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Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also called alcohol dependence, is a chronic disease characterized by a physical and psychological addiction to alcohol. Addiction to alcohol is a serious problem that leads to many physical and mental diseases, disorders and conditions, such as cirrhosis of the liver, memory loss, depression, and bleeding esophageal varices. Alcoholism also leads to accidents, injuries, and major life disruptions, including motor vehicle accidents, job loss, legal problems, destruction of relationships, and domestic abuse. Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

There are two types of alcohol-related conditions that involve drinking more than what is considered moderate. Moderate drinking is considered no more than one drink per day for a woman and two drinks per day for a man. In the United States, a drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer or wine cooler, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor (such as vodka or rum).

Types of alcohol-related conditions include:

  • Alcoholism (alcohol dependence) involves an uncontrollable physical and psychological addiction to alcohol that leads to damaged health, relationships, careers, and property. People with alcoholism develop a tolerance to alcohol and may not appear intoxicated even after drinking a significant amount. They also experience withdrawal symptoms if they do not drink consistently.

  • Alcohol abuse is characterized by excessive drinking that can lead to the same negative effects as alcoholism. However, alcohol abuse is not driven by a physical addiction to alcohol.

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are common problems. Almost 17.6 million people in the United States (one in 12 adults) have alcoholism or abuse alcohol (Source: NIAAA).

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Alcoholism can be difficult to diagnose because of secrecy and the tendency toward denial of a serious problem. In some cases, alcoholism may be a symptom of, or coexist with, an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or schizophrenia. Successful treatment of alcoholism is challenging and may require multiple attempts before sobriety is achieved; relapses are common. Treatment includes medical support for physical withdrawal from alcohol; participation in a support system, such as Alcoholics Anonymous; and counseling therapy.

Cirrhosis of the liver is the best-known physical complication of alcoholism. Chronic abuse of alcohol can also cause serious mental health issues and cause damage to the digestive, neurological, reproductive and cardiovascular systems.

Seek prompt medical care if you drink more than what is defined as moderate alcohol consumption. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism or alcohol abuse lowers the risk of adverse effects on your physical and mental health and developing serious problems in relationships and everyday life.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have life-threatening symptoms related to complications of alcoholism. These include confusion, lethargy, unresponsiveness, difficulty breathing, seizure, delusions or hallucinations, vomiting blood or heavy rectal bleeding, or feelings of wanting to hurt or kill oneself or another person.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 13, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Alcohol withdrawal. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.