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Alcoholism is a disease.  And like any disease, left untreated, alcoholism can ruin lives and even lead to death.  This not only hurts the alcoholic but also like any disease, causes heartache for those close to the individual.  Fortunately, there is help for those suffering from this epidemic. 



  • 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 provider right away. He or she can determine whether a drinking problem exists and, if so, suggest the best course of action.

Alcoholism is a chronic, often progressive, disease.  Its symptoms include a strong need to drink despite negative consequences, such as serious job or health problems.  Like many other diseases, it has a generally predictable course, has recognized symptoms, and is influenced by genetic and environmental.

Alcohol abuse does not discriminate.  Although one person may stumble around a vacant warehouse with a bottle of beer they stole from a store, and another hides within the walls of his million-dollar estate, both are alcoholics.  Alcohol addiction is a problem for all races and every financial bracket.  It affects the young, the old, the living and even some of those who are not yet born.

This is an illness that tends to run in families, and genetic factors can partially explain this pattern. Researchers are working to find the genes that influence vulnerability to alcoholism. A person's environment, such as the influence of friends, stress levels, and the ease of obtaining alcohol, also may influence drinking and the development of alcoholism.   Other factors, such as social support, may help protect even high-risk people from alcohol problems.

It is; however, importa nt to note risk is not destiny. A child of an alcoholic parent will NOT automatically develop alcoholism. A person with no family history of alcoholism can become alcohol dependent.

Even if you are not alcoholic, abusing alcohol can have negative results.  This can include failing to meet major responsibilities like work or school. In many cases a person’s even family become neglected or abused. Automobile crashes are often due to drinking, which can lead to people being seriously injured or killed.  There have been cases of overall good people whose lives were forever altered due to an accident they caused following a night of drinking. 

Drinking during pregnancy can have a number of harmful effects on the newborn.  These can range from mental retardation, organ abnormalities, and hyperactivity to learning and behavioral problems.  Many of these disorders last into adulthood. While no one knows exactly how much alcohol is required to cause such problems, it is universally known that all are almost 100-percent preventable if women do not drink at all during pregnancy. Doctors, therefore, recommend pregnant women, or those trying to become pregnant, abstain from alcohol.

Most adults can drink moderate amounts of alcohol--up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people--and avoid alcohol-related problems. (One drink equals one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

However, certain people should not drink at all. As we mentioned earlier, women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should not drink at all. (People planning to drive or engage in other activities requiring alertness and skill; people with medical conditions that can be worsened by drinking; recovering alcoholics; and people under the age of 21.)
As a person ages, certain mental and physical functions tend to decline. This includes vision, hearing, and reaction time.  Other physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel "high" after drinking small amounts of alcohol.  These combined factors may make older people more likely to have alcohol-related falls, automobile crashes, and other kinds of accidents.

Older people tend to take more medicines than younger persons, and mixing alcohol with many over-the-counter and prescription drugs can be dangerous, even fatal. Further, many medical conditions common to older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, can be worsened by drinking. Even if there is no medical reason to avoid alcohol, older men and women should limit their intake to one drink per day.

Some problems, like those mentioned above, can occur after drinking over a relatively short period of time. But other problems--such as liver disease, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and pancreatitis--often develop more gradually and may become evident only after long-term heavy drinking. Women may develop alcohol-related health problems after consuming less alcohol than men do over a shorter period of time. Because alcohol affects many organs in the body, long-term heavy drinking puts you at risk for developing serious health problems, some of which are described below.

Alcohol-related liver disease. More than 2 million Americans suffer from alcohol-related liver disease. Some drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, as a result of long-term heavy drinking. Its symptoms include fever, jaundice (abnormal yellowing of the skin, eyeballs, and urine), and abdominal pain. Alcoholic hepatitis can cause death if drinking continues. If drinking stops, this condition often is reversible. About 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. Alcoholic cirrhosis can cause death if drinking continues. Although cirrhosis is not reversible, if drinking stops, one's chances of survival improve considerably. Those with cirrhosis often feel better, and the functioning of their liver may improve, if they stop drinking. Although liver transplantation may be needed as a last resort, many people with cirrhosis who abstain from alcohol may never need liver transplantation. In addition, treatment for the complications of cirrhosis is available.

Heart disease. Moderate drinking can have beneficial effects on the heart, especially among those at greatest risk for heart attacks, such as men over the age of 45 and women after menopause. But long-term heavy drinking increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and some kinds of stroke.

Cancer. Long-term heavy drinking increases the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, especially cancer of the esophagus, mouth, throat, and voice box. Women are at slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer if they drink two or more drinks per day. Drinking may also increase the risk for developing cancer of the colon and rectum.

Pancreatitis. The pancreas helps to regulate the body's blood sugar levels by producing insulin. The pancreas also has a role in digesting the food we eat. Long-term heavy drinking can lead to pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. This condition is associated with severe abdominal pain and weight loss and can be fatal.

The good news is this: Like most diseases, Alcoholism is treatable, but while medication is available to help prevent relapse, a “cure” has not yet been discovered.  This means that even if an alcoholic has been sober for a long time, he or she may relapse and must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages.

Alcoholism treatment is effective in many cases. Studies show that a minority of alcoholics remain sober one year after treatment, while others have periods of sobriety alternating with relapses. Still others are unable to stop drinking for any length of time. Treatment outcomes for alcoholism compare favorably with outcomes for many other chronic medical conditions. The longer one abstains from alcohol, the more likely one is to remain sober.
It is important to remember that many people relapse once or several times before achieving long-term sobriety. Relapses are common and do not mean that a person has failed or cannot eventually recover from alcoholism. If a relapse occurs, it is important to try to stop drinking again and to get whatever help is needed to abstain from alcohol. 

Like other illnesses, alcoholism can be treated with medication.  Ongoing support from two different types of medications are commonly used to treat alcoholism.  The first are tranquilizers called benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium®, Librium®), which are used only during the first few days of treatment to help patients safely withdraw from alcohol.

The second type of medication is used to help people remain sober. A recently approved medicine for this purpose is naltrexone (ReVia TM). When used together with counseling, this medication lessens the craving for alcohol in many people and helps prevent a return to heavy drinking. Another older medication is disulfiram (Antabuse®), which discourages drinking by causing nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant physical reactions when alcohol is used.  Family members and others can be important in recovery.

Material used with permission from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA).

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