You Need to Know About Alcoholism
From the National Institute
FAQ' s on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Question #1: What
Alcoholism, also known as
alcohol dependence, is a disease that includes
the following four symptoms:
- Craving -- A strong need,
or urge, to drink.
- Loss of control -- Not
being able to stop drinking once drinking has
- Physical dependence --
Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating,
shakiness and anxiety after stopping drinking.
- Tolerance -- The need
to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get "high."
Question #2: Is
alcoholism a disease?
Yes, alcoholism is a disease.
The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol
can be as strong as the need for food or water.
An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious
family, health or legal problems.
Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic,
meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it
usually follows a predictable course; and it has
symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is
influenced both by a person's genes and by his
or her lifestyle.
Question #3: Is
Research shows that the risk
for developing alcoholism does indeed run in families.
The genes a person inherits partially explain
this pattern, but lifestyle is also a factor.
Currently, researchers are working to discover
the actual genes that put people at risk for alcoholism.
Your friends, the amount of stress in your life
and how readily available alcohol is also are
factors that may increase your risk for alcoholism.
But remember: Risk is not
destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run
in families doesn't mean that a child of an alcoholic
parent will automatically become an alcoholic
too. Some people develop alcoholism even though
no one in their family has a drinking problem.
By the same token, not all children of alcoholic
families get into trouble with alcohol. Knowing
you are at risk is important, though, because
then you can take steps to protect yourself from
developing problems with alcohol.
Question #4: Can
alcoholism be cured?
No, alcoholism cannot be cured
at this time. Even if an alcoholic hasn't been
drinking for a long time, he or she can still
suffer a relapse. To guard against a relapse,
an alcoholic must continue to avoid all alcoholic
Question #5: Can
alcoholism be treated?
Yes, alcoholism can be treated.
Alcoholism treatment programs use both counseling
and medications to help a person stop drinking.
Most alcoholics need help to recover from their
disease. With support and treatment, many people
are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives.
Question #6: Which
medications treat alcoholism?
A range of medications is
used to treat alcoholism. Benzodiazepines (Valium
®, Librium ®) are sometimes used during
the first days after a person stops drinking to
help him or her safely withdraw from alcohol.
These medications are not used beyond the first
few days, however, because they may be highly
addictive. Other medications help people remain
sober. One medication used for this purpose is
naltrexone (ReVia™). When combined with
counseling, naltrexone can reduce the craving
for alcohol and help prevent a person from returning,
or relapsing, to heavy drinking. Another medication,
disulfiram (Antabuse ®), discourages drinking
by making the person feel sick if he or she drinks
Though several medications
help treat alcoholism, there is no "magic
bullet." In other words, no single medication
is available that works in every case and/or in
every person. Developing new and more effective
medications to treat alcoholism remains a high
priority for researchers.
Question #7: Does
alcoholism treatment work?
Alcoholism treatment works
for many people. But just like any chronic disease,
there are varying levels of success when it comes
to treatment. Some people stop drinking and remain
sober. Others have long periods of sobriety with
bouts of relapse. And still others cannot stop
drinking for any length of time. With treatment,
one thing is clear, however: the longer a person
abstains from alcohol, the more likely he or she
will be able to stay sober.
Question #8: Do
you have to be an alcoholic to experience problems?
No. Alcoholism is only one
type of an alcohol problem. Alcohol abuse can
be just as harmful. A person can abuse alcohol
without actually being an alcoholic--that is,
he or she may drink too much and too often but
still not be dependent on alcohol. Some of the
problems linked to alcohol abuse include not being
able to meet work, school, or family responsibilities;
drunk-driving arrests and car crashes; and drinking-related
medical conditions. Under some circumstances,
even social or moderate drinking is dangerous--for
example, when driving, during pregnancy, or when
taking certain medications.
Question #9: Are
specific groups of people more likely to have
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism
cut across gender, race, and nationality. Nearly
14 million people in the United States--1 in every
13 adults--abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. In
general, though, more men than women are alcohol
dependent or have alcohol problems. And alcohol
problems are highest among young adults ages 18-29
and lowest among adults ages 65 and older. We
also know that people who start drinking at an
early age--for example, at age 14 or younger--greatly
increase the chance that they will develop alcohol
problems at some point in their lives.
How can you tell if someone has a problem?
Answering the following four
questions can help you find out if you or a loved
one has a drinking problem:
- Have you ever felt you
should cut down on your drinking?
- Have people annoyed you
by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad
or guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever had a drink
first thing in the morning to steady your nerves
or to get rid of a hangover?
One "yes" answer
suggests a possible alcohol problem. More than
one "yes" answer means it is highly
likely that a problem exists. If you think that
you or someone you know might have an alcohol
problem, it is important to see a doctor or other
health care provider right away. They can help
you determine if a drinking problem exists and
plan the best course of action.
Can a problem drinker simply cut down?
It depends. If that person
has been diagnosed as an alcoholic, the answer
is "no." Alcoholics who try to cut down
on drinking rarely succeed. Cutting out alcohol--that
is, abstaining--is usually the best course for
recovery. People who are not alcohol-dependent
but who have experienced alcohol-related problems
may be able to limit the amount they drink. If
they can't stay within those limits, they need
to stop drinking altogether.
If an alcoholic is unwilling to get help, what
can you do about it?
This can be a challenge. An
alcoholic can't be forced to get help except under
certain circumstances, such as a violent incident
that results in court-ordered treatment or medical
emergency. But you don't have to wait for someone
to "hit rock bottom" to act. Many alcoholism
treatment specialists suggest the following steps
to help an alcoholic get treatment:
- Stop all "cover
ups." Family members often make
excuses to others or try to protect the alcoholic
from the results of his or her drinking. It
is important to stop covering for the alcoholic
so that he or she experiences the full consequences
- Time your intervention.
The best time to talk to the drinker is shortly
after an alcohol-related problem has occurred--like
a serious family argument or an accident. Choose
a time when he or she is sober, both of you
are fairly calm, and you have a chance to talk
- Be specific.
Tell the family member that you are worried
about his or her drinking. Use examples of the
ways in which the drinking has caused problems,
including the most recent incident.
- State the results.
Explain to the drinker what you will do if he
or she doesn't go for help--not to punish the
drinker, but to protect yourself from his or
her problems. What you say may range from refusing
to go with the person to any social activity
where alcohol will be served, to moving out
of the house. Do not make any threats you are
not prepared to carry out.
- Get help.
Gather information in advance about treatment
options in your community. If the person is
willing to get help, call immediately for an
appointment with a treatment counselor. Offer
to go with the family member on the first visit
to a treatment program and/or an Alcoholics
- Call on a friend.
If the family member still refuses to get help,
ask a friend to talk with him or her using the
steps just described. A friend who is a recovering
alcoholic may be particularly persuasive, but
any person who is caring and nonjudgmental may
help. The intervention of more than one person,
more than one time, is often necessary to coax
an alcoholic to seek help.
- Find strength in
numbers. With the help of a health
care professional, some families join with other
relatives and friends to confront an alcoholic
as a group. This approach should only be tried
under the guidance of a health care professional
who is experienced in this kind of group intervention.
- Get support.
It is important to remember that you are not
alone. Support groups offered in most communities
include Al-Anon, which holds regular meetings
for spouses and other significant adults in
an alcoholic's life, and Alateen, which is geared
to children of alcoholics. These groups help
family members understand that they are not
responsible for an alcoholic's drinking and
that they need to take steps to take care of
themselves, regardless of whether the alcoholic
family member chooses to get help.
You can call the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment
Referral Routing Service (Center for Substance
Abuse Treatment) at 1-800-662-HELP for information
about treatment programs in your local community
and to speak to someone about an alcohol problem.
This article was provided by the National
Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
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