Alcoholism can be defined in several ways. As defined as a dependence by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), it is characterized by at least three of the following symptoms that last for a year or longer:
- Greater tolerance to alcohol
- Withdrawal symptoms if alcohol use stops
- Drinking more alcohol than intended regularly
- Inability or desire to control use
- Excessive time spent obtaining or figuring out how to obtain alcohol, using alcohol or recovering from its use
- Continued use despite negative physical and psychological consequences
- Reduction in ability to function socially, or in previous level of recreational or work activities.
There is quite a bit of debate about whether alcoholism is technically a “disease” or a dependence. Also there are numerous explanations as to cause. It is known that some alcoholics seem to have a genetic pull towards the condition; yet not all people with these genes exhibit it. However, if one notes a lot of family history of alcoholism, it may be prudent to not consume alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol might make one more prone to dependence.
In general, addiction created by alcoholism tends to gradually cause problems in the alcoholic’s personal, social and work life. In most cases, these problems alone cannot help the alcoholic stop drinking, a sure sign of alcoholism. In fact many recovering alcoholics believe that the majority of alcoholics must hit extreme “rock bottom” before they can commit to sobriety.
Further, excessive drinking is in essence poisoning the body. Alcoholics risk destroying their kidneys, liver, and numerous heart disease components when they continue to drink. Alcoholism remains a major health concern in the US, where it is estimated that $170 billion US Dollars (USD) a year is spent on health care issues related to it. There is also the collateral damage of the alcoholic’s behavior. A drunk driver, an alcoholic pregnant woman, or a spouse who becomes abusive as a result of alcohol, risks destroying not only him or herself, but also others.
Many different modes of treatment exist for alcoholism, and some are more successful than others. Recently, some alcoholics have preferred to participate in modified drinking programs. However, these programs are of recent inception, and are probably not quite as effective as complete abstinence. The theory behind their lack of success for many is that each drink reduces judgment, making it more likely the alcoholic will exceed previously set limits.
Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have been successful for many, but AA does have its detractors. In particular, some alcoholics felt that taking any psychiatric medicines was considered as “cheating.” Some AA programs are now labeled “dual diagnosis” programs. They address the person’s alcoholism and other substantive mental illness at the same time. These have often proven effective for those who became alcoholics to mask symptoms of significant mental illness.
Others use a combination of psychological and drug therapy. Certain drugs create aversion to alcohol, or block the body’s pleasure releasing hormone response to alcohol. The latter may over time help the drinker stop, because there are no mental rewards to be had from continued drinking. The former can help one stop drinking because they cause extreme sickness if one does drink. However, these drugs can be physically dangerous to use if the alcoholic continues to drink.
Regardless of what program one uses to stop alcoholism, all true alcoholics are at extreme health risk when first ceasing alcohol. Severe alcoholics undergo delirium tremens, which can cause life-threatening convulsions during the first day to several days after ceasing drinking. Therefore, quitting drinking should be done under the guidance of medical professionals, who can help administer drug therapy that will prevent convulsions.