The term “alcoholism” refers to a disease known as alcohol dependence syndrome, the most severe stage of a group of drinking problems which begins with binge drinking and alcohol abuse.

Alcoholism, which is also known as “alcohol dependence syndrome,” is a disease that is characterized by the following elements:

  • Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
  • Loss of control: The frequent inability to stop drinking once a person has begun.
  • Physical dependence: The occurrence of withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking. These symptoms are usually relieved by drinking alcohol or by taking another sedative drug.
  • Tolerance: The need for increasing amounts of alcohol in order to get “high.”

Alcoholism has little to do with what kind of alcohol one drinks, how long one has been drinking, or even exactly how much alcohol one consumes. But it has a great deal to do with a person’s uncontrollable need for alcohol.

What are the symptoms of alcoholism?Symptoms are different for each person. Just a few, or nearly all, of the following symptoms may be present:

Early stages

  • Drinking for relief from problems
  • Need for more and more alcohol to feel drunk
  • “Blackouts:” Not being able to remember events or blocks of time that happened while drinking
  • Hiding alcohol or sneaking drinks
  • Thinking more and more about alcohol
  • Planning activities around drinking

Middle to late stages

  • Drinking more than planned
  • Not admitting to having a drinking problem
  • Trying to control drinking by using mind games, such as deciding to never drink before noon
  • Breaking promises
  • Having personality changes and mood swings
  • Drinking as soon as they wake from a night’s sleep

Late stages

  • Having severe withdrawal symptoms (symptoms when the body is no longer getting alcohol) such as delirium tremens (also known as the DTs or morning shakes)

What causes alcoholism?There is no single cause for alcoholism. A person’s emotions, physical health, and upbringing can all play a part. Alcoholism runs in families, which suggests it may have a genetic cause.

An individual may also drink to get over difficult feelings or emotions caused by a treatable illness. Others may drink to lessen feelings of guilt, loneliness, or confusion.

What is a safe level of drinking?For most adults, moderate alcohol use—up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people—causes few if any 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.)

Certain people should not drink at all, such as:

  • Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • People who plan to drive or engage in other activities that require alertness and skill (such as driving a car)
  • People taking prescription medications
  • People with medical conditions that can be made worse by drinking
  • Recovering alcoholics

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