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Is Alcoholism a Disease?

Rich, poor, middle class; alcohol doesn’t discriminate. Alcoholism has a profound effect on our body, and it’s hard to believe that a substance so powerful is considered legal and sold freely around the world. In American culture, turning 21 is a right of passage and gives the individual a free ticket to “blackout.” In other countries, the drinking age is even lower at 18, and in some cases, they don’t even check your identification. Alcohol is a real issue that can affect your heart, brain, mouth, liver, pancreas, and immune system. It begs the question – if alcohol is legal, is alcoholism considered a disease?

More than 15 million people struggle annually with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the United States, and a mere eight percent of those suffering receive treatment. A study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism highlight that 86.4 percent of those interviewed had consumed alcohol at some point in their life. Another 56 percent reported drinking in the past month, and 26.9 percent engaged in binge drinking. Other estimates show that 88,000 people in the U.S. die annually as a result of alcohol-related causes, which makes alcohol one of the leading preventable causes of death.

Alcohol is a burden around the world as well as contributing to 5.9 percent of global deaths. It is also the reason behind 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions. Still, despite these significant numbers, there is mass confusion around how it affects certain people. Some people believe that alcohol consumption is a lifestyle choice and they can stop when they choose, but those who understand alcoholism know that it requires professional help. There is much more to alcoholism than binge drinking with friends on your 21st birthday.

Alcoholism is considered a type of substance addiction, which is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). It means that alcoholism is like other addictions, which is a chronic disease that affects our reward, memory, and motivation systems in the brain. As with other chronic illnesses, there is no cure for alcoholism. Fortunately, however, there is treatment that can help individuals manage their condition.

Alcoholism is a disease that can lead you down a dark path, but fortunately, it is possible to overcome addiction and start your way to a better life. Below we will examine alcoholism and provide some advice that can help you achieve your goal of a better experience outside of active addiction.

How Does Someone Develop Alcoholism?

Developing alcoholism isn’t as simple as a switch that is turned on or off. It is a complex disorder that, despite research, is still challenging to explain. Alcohol use disorders develop over time, and they typically involve pre-existing factors that make someone more prone to developing it through alcohol consumption. The most common risk factors for alcoholism include:

  • Addiction or alcoholism runs in the family
  • Previous history of substance abuse or addiction
  • Socially awkward
  • Childhood abuse
  • Stress

When someone abuses alcohol at a more than low risk-level, which is defined as drinking more than five drinks a day or 14 drinks a week as a man, or more than three drinks per day or seven per week as a woman, it can be dangerous. The abuse, in conjunction with risk factors, can lead someone to become more tolerant of large amounts of alcohol. As they progress forward with these patterns, they will eventually become dependent on alcohol and require it to function normally.

Alcoholism Signs and Symptoms

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) highlights the current symptoms that indicate alcoholism or a type of present alcohol use disorder. The most common symptoms include:

  • Unable to stop drinking despite wanting to
  • A significant portion of time spent focused on using or recovering from alcohol use
  • Relationship issues as a result of drinking
  • Continued drinking even when causing mental or physical health issues
  • Unable to focus on anything other than the next drink
  • Lack of ability to focus on personal or professional commitments because of drinking
  • Tolerance to alcohol
  • Participating in risky activities
  • Withdrawal symptoms during cessation

Other symptoms may include keeping secrets from partners or family members, running out of alcohol much faster than expected, and other mental or physical symptoms that may include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Slurred speech
  • Strong odor of alcohol on the breath
  • Unable to focus
  • Drowsiness
  • Symptoms consistent with hangovers

The Chronic Disease Model of Alcoholism

As we’ve described in detail above, alcoholism is a disease. It means we cannot cure it by using medication or vaccination. It is a chronic disease that requires ongoing, and long-term care to maintain its symptoms over-time. The most common danger of chronic illness is relapse.

Someone can fall victim to their symptoms even after treatment has provided relief. Relapse rates are similar to those of other chronic physical and psychological disorders. The relapse rates for asthma are 50 to 70 percent. Relapse rates for substance abuse hover around 30 to 50 percent and 40 to 60 percent for alcoholism.

Someone that is struggling with chronic alcoholism and the disease of addiction must seek help. It may be their only option for living a healthy life out of active addiction. Alcohol withdrawal is among the most deadly of all substances, and should never be done alone.

Sources

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-use-addiction-basics

Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5. (2019, June 26). Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-use-disorder-comparison-between-dsm

American Society of Addiction Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/quality-practice/definition-of-addiction

Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (2019, August 8). Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

Alcohol use disorder. (2018, July 11). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

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