is a term with multiple and sometimes conflicting definitions. In common and historic usage, alcoholism refers to any condition that results in the continued consumption of alcoholic beverages
despite the health problems and negative social consequences it causes. Medical definitions describe alcoholism as a disease
which results in a persistent use of alcohol despite negative consequences. Alcoholism, also referred to as dipsomania
in the 19th and early 20th centuries, may also refer to a preoccupation with or compulsion toward the consumption of alcohol and/or an impaired ability to recognize the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Although not all of these definitions specify current and on-going use of alcohol as a qualifier, some do, as well as remarking on the long-term effects of consistent, heavy alcohol use, including dependence
and symptoms of withdrawal
While the ingestion of alcohol is, by definition, necessary to develop alcoholism, the use of alcohol does not predict the development of alcoholism. The quantity, frequency and regularity of alcohol consumption required to develop alcoholism varies greatly from person to person. In addition, although the biological mechanisms underpinning alcoholism are uncertain, some risk factors, including social environment, emotional health and genetic predisposition, have been identified.
Definitions and terminology
The definitions of alcoholism and related terminology vary significantly between the medical community, treatment programs, and the general public.
The Journal of the American Medical Association
defines alcoholism as "a primary, chronic disease characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking.
The DSM-IV (the standard for diagnosis in psychiatry and psychology) defines alcohol abuse as repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences. It further defines alcohol dependence as alcohol abuse combined with tolerance, withdrawal, and an uncontrollable drive to drink. (See DSM diagnosis below.)
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, alcoholism is the popular term for alcohol dependence. Note that there is debate whether dependence in this use is physical (characterised by withdrawal), psychological (based on reinforcement), or both.
Many terms are applied to a drinker's relationship with alcohol. Use, misuse, heavy use, abuse, addiction, and dependence are all common labels used to describe drinking habits, but the actual meaning of these words can vary greatly depending upon the context in which they are used. Even within the medical field, the definition can vary between areas of specialization. The introduction of politics and religion further muddles the issue.
Use refers to simple use of a substance. An individual who drinks any alcoholic beverage is using alcohol. Misuse, problem use, abuse, and heavy use do not have standard definitions, but suggest consumption of alcohol to the point where it causes physical, social, or moral harm to the drinker. The definitions of social and moral harm are highly subjective and therefore differ from individual to individual.
Within politics, abuse is often used to refer to the illegal use of any substance. Within the broad field of medicine, abuse sometimes refers to use of prescription medications in excess of the prescribed dosage, sometimes refers to use of a prescription drug without a prescription, and sometimes refers to use that results in long-term health problems. Within religion, abuse can refer to any use of a poorly regarded substance. The term is often avoided because it can cause confusion with audiences that do not necessarily share a single definition.
Remission is often used to refer to a state where an alcoholic is no longer showing symptoms of alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association considers remission to be a condition where the physical and mental symptoms of alcoholism are no longer evident, regardless of whether or not the person is still drinking. They further subdivide those in remission into early or sustained, and partial or full. The fellowship known as Alcoholics Anonymous does not use the term "remission" because AA's basic text, which was first published in 1939, uses the terms "recover" and "recovered" to describe those who have stopped consuming alcohol by addressing their underlying problem. On page 64, the AA text says "Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions."
The term "alcoholism" was first used in 1849 by the physician Magnus Huss
to describe the systematic adverse effects of alcohol.
In the United States, use of the word "alcoholism" was largely popularized by the founding and growth of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. AA's basic text, known as the "Big Book," describes alcoholism as an illness that involves a physical allergy and a mental obsession.
A 1960 study by E. Morton Jellinek is considered the foundation of the modern disease theory of alcoholism. Jellinek's definition restricted the use of the word "alcoholism" to those showing a particular natural history. The modern medical definition of alcoholism has been revised numerous times since then. The American Medical Association currently uses the word alcoholism to refer to a particular chronic primary disease.
A minority opinion within the field, notably advocated by Herbert Fingarette and Stanton Peele, argue against the existence of alcoholism as a disease. Critics of the disease model tend to use the term "heavy drinking" when discussing the negative effects of alcohol consumption.
Substance use disorders are a major public health problem facing many countries. "The most common substance of abuse/dependence in patients presenting for treatment is alcohol." In the United Kingdom, the number of 'dependent drinkers' was calculated as over 2.8 million in 2001. The World Health Organization estimates that about 140 million people throughout the world suffer from alcohol dependence.
Within the medical and scientific communities, there is broad consensus regarding alcoholism as a disease state. For example, the American Medical Association considers alcohol a drug and states that "drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite often devastating consequences. It results from a complex interplay of biological vulnerability, environmental exposure, and developmental factors (e.g., stage of brain maturity)."
Current evidence indicates that in both men and women, alcoholism is 50-60% genetically determined, leaving 40-50% for environmental influences.
A 2002 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism surveyed a group of 4,422 adult alcoholics and found that after one year some were no longer alcoholics, even though only 25.5% of the group received any treatment, with the breakdown as follows:
- 25% still dependent
- 27.3% in partial remission (some symptoms persist)
- 11.8% asymptomatic drinkers (consumption increases chances of relapse)
- 35.9% fully recovered — made up of 17.7% low-risk drinkers plus 18.2% abstainers.
In contrast, however, the results of a long-term (60 year) follow-up of two groups of alcoholic men by George Vaillant at Harvard Medical School indicated that "return to controlled drinking rarely persisted for much more than a decade without relapse or evolution into abstinence." Vaillant also noted that "return-to-controlled drinking, as reported in short-term studies, is often a mirage."
Identification and diagnosis
Multiple tools are available to those wishing to conduct screening for alcoholism. Identification of alcoholism may be difficult because there is no detectable physiologic difference between a person who drinks frequently and a person with the condition. Identification involves an objective assessment regarding the damage that imbibing alcohol does to the drinker's life compared to the subjective benefits the drinker perceives from consuming alcohol. While there are many cases where an alcoholic's life has been significantly and obviously damaged, there are always borderline cases that can be difficult to classify.
Addiction Medicine specialists have extensive training with respect to diagnosing and treating patients with alcoholism.
Several tools may be used to detect a loss of control of alcohol use. These tools are mostly self reports
in questionnaire form. Another common theme is a score or tally that sums up the general severity of alcohol use.
- The CAGE questionnaire, named for its four questions, is one such example that may be used to screen patients quickly in a doctor's office.
- The CAGE questionnaire, among others, has been extensively validated for use in identifying alcoholism. It is not valid for diagnosis of other substance use disorders, although somewhat modified versions of the CAGE are frequently implemented for such a purpose.
Genetic predisposition testing
Psychiatric geneticists John I. Nurnberger, Jr., and Laura Jean Bierut suggest that alcoholism does not have a single cause—including genetic—but that genes do play an important role "by affecting processes in the body and brain that interact with
one another and with an individual's life experiences to produce protection or susceptibility." They also report that less than a dozen alcoholism-related genes have been identified, but that more likely await discovery.
At least one genetic test exists for an allele that is correlated to alcoholism and opiate addiction. Human dopamine receptor genes have a detectable variation referred to as the DRD2 TaqI polymorphism. Those who possess the A1 allele (variation) of this polymorphism have a small but significant tendency towards addiction to opiates and endorphin releasing drugs like alcohol. Although this allele is slightly more common in alcoholics and opiate addicts, it is not by itself an adequate predictor of alcoholism, and some researchers argue that evidence for DRD2 is contradictory.
diagnosis of alcohol dependence represents one approach to the definition of alcoholism. In part this is to assist in the development of research protocols in which findings can be compared with one another. According to the DSM-IV, an alcohol dependence diagnosis is:
Urine and blood tests
There are reliable tests for the actual use of alcohol, one common test being that of blood alcohol content
(BAC). These tests do not differentiate alcoholics from non-alcoholics; however, long-term heavy drinking does have a few recognizable effects on the body, including:
However, none of these blood tests for biological markers are as sensitive as screening questionaires.
The primary effect of alcoholism is to encourage the sufferer to drink at times and in amounts that are damaging to physical health. The secondary damage caused by an inability to control one's drinking manifests in many ways. Alcoholism also has a significant social costs to both the alcoholic and their family and friends. Alcoholics have a very high suicide rate with studies showing between 8% and 21% of alcoholics commit suicide. Alcoholism also has a significant adverse impact on mental health. The risk of alcoholics committing suicide has been determined to be 5080 times higher than the general public average.
Physical health effects
It is common for a person suffering from alcoholism to drink well after physical health effects start to manifest. The physical health effects associated with alcohol consumption may include cirrhosis
of the liver, pancreatitis
, alcoholic dementia
, heart disease, increased chance of cancer, nutritional deficiencies, sexual dysfunction
, and death from many sources.
Mental health effects
Long term misuse of alcohol can cause a wide range of mental health effects. Alcohol misuse is not only toxic to the body but also to brain function and thus psychological well being can be adversely affected by the long-term effects of alcohol
Psychiatric disorders are common in alcoholics, especially anxiety and depression disorders, with as many as 25% of alcoholics presenting with severe psychiatric disturbances. Typically these psychiatric symptoms caused by alcohol misuse initially worsen during alcohol withdrawal but with abstinence these psychiatric symptoms typically gradually improve or disappear altogether. Panic disorder
can develop as a direct result of long term alcohol misuse. Panic disorder can also worsen or occur as part of the alcohol withdrawal syndrome
. Chronic alcohol misuse can cause panic disorder to develop or worsen an underlying panic disorder via distortion of the neurochemical system in the brain.
The social problems arising from alcoholism can be significant. Being drunk or hung over during work hours can result in loss of employment
, which can lead to financial problems including the loss of living quarters. Drinking at inappropriate times, and behavior caused by reduced judgment, can lead to legal consequences, such as criminal charges for drunk driving
or public disorder, or civil penalties for tortious
behavior. An alcoholic's behavior and mental impairment while drunk can profoundly impact surrounding family and friends, possibly leading to marital conflict
, or contributing to domestic violence
. This can contribute to lasting damage to the emotional development of the alcoholic's children, even after they reach adulthood. The alcoholic could suffer from loss of respect from others who may see the problem as self-inflicted and easily avoided.
differs significantly from most other drugs because it can be directly fatal. Drugs which have a similar mechanism of action to alcohol also have a similar risk of causing death during withdrawal, including barbiturate and benzodiazepine withdrawal
. For example it is extremely rare for heroin
withdrawal to be fatal. When people die from heroin or cocaine withdrawal they typically have serious underlying health problems which are made worse by the strain of acute withdrawal. An alcoholic however, who has no serious health issues has a significant risk of dying from the direct effects of withdrawal if it is not properly managed.
Alcohol's primary effect is the increase in stimulation of the GABAA receptor, promoting central nervous system depression. With repeated heavy consumption of alcohol, these receptors are desensitized and reduced in number, resulting in tolerance and physical dependence. Thus when alcohol is stopped, especially abruptly, the person's nervous system suffers from uncontrolled synapse firing. This can result in symptoms that include anxiety, life threatening seizures, delirium tremens and hallucinations, shakes and possible heart failure.
Acute withdrawal symptoms tend to subside after 1 - 3 weeks. Less severe symptoms (e.g. insomnia and anxiety) may continue as part of a post withdrawal syndrome gradually improving with abstinence for a year or more. Withdrawal symptoms begin to subside as the body and central nervous system makes adaptions to reverse tolerance and restore GABA function towards normal. Other neurotransmitter systems are involved, especially glutamate and NMDA.
Treatments for alcoholism are quite varied because there are multiple perspectives for the condition itself. Those who approach alcoholism as a medical condition or disease recommend differing treatments than, for instance, those who approach the condition as one of social choice.
Most treatments focus on helping people discontinue their alcohol intake, followed up with life training and/or social support in order to help them resist a return to alcohol use. Since alcoholism involves multiple factors which encourage a person to continue drinking, they must all be addressed in order to successfully prevent a relapse. An example of this kind of treatment is detoxification followed by a combination of supportive therapy, attendance at self-help groups, and ongoing development of coping mechanisms. The treatment community for alcoholism typically supports an abstinence-based zero tolerance approach; however, there are some who promote a harm-reduction approach as well.
When considering the effectiveness of treatment options, one must consider the success rate based on those who enter a program, not just those who complete it. Since completion of a program is the qualification for success, success among those who complete a program is generally near 100%. It is also important to consider not just the rate of those reaching treatment goals but the rate of those relapsing. Results should also be compared to the roughly 5% rate at which people will quit on their own. A year after completing a rehab program, about a third of alcoholics are sober, an additional 40 percent are substantially improved but still drink heavily on occasion, and a quarter have completely relapsed.
or 'detox' for alcoholics is an abrupt stop of alcohol drinking coupled with the substitution of drugs that have similar effects to prevent alcohol withdrawal
Detoxification treats the physical effects of prolonged use of alcohol, but does not actually treat alcoholism. After detox is complete, relapse is likely without further treatment. These rehabilitations (or 'rehabs') may take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting.
Group therapy and psychotherapy
After detoxification, various forms of group therapy
can be used to deal with underlying psychological issues that are related to alcohol addiction, as well as provide relapse prevention skills.
The mutual-help group-counseling approach is one of the most common ways of helping alcoholics maintain sobriety. Many organizations have been formed to provide this service. Alcoholics Anonymous was the first group, and has more members than all other programs combined. Some of the others include LifeRing Secular Recovery, Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery, and Women For Sobriety.
Rationing and moderation
Rationing and moderation programs such as Moderation Management
and DrinkWise do not mandate complete abstinence. While most alcoholics are unable to limit their drinking in this way, some return to moderate drinking. A 2002 U.S. study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
(NIAAA) showed that 17.7% of individuals diagnosed as alcohol dependent more than one year prior returned to low-risk drinking. However, this group showed fewer initial symptoms of dependency. A follow-up study, using the same NESARC subjects that were judged to be in remission in 2001-2002, examined the rates of return to problem drinking in 2004-2005. The major conclusion made by the authors of this NIAAA study was "Abstinence represents the most stable form of remission for most recovering alcoholics".
A variety of medications may be prescribed as part of treatment for alcoholism.
- Antabuse (disulfiram) prevents the elimination of acetaldehyde, a chemical the body produces when breaking down ethanol. Acetaldehyde itself is the cause of many hangover symptoms from alcohol use. The overall effect is severe discomfort when alcohol is ingested: an extremely fast-acting and long-lasting uncomfortable hangover. This discourages an alcoholic from drinking in significant amounts while they take the medicine. A recent 9-year study found that incorporation of supervised disulfiram and a related compound carbamide into a comprehensive treatment program resulted in an abstinence rate of over 50%.
- Naltrexone is a competitive antagonist for opioid receptors, effectively blocking our ability to use endorphins and opiates. Naltrexone is used in two very different forms of treatment. The first treatment uses naltrexone to decrease cravings for alcohol and encourage abstinence. The other treatment, called pharmacological extinction, combines naltrexone with normal drinking habits in order to reverse the endorphin conditioning that causes alcohol addiction.
Naltrexone comes in two forms. Oral naltrexone, originally but no longer available as the brand ReVia, is a pill form and must be taken daily to be effective. Vivitrol is a time-release formulation that is injected in the buttocks once a month.
- Acamprosate (also known as Campral) is thought to stabilize the chemical balance of the brain that would otherwise be disrupted by alcoholism. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved this drug in 2004, saying "While its mechanism of action is not fully understood, Campral is thought to act on the brain pathways related to alcohol abuse...Campral proved superior to placebo in maintaining abstinence for a short period of time... The COMBINE study was unable to demonstrate efficacy for Acamprosate.
- Topiramate (brand name Topamax), a derivative of the naturally occurring sugar monosaccharide D-fructose, has been found effective in helping alcoholics quit or cut back on the amount they drink. In one study heavy drinkers were six times more likely to remain abstinent for a month if they took the medication, even in small doses. In another study, those who received topiramate had fewer heavy drinking days, fewer drinks per day and more days of continuous abstinence than those who received the placebo. Topiramate works by reducing dopamine so that drinkers no longer get any pleasure from consuming alcohol and is the only medication shown to be effective for persons who are still drinking.
The various health problems associated with long-term alcohol consumption are generally perceived as detrimental to society, for example, money due to lost labor-hours, medical costs, and secondary treatment costs. Alcohol use is a major contributing factor for head injuries
, motor vehicle accidents
, violence, and assaults. Beyond money, there is also the pain and suffering
of the individuals besides the alcoholic affected. For instance, alcohol consumption by a pregnant woman can lead to Fetal alcohol syndrome
, an incurable and damaging condition.
Estimates of the economic costs of alcohol abuse, collected by the World Health Organization, vary from one to six per cent of a country's GDP. One Australian estimate pegged alcohol's social costs at 24 per cent of all drug abuse costs; a similar Canadian study concluded alcohol's share was 41 per cent.
A study quantified the cost to the UK of all forms of alcohol misuse as £18.5–20 billion annually (2001 figures).
Stereotypes of alcoholics are often found in fiction and popular culture. The 'town drunk' is a stock character in Western popular culture.
Stereotypes of drunkenness may be based on racism, as in the depiction of the Irish as heavy drinkers. In Australia, Canada, and the United States, Aboriginal people have similarly been stereotyped as alcoholics.
On the other hand, studies by social psychologists Stivers and Greeley attempt to document the perceived prevalence of high alcohol consumption amongst the Irish in America.
In Film and Literature
In modern times, the recovery movement has led to more realistic depictions of problems that stem from heavy alcohol use. Authors such as Charles R. Jackson
and Charles Bukowski
describe their own alcohol addiction in their writings. The disjoined narrative of Patrick Hamilton
's Hangover Square
reflects the alcoholism of its central character.
Films like Days of Wine and Roses, My Name is Bill W., Arthur, Leaving Las Vegas, and The Lost Weekend, chronicle similar stories of alcoholism.
Politics and public health
Because alcohol use disorders are perceived as impacting society as a whole, governments and parliaments have formed alcohol policies in order to reduce the harm of alcoholism. The World Health Organization
, the European Union
and other regional bodies are working on alcohol action plans and programs.
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