Alcohol abuse is a pattern of excessive drinking that results in adverse health and social consequences to the drinker.

Like cancer or heart disease, alcoholism is a chronic disease with its own symptoms and causes. The disease is progressive and often fatal if not treated. Alcoholics can’t stop using alcohol despite the severe physical, mental, and emotional consequences.

More than half of U.S. adults have a close family member who’s suffering from or who has battled alcohol abuse or alcoholism, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Abusing alcohol can harm many of the body's major organs and systems. It increases risks for various cancers, cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, peptic ulcers, stroke, infertility, brain damage, and memory loss. Yet many people don’t know the basic facts about alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Symptoms

Alcohol abuse is also called “problem drinking.” In cases of alcohol abuse, the person using alcohol in a destructive way has the ability to change his or her drinking habits. 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 meeting work, school, or family responsibilities; drunk driving arrests and car crashes; and drinking-related medical conditions.

Some alcoholics start out as moderate drinkers, increasing their use and dependence on alcohol over time. Others crave more from the start. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink a day or less (or seven drinks or fewer per week) for women. For men, it’s two drinks a day or less (or 14 or fewer drinks per week).

Alcoholics have a reaction to alcohol that makes them crave more, and more drinking triggers more craving.

Risk Factors

Heredity seems to play a major role in alcoholism. Studies show that children of alcoholics are at greater risk for the disease. Other risk factors are family and social environment, personality, and psychological makeup.

Treatment

Treatment programs use both counseling and medications to help people stop drinking. Alcoholism treatment works for many people, but there are varying levels of success. Some people stop drinking and remain sober. Others have long periods of sobriety with bouts of relapse. Still others can’t stop drinking for any length of time.

If you or a loved one has more than one of the symptoms listed above, seek help from a health care provider or substance abuse professional.

Medical Reviewer: Kenneth Mukamal, MD Last Annual Review Date: 2010-02-22T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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