There is a disease out there that deteriorates both the mental and physical health of its victims. It can damage internal organs, bring about depression and in some cases lead to death. Unlike other chronic illnesses that only put their primary victims in danger, alcoholism can inflict injury on friends, family members and even strangers. Nearly 18 million Americans suffer from an alcohol problem according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
The effects of alcoholism are devastating. Not only does heavy consumption damage internal organs such as the liver and kidneys, but alcoholics risk injuring loved ones through violent emotional outlashes and depression fueled by their addiction.
Alcohol problems occur in varying levels of severity. The most common is alcohol abuse. Those who abuse alcohol, but are not necessarily dependent on it, continue to drink despite recurring social, personal, and legal problems that they experience. Alcohol abuse often results in impaired performance at work, neglect of household responsibilities, and drunk driving.
Though many times the results of abuse are noticeable, loved ones and even abusers have difficulties pin pointing the underlying reasons for drinking.
Many drink to avoid facing an unpleasant reality such as a problem at work or a death in the family. For others, alcohol unleashes suppressed negative feelings making these people irrational when intoxicated. This often leads to excessive drinking during each sitting.
A more severe problem is alcohol dependence or alcoholism, which is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes a strong need to drink despite social and interpersonal problems such as losing a job or deteriorating relationships with loved ones.
Some alcoholics are predisposed to addiction through genes passed down in families with histories of alcoholism.
If there’s a history of alcohol dependence in a family, the family’s genetic make-up does not directly cause alcoholism. However, when the genes interplay with high stress levels and social influences, there is an increased risk that a dependence could develop.
Alcoholics tend to spend a great deal of time recovering from hangovers and other effects of drinking, causing them to miss social activities and neglect responsibilities. In addition, a noticeable growth in alcohol tolerance occurs increasing the need to drink more to feel the effects.
Also prevalent in cases of alcoholism are physical withdrawal symptoms including nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety when alcohol use is stopped after periods of heavy drinking.
If any of these symptoms are noticeable, it is important to immediately seek professional help. The physician can determine whether someone is an alcoholic through behavioral or medical evaluations, or a combination of both.
During behavioral evaluations, physicians will review patients’ history of alcohol use, their attitudes and beliefs, as well as environmental factors such as the influence of friends and family members on stress levels.
Medical examinations include physical exams that assess signs and symptoms of chronic alcohol use and dependence, as well as evaluations of laboratory test results, and reviews of genetic factors to determine if alcoholism runs in the family.
The correct approach to recovery will help alcohol abusers and alcoholics gain control of their lives. However, recovering alcoholics often experience relapses. If a relapse occurs, it is important to stop drinking again and seek immediate help.
The road to sobriety is often long and bumpy, but with tough love and support from family and friends, as well as professional guidance, the end is within reach.
A variety of treatment options for abusers and alcoholics include:
Drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers (Call the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Treatment Helpline at 1.800.662.HELP to find nearby rehabilitation centers)
Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). More information on AA can be found at www.alcoholics-anonymous.org
Edited by Jan Widerman, DO