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Alcoholism as a Disease

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All About Alcoholism

Too much alcohol can lead to problems like brain damage, dementia, liver cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cirrhosis, fatty liver, and hepatitis.

Navigation: What is Alcohol Addiction?, What is a Chronic Disease?, Is Alcoholism a Disease?, Why is Alcoholism Considered a Chronic Disease?, What Are the Causes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?, What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?, Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder, Rehab is Your Best Chance


An estimated 14.5 million people in the United States aged 12 years and above have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It goes without saying it is a very common condition. In fact, around 43% of Americans have been exposed to alcoholism within the family.

Drinking alcohol is common in social settings. This is why casual drinking and binge drinking can be difficult to tell apart. It can be hard to identify someone who has an actual drinking problem.

Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism, can have devastating effects on a person’s physical and mental health. About a third of alcohol users reported having a mental health disorder. Plus, alcoholics tend to experience a wide range of medical conditions linked to their substance abuse.

Too much alcohol can lead to problems like brain damage, dementia, liver cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cirrhosis, fatty liver, and hepatitis. Alcoholics are also at risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and blackouts. Alcohol consumption even increases your risk of fatal accidents or serious injuries. For pregnant women, alcohol consumption can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome.

But the thing about alcoholism is that it doesn’t just affect the individual. It also affects the people around them. Frequent drinking can lead to financial problems, relationship problems, and problems at work.

Just like drug abuse and drug addiction, alcoholism has an effect on the country as a whole. In fact, excessive drinking typically costs the US over $220 billion each year because of lost productivity, criminal justice costs, and the cost of health care.

Here we will discuss alcohol use disorder and whether or not it is considered a disease. The more we can understand about this condition, the more we can fight the stigma surrounding it and support those who are suffering from its effects. Let’s take a closer look at alcoholism and its effects.


What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol use disorder is also referred to as alcohol addiction or alcoholism. This refers to a medical condition wherein a person is unable to control their alcohol intake.

Addiction is characterized by the inability to control your intake of a particular substance. In this case, it’s alcohol. The alcoholic individual will compulsively drink even when it is already affecting their health, their relationships, and their entire life. Even when they are already suffering from its adverse physical and mental health effects, they will keep drinking anyway.

The misconception is that alcoholics simply have no willpower and that’s the reason they can’t put down the bottle. Others see addiction as a moral failure rather than something that needs to be treated in a professional setting.

But alcohol use disorder is a serious medical condition that affects the person’s brain, making them think that they need the substance just to function normally.

Previously, alcohol use disorder was categorized as either “abuse” or “dependence”. Now it is measured on a spectrum. An AUD may be mild, moderate, or severe. Each category consists of its own set of symptoms and side effects.

In terms of diagnosis, certain criteria may be used to determine the severity of a person’s alcohol addiction. Criteria may include alcohol cravings, frequency of alcohol intake, co-occurring disorders, etc. Research has shown that AUD often co-occurs with certain mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

An alcoholic person will engage in frequent or heavy drinking, even binge drinking, despite the consequences. This usually leads to health problems, emotional distress, or physical harm. It can also cause financial problems and relationship problems. The person can even get in trouble with the law. In some cases, alcohol abuse leads to fatal car accidents or serious injuries because the person reached dangerous levels of intoxication.

Continued alcohol consumption can lead to tolerance, which means the same levels of alcohol can no longer provide the desired euphoric effects. This often leads to increased alcohol intake. Eventually, the person becomes physically dependent. Just like drug dependence, alcohol dependence means that the person feels like they cannot function on a day-to-day basis without the substance. They will keep drinking alcohol just to feel normal. If they quit drinking or reduce their intake, they will go through alcohol withdrawal. At some point, they become addicted.

Alcoholism requires proper substance abuse treatment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a great source of information regarding alcoholism, substance use, and addiction treatment.


What is a Chronic Disease?

In order to talk about alcohol use disorder and whether or not it’s a chronic disease, let’s define what a chronic disease is first.

The medical definition of a chronic disease is a condition that lasts three or more months. But other than that, it also needs to have other features. For example, a chronic disease is something that cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured by medicine. Simply put, a chronic disease does not simply “go away”.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six out of ten people in the US have at least one chronic disease. The most common examples are breast cancer, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and arthritis.

Certain behaviors may contribute to the development of chronic diseases. Having poor eating habits, not being physically active, and using illicit substances are some of the contributing factors.

In the US, chronic diseases are the top cause of disability and death. They are the leading contributors to the country’s annual health care costs. Chronic diseases cost the US $3.5 trillion yearly.

While there is no cure for chronic diseases, these conditions can be treated or managed with certain medications, treatment programs, and lifestyle changes. It only gets tricky because these medications may sometimes have their own set of side effects or interactions that need to be monitored by health care professionals. But with proper treatment, even those with chronic diseases can live long and healthy lives.

Is Alcoholism a Disease?

When a person loses control over their alcohol intake: that is when alcohol use becomes a disorder. Even people who start out by drinking casually are at risk of becoming an alcoholic at a later point in their life. They may start engaging in heavy drinking due to stress, peer pressure, etc.

Alcoholism is when you try to stop drinking but you can’t. You will keep drinking even in times when you know you shouldn’t. Every time you lower your intake, you experience intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms that eventually force you into a relapse.

Alcoholism is a disease that is hard to control for anyone who has it. It’s not just a matter of being unwilling to quit alcohol. It’s a condition that prevents you from doing so.

Why is Alcoholism Considered a Chronic Disease?

Based on the definitions above, we can say that alcoholism is in fact a chronic disease. You cannot prevent it with a vaccine or cure it with medicine. There is no cure for addiction, and that includes alcohol addiction. But just like other chronic diseases, it can be successfully treated. But before we discuss addiction treatment, let’s talk about alcoholism as a chronic disease.

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease that gets worse over time. It has the factor of heritability, which means you are at an increased risk of developing it if alcoholism runs in the family. There is a genetic component to addiction.

However, there are also environmental factors. In a way, it is similar to a condition like diabetes, wherein even if you have a genetic predisposition to it, other factors come into play such as your lifestyle choices, including diet and exercise.

If someone has a predisposition to developing alcoholism because of a family member or ancestor who had it, they have a greater risk of becoming an alcoholic themselves. But that said, other factors still come into play like the person’s environment, their peers, their work culture, etc.

Growing up in a toxic family environment or anywhere that alcohol is prevalent can make a person more likely to drink heavily.

Alcohol use disorder can be diagnosed based on certain symptoms, just like other chronic diseases.

As a chronic disease, it carries the risk of relapse if left untreated and unmanaged. This is why they say addiction recovery is a lifelong journey. You need to actively maintain your sobriety if you want to stay away from the effects of addiction.

In order to support your loved one who has an alcohol addiction, you need to look for a treatment center that offers addiction medicine, detox, and rehab programs. A combination of medical detox and behavioral therapy is needed to help them cope with the effects of their AUD.

What Are the Causes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

There are genetic and environmental factors that influence the development of alcohol use disorder. People drink alcohol for a number of reasons, and all of these reasons contribute to their likelihood of becoming addicted.

Over time, the brain may begin to develop dependence and start to rely on alcohol to produce certain chemicals. This is called dependence and it happens after a long period of alcohol abuse. But before this happens, a lot of factors come into play first.

Alcohol use disorder can develop due to biological, psychological, social, and environmental risk factors. The more risk factors a person is exposed to, the more likely it is that they are going to develop an alcohol use disorder at some point in their life. It’s not a guarantee that they will become an alcoholic, but it shows how great the risk of developing an alcohol addiction is.

Biological factors refer to genetics and physiology. If alcohol use disorder runs in the family, then you have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. A family history of alcoholism can make a person more susceptible to problematic drinking habits.

Psychological factors also come into play because people have different ways of handling situations. The way you cope with feelings, situations, and stress can impact your relationship with alcohol. Those who are constantly exposed to high levels of stress are therefore more likely to develop a drinking problem. They may be tempted into using alcohol to cope with their stress.

Certain career paths are exposed to higher risk of alcoholism. For example, doctors, nurses, military members, police officers, firemen, emergency responders, and construction workers are exposed to high stress levels due to their profession. People in these industries should find healthier ways to eliminate stress so they don’t develop the habit of coping with alcohol.

Psychological factors also refer to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Substance abuse and mental health disorders have a close relationship, which is why dual diagnosis is so common. People with these conditions may try to deal with their symptoms using alcohol. Eventually, drinking becomes a habit and leads to an AUD.

Social factors refer to other factors that are beyond the individual. Their culture, their religion, their level of education, and even the peers they surround themselves with—all of these things contribute to the likelihood of alcoholism. Your attitude towards binge drinking can influence how often you engage in it, for example.

Spending time with friends and peers who frequently drink can also expose you to a greater risk of alcoholism. Even work culture can increase the risk of alcohol use disorder for people of certain professions. For example, a lot of police officers, firemen, and military members engage in social drinking to reduce the stress they experience on a regular basis.

Finally, there are environmental factors that affect the likelihood of developing a drinking problem. Family plays the biggest role here. Toxic home environments can push a person into becoming an alcoholic due to childhood trauma and high stress levels. People who are exposed to alcohol at an early age are at greater risk of becoming an alcoholic later in life.

Major life changes can also push someone into pursuing dangerous drinking habits. Mourning the loss of a loved one, getting fired from your job, starting college, going through relationship changes, and other major changes can make someone participate in things they normally wouldn’t partake in.

Another environmental factor is income. Contrary to popular belief, those who are wealthier are actually at a significantly higher risk of becoming an alcoholic compared to those living in poverty. This is because they attend more social events and consume alcohol more frequently.

As you can see, there is no singular cause of an alcohol addiction. This chronic disease is caused by a number of factors that each contribute to the development of alcoholism. So while drinking is a decision you make, there are actually more things at play that need to be addressed during treatment. No one just chooses to become addicted.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIDA), drinking before the age of 15, having a family history of alcoholism, and participating in heavy alcohol use are some of the biggest risk factors that contribute to alcoholism.

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?

It’s often hard to tell apart someone who is just having a good time drinking alcohol, and someone who actually struggles from an addiction. This is why you have to watch out for the symptoms of alcohol use disorder.

Usually, an AUD is characterized by problematic drinking that lead to blacking out and being unable to recall things that happened. An alcoholic individual will keep on drinking even if their behavior is already causing harm to themselves or to other people.

Even in social settings, an alcoholic person may end up drinking more than they originally planned. When they start drinking, it’s hard for them to stop. When they try to cut down on their alcohol intake, they experience withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings. They feel like they need to drink just to get through the day. Alcohol dependent people struggle to feel “normal” whenever they can’t drink alcohol.

Someone who is suffering from an alcohol use disorder may feel irritable or cranky when they are not drinking. This will also affect their behavior in other ways. They may become more secretive or start lying about their drinking habits.

Some people lie about where they are and who they are spending their time with. They may try to hide their drinking habits from their loved ones out of fear, shame, or regret. A lot of alcoholics will even give up on activities just so they can spend more time drinking.

Addicted individuals tend to lose interest in things they used to enjoy. They can even begin to neglect their responsibilities. Most of their time will be spent on thinking about alcohol, looking for situations where they can drink, drinking excessively, and recovering from hangovers.

Usually, loved ones and close friends are the first to notice these behavioral changes. Drinking in the middle of the day or drinking even when they are alone are signs of an alcohol use disorder.

Whenever they drink, they get into dangerous or risky situations. For example, they may engage in unsafe sex or drunk driving. They may stumble and injure themselves. Eventually all of these physical and behavioral changes will affect other aspects of their life such as their career, their relationships, and their family life.

Common withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol addiction and dependence include: anxiety, depression, irritability, nausea, shakiness, sweating, insomnia, and restlessness. In some cases, it may also lead to seizures, delirium tremens, hallucinations, coma, and even death.

Quitting alcohol cold turkey after you have been drinking for a long time can be incredibly dangerous due to the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms. It is recommended that you go through a proper medical detox process so you can gradually lower your intake while your withdrawal symptoms are managed by professional health care providers.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease and so it requires proper treatment. The good news is that there are plenty of treatment options out there for those who are struggling with this condition. Overcoming the fear and stigma associated with alcoholism is the first step towards long-term sobriety. Hopefully, discussing what addiction treatment entails can help with this problem and encourage more people to seek the treatment they need for their alcoholism.

The important thing to keep in mind is that there is no single treatment approach that works for everyone. Just as there are many different factors that influence the development of alcoholism, there are also many different symptoms and effects caused by this chronic condition. Basically, everyone experiences addiction in a different way. This is why a personalized treatment approach is always preferred.

The alcohol rehab facility will assess the patient’s condition and come up with a personalized treatment plan based on their specific needs. It is important to reach out to nearby treatment centers and discuss potential treatment options. Some facilities specialize in treating alcohol addiction.

There are inpatient and outpatient treatment options for alcohol addiction. Depending on the person’s condition, they may or may not have to stay in a residential rehab facility. In an inpatient setting, patients stay in a treatment center for the duration of the program—usually for one to three months. This setup removes them from their usual environment, allowing them to focus on their recovery. They can also enjoy round the clock care from medical personnel.

Outpatient treatment programs are only recommended for those with mild to moderate cases of AUD. It allows them to return to their home in between treatment sessions, but it involves plenty of visits to the facility. This allows patients to get the addiction treatment they need while still keeping up with their responsibilities outside of rehab. They can still go to work, attend classes, take care of their family, etc.

The treatment sessions are scheduled with this in mind. While it is less intensive compared to residential rehab, it can still work wonders for certain patients. People in outpatient treatment are still expected to stay sober even if they are allowed to go home.

Alcohol addiction treatment often involves a combination of medical detox, behavioral therapy, and support group meetings. Medical detox gradually lowers your intake so your body can readjust to being alcohol-free while keeping dangerous withdrawal symptoms under control.

Behavioral therapies help patients recognize unhealthy thought patterns and triggers that prevent them from getting sober. It dives deep into the reasons why the person is abusing alcohol. It then teaches them proper coping mechanisms and skills that they can use to maintain their sobriety.

Support groups offer comfort and wisdom through different perspectives. People in support groups understand what you are going through because they are going through the same struggles. The group can share their experiences, struggles, and learnings. It reminds them that they are not going through this journey alone. Attending support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be beneficial for those who are committed to their sobriety.

So while detox helps your body get sober, therapy and support groups are there to help you stay sober. The goal of addiction treatment is to prevent relapse. While it is a possibility due to the fact that alcoholism is a chronic disease, at least you will be equipped with the knowledge to deal with it properly.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, look for a treatment facility near you today and learn more about your treatment options. Get started on the road to long-term sobriety today.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.



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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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