You’ve probably heard of “alcohol abuse,” “alcohol dependence,” or “alcoholism.” Maybe you know the new term doctors use, “alcohol use disorder.”
Alcohol use disorder is a potentially fatal disease, characterized by cravings, tolerance (needing more), physical dependence, and loss of control over consuming alcohol. Alcohol intoxication may or may not be obvious to observers. Even in highly functional alcoholics, chronic alcoholism can lead to physical problems. Most common is damage to your liver, which over time can lead to cirrhosis (scarred liver). Other risks include depression, stomach bleeds, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, heart failure, numbness and tingling in your feet and changes in your brain. Alcoholism can also increase your risk for infections including pneumonia, tuberculosis, and chronic gastritis.
Alcoholism can also lead to impotence in men, damage to the fetus in pregnant women, and an elevated risk of cancer of the larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, stomach, pancreas, and upper gastrointestinal tract. Because heavy drinkers seldom have adequate diets, they may have nutritional deficiencies. Heavy drinkers typically have impaired liver function, and up to one in five develops cirrhosis.
What Causes Alcoholism?
The cause of alcoholism seems to be a blend of genetic, physical, psychological, environmental, and social factors that vary among individuals. A given person’s risk of becoming an alcoholic is three to four times greater if a parent is alcoholic. Some children of alcohol abusers, however, overcome the hereditary pattern by not drinking any alcohol at all.
You may have an alcohol use disorder if you:
- Drink more, or longer, than you plan to
- Have tried to cut back or stop more than once and couldn’t
- Spend a lot of time drinking, being sick, or hungover
- Want alcohol so badly you can’t think of anything else
- Have problems with work, school, or family because of your habit (or because you’re sick after having alcohol)
- Keep drinking even though it has caused problems for you or your relationships
- Quit or cut back on other activities that were important to you in order to drink
- Have found yourself in situations while drinking or afterward that made you more likely to get hurt
- Keep having alcohol even though it made you depressed or anxious, hurt your health, or led to a memory blackout
- Have to drink more than you used to for the effect you want
- Found that you had withdrawal symptoms when the buzz wore off, like trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, a seizure, or seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there.
If you’ve had two or three of those symptoms in the past year, that’s a mild alcohol use disorder. It’s a moderate disorder if you’ve had four to five. If you’ve had six or more, that’s severe.