrawal Symptoms of Alcoholism

The following represents mild to moderate physical symptoms that typically occur within 6 to 48 hours after the last alcoholic drink:
  • Insomnia, sleeping difficulties
  • Vomiting
  • Involuntary, abnormal movements of the eyelids
  • Eyes or pupils different size (enlarged, dilated pupils)
  • Abnormal movements
  • Nausea
  • Sweating (especially on the face or the palms of the hands)
  • Tremor of the hands
  • Clammy skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches (especially those that pulsate)
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Looking pale, without color

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms of Alcoholism

The following represents severe symptoms that typically occur within 48 to 96 hours after the last alcoholic drink:
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Black outs
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Severe autonomic nervous system overactivity
  • Fever
[ When experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, always see your healthcare provider or doctor immediately so that he or she can evaluate the severity of your situation and recommend the most effective option for treatment. ]

Symptoms of alcoholism affect people when they drink, when they try to stop drinking, and when they go through the recovery process and, unfortunately experience withdrawal symptoms.  When suffering from alcoholism symptoms, keep the following in mind:

First, alcoholism leads to a series of damaging and painful social, physical, spiritual, and psychological symptoms that will get progressively worse unless the person stops drinking.

Second, an essential step in the recovery process is acknowledging that drinking has become a problem and having the desire and the will to quit drinking.

Third, once the alcoholic reaches this point, the next issue to resolve is how to best handle the withdrawal symptoms that typically follow.

Fourth, the most rational and effective way to cope with and overcome withdrawal symptoms is to immediately see a healthcare provider or a doctor so that he or she can evaluate the severity of the problem and articulate the most effective form of treatment.

Alcoholism Effects

The effects of alcoholism are not only serious, but in many cases, fatal. For example, chronic, heavy drinking can increase the risk for certain cancers, such as cancer of the throat, kidneys, larynx, liver, esophagus, and the rectum. Furthermore, excessive and irresponsible drinking can also lead to cirrhosis of the liver, brain damage, harm to the fetus while the mother is pregnant, problems with the immune system, and chronic alcoholism.

Additionally, drinking increases the risk of death from motor vehicle accidents as well as recreational and work-related injuries. Not only this, but suicides and homicides are more likely to be committed by people who have been drinking.

In simple economic terms, alcohol-related issues and problems cost society billions of dollars per year. In human terms, the cost of the following alcohol-related issues, many of which are directly or indirectly related to the effects of alcoholism, cannot be calculated: fatalities, broken homes, illnesses, wife battering, child abuse, injuries, failed health, and destroyed lives.

The bottom line is that all of the effects of alcoholism are dangerous, unhealthy, and almost always result in someone losing his or her life.

Causes of Alcoholism

A question that has entered the minds of many people is the following: why can some people drink alcohol without experiencing any major problems or any negative consequences while others cannot? Stated otherwise, why do some heavy drinkers experience many of the effects of alcoholism while others do not?

One answer to this question involves the genetic makeup of various individuals. More specifically, researchers have discovered that having an alcoholic family member significantly increases the risk of developing alcoholism. In fact, there may be a genetic predisposition for certain individuals to become dependent on alcohol.

In addition, substance abuse scientists have found that various environmental factors can interact with an individual's genetics. Examples include peer pressure, the relative ease of getting alcohol, where and how a person lives, a person's culture, and an individual's family and friends.

It must be emphasized, however, that few, if any people have the same genetic background AND the environmental factors that can cause alcoholism. This, perhaps more than any other explanation, reveals why identical twins frequently do not exhibit the same drinking behavior or, if abusive drinkers, do not suffer the effects of alcoholism or the consequences of alcohol abuse in the same way.

Treatment of Alcoholism

It is important to point out that if you observe your friends or family members exhibiting any of the above symptoms or behaviors, consider them as signs of alcoholism or symptoms of alcoholism. And if your friends or family members do, in fact, manifest some of these signs or symptoms, they may need professional alcoholism help.

More precisely, they may need a diagnosis for alcoholism, alcoholism counseling, or they may need to be admitted to a hospital, treatment center, or rehab facility if they are to significantly minimize the effects of alcoholism or the negative consequences of chronic alcohol abuse that they have been experiencing.

Regrettably, numerous individuals who are not alcoholic or who drink moderately fail to comprehend why an alcohol dependent person can't simply use self-control or willpower to abstain from drinking. In most circumstances, however, alcoholism has little to do with willpower or with being strong and "fighting" the temptation to drink.

Indeed, alcohol addicted individuals are caught in a relentless, uncontrollable compulsion for alcohol that takes priority over their ability to stop drinking and to think from a common sense, reality-based perspective. Indeed, this need to drink for the alcoholic can be as powerful as his or her need for food or water.

While there is no known cure to alcoholism, recovery from alcoholism, though difficult, is possible. Some individuals might be able to recover from alcohol dependency without any clinical or medical help; but, many, if not most, alcoholics need professional treatment for their alcohol addiction. The good news, however, is this: through treatment, education, counseling, and support, many alcoholics are able to abstain from drinking and rebuild their lives.

Alcohol Rehab

Alcohol rehab (alcoholism rehabilitation) refers to the psychotherapeutic, educational, medical, and/or social treatment processes required for alcoholism recovery.

The ultimate goal of alcohol rehab is to help the alcoholic abstain from drinking alcohol so that he or she can avoid the social, psychological, financial, physical, and legal consequences that are usually caused by alcoholism.

Alcohol Rehab Process

With the regular ingestion of alcohol, the brain steadily adjusts to the alcohol so that normal functioning is possible.

This not only explains how physical tolerance develops but it also explains why increasingly more alcohol is required to get the same "buzz" or "high" with regular use.

And, on abruptly stopping drinking alcohol, however, the alcoholic usually experiences withdrawal symptoms which may require days or weeks to pass before the body returns to the "normal state."

The alcoholism rehab process has two main components: treating - (i) physical dependency and (ii) psychological dependency.

Treating physical dependency again has two parts: (i) managing the alcohol withdrawal symptoms and (ii) getting through the alcohol detoxification process which is necessary in order for the body to rid itself of alcohol.

Psychological dependency, on the other hand, typically involves teaching the alcoholic new ways of interacting in an alcohol-free environment.

Alcohol Rehab Centers

The treatment methodology adapted by most of the traditional alcohol rehab centers are based  on the 12-step approach modeled after the 12-step program that began with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Alcoholics Anonymous

Perhaps the best known and one of the most successful alcohol rehab programs is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  Alcoholics Anonymous is a worldwide affiliation of men and women from all walks of life who share their strengths, aspirations, and experiences with one other in the hope that they may solve their mutual addiction problem and assist others in their quest to recover from alcohol dependence.

The only condition for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking alcohol. As a result, total abstinence from alcohol is advocated by the organization.  Members make a conscious effort to abstain from drinking and continue with their alcoholism rehab that is accomplished "one day at a time."  Sobriety is achieved through mutual support as members share their experiences, strengths, and their hopes.

One of the essential aspects of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) rehabilitation program is articulated in the Twelve Steps.  Based on the experiences of Alcoholics Anonymous' earliest members, the 12 Steps represent the documented practices and principles, acquired through trial and error, that the early members established in order to maintain sobriety.

Other less conventional Alcohol Rehab Centers

Non-traditional methodologies routinely focus less on factors such as group support, the number of meetings attended, and a "higher power" and more on scientifically validated data and empirical treatment findings. Such approaches have demonstrated that doctor-prescribed medications in combination with comprehensive counseling, training, and education lead to doable, practical, and reproducible therapeutic results.

Some of the more productive and effective treatment of alcoholism takes place in alcoholic rehabilitation centers or in rehab hospitals.  These treatment facilities are routinely staffed with empathetic, supportive, and professional healthcare professionals who do everything they can to help problem drinkers acquire more effective decision-making, relationship, coping, and "life" skills so that they can restore their lives and start the recovery process.

Alcohol Rehab Centers: Medications and Counseling

Non-12-step rehabilitation mostly takes place in hospitals or in alcohol rehab centers that provide treatment through medication along with counseling/therapy. These non-traditional treatment facilities deal with alcoholism from both a psychological as well as from a physiological standpoint.

Some of the more effective alcohol rehab centers are more inclusive than others and therefore focus on how the alcoholic will deal with employment difficulties, relationship issues, and financial problems after he/she completes rehabilitation, attains sobriety, and returns home.

Some (more successful) alcohol rehab centers stick to a holistic view that helps alcoholics identify, address, and sort out some of the fundamental predicaments that helped lead to the drinking problems in the first place.

Some of these essential, alcohol-related factors are the following: poor financial management skills, spirituality issues, unemployment, grief, poor anger management skills, career indecision, poor coping skills, loss, pain, poor interpersonal relationship skills, and unemployment.

Alcohol Rehab Centers: Outpatient Follow-Up Treatment

When a person undergoes alcohol rehab, it is necessary to address what he or she will be doing after he or she has completed the rehabilitation process.

Although detoxification and managing withdrawal symptoms are critically important in the treatment of alcoholism, but so is the “follow-up” training, education, and counseling (outpatient therapy) that successful treatment facilities often begin as soon as the residential part of the rehabilitation process comes to an end.

The higher quality and broad-based alcohol rehab centers concentrate on rehab approaches that focus on “long-lasting” success, rather than on short-term, "quick fix” therapeutic methods.

The Significance of The Rehabilitation Atmosphere

The treatment environment in which an alcohol abuser or alcoholic finds himself or herself is a basic rehabilitation deliberation. Some of the more proficient alcohol rehab, for instance, provide an experiential, interesting, positive, and safe environment that fosters productive, positive, and effective long-term treatment success. 

Despite the fact that treatment at most of the alcohol rehabilitation centers can be quite expensive, especially those that provide in-patient, residential treatment options, the more skillful and effectiveness-oriented rehab facilities place financial considerations low on their priority list as they limit the number of alcohol abusers and alcoholics they accept for treatment. This is more a "treatment” determination and less of a "profit" decision so that staff can provide the resources, time, effort, and compassion that top-shelf alcohol rehabilitation requires.

Facets of Effective Alcohol Rehab Therapy

Some of the more significant characteristics of successful alcohol rehab centers are:
  • Hotel or rehab facility suites for out-of-town people
  • Competitive pricing
  • Private detox services
  • Comprehensive day and night counseling and educational programs
  • A professional, compassionate, and success-oriented staff
  • Hospital and non-hospital rehabilitation options
  • Medications to help control and manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Outpatient treatment options that are individualized to “fit” the financial circumstances and the needs of each client
  • Doctor prescribed medications to assistance patients refrain from alcohol relapse
  • Treatment options with distinctive time periods and length of counseling choices that are targeted to the needs of each alcohol abuser or alcoholic
  • Success rates well beyond the national averages
To conclude...

Indeed, it really does not make any significant difference whether a person chooses a more traditional program such as the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, the traditional alcohol rehab centers that are based on the 12-step approach, or one of the many other quality alcohol rehab methodologies. What does matter, however is this:  alcoholics need to acknowledge that they have a drinking problem, they must want to stop drinking, and they need to find an alcohol rehab program that works for them.


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