A Major Problem in the U.S.
Many people in the United States consume alcohol, sometimes in significant amounts. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 28% of women and more than 43% of men over the age of 18 engaged in binge drinking within the past year. However, binge drinking doesn’t necessarily make people out to be alcoholics. There are different levels of excessive alcohol use, with many experts drawing a line between alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
The Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports that alcohol abuse is a severe problem that involves intentionally overusing alcohol until a person becomes drunk. While alcohol abuse can certainly be a cause for concern, alcoholism is actually a medical condition characterized by constant or periodic abuse of alcohol, lack of control and fixation on alcohol.
Alcoholics and Alcoholism vs. Alcohol Abuse
Since there is a difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse, and because many people who overuse alcohol are in denial about the problem, many individuals have trouble recognizing that they are alcoholics. The following signs can help heavy alcohol users understand if they are alcoholics and determine whether they need to seek help for starting out on the road to recovery.
Excessive Consumption of Alcohol
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is one of the telltale signs of alcoholism. Of course, everyone’s body has a different reaction to the substance, so the number of drinks that is considered to be excessive will vary depending on factors like genetics, gender, weight, physical condition and how much a person ate before the alcohol was consumed.
Despite this, there are some general guidelines when it comes to amounts of alcohol consumption. A moderate amount of alcohol consumption for men is no more than four drinks in one day and no more than 14 drinks in one week. For women, a moderate amount is no more than three drinks in one day and no more than seven drinks per week.
Binge drinking, which can put a person’s health and safety in jeopardy, involves drinking more than four drinks in two hours for women and more than five drinks in two hours for men. Regularly engaging this this type of heavy drinking may be a sign of alcoholism.
However, while a habit of excessive drinking is dangerous and certainly problematic, there are also several emotional and mental components that go along with the heavy drinking to paint the picture of alcoholism.
Inability to Stop Drinking
There are many people who drink heavily but who also have the ability to take a break from drinking if they want to or if they think they need to stop. Alcoholics, on the other hand, may actually continue to drink even after they’ve put serious strain on their relationships with friends and family members as a result of their alcoholism.
While many loved ones may wonder how people can continue to drink after they’ve lost jobs and put relationships at risk, the fact is that alcoholics feel a serious compulsion to keep drinking.
In fact, this compulsion can be one of the major reasons that alcoholics may be unsuccessful when they try on their own to cut back on drinking. Even alcoholics who desperately want to quit or cut back on alcohol may find that they are unable to do so, which is why entering treatment is typically the best option for recovery.
Changes in the Body’s Reaction to Alcohol
Intoxication has numerous physical effects on a person’s body, including loose muscle tone, loss of motor coordination and slow reaction times. However, people who have been drinking over the long term may actually develop a tolerance to these reactions. In other words, alcoholics may need to consume higher levels of alcohol in order to feel the same effects that they used to experience.
While some people may initially view higher tolerance to alcohol as a benefit – or as a positive ability to “hold their liquor,” – this physical change is one of the major signs of alcoholism.
Alcoholics in this situation may want to reach a certain level of intoxication and will often drink increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve that level.
This steady increase in alcohol consumption can put alcoholics at a higher risk for many types of physical damage and conditions, including:
- Liver disease
- Erectile dysfunction
- Brain damage
- Digestive tract bleeding
- Heart damage
- Various types of cancer
Symptoms of Withdrawal
Not only do alcoholics have trouble refraining from drinking, but they may also exhibit physiological symptoms of withdrawal. Withdrawal refers to a process the body goes through when it stops receiving a certain substance after having been dependent on that substance for a long period of time.
Because each person’s body reacts differently, some people may only experience slight discomfort while others may have withdrawal symptoms so severe that they require medical attention. Regardless, when people experience even mild withdrawal effects after they stop drinking, it’s a strong sign that they are suffering from alcoholism.
Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Heart palpitations
- Clammy skin
Demands on a Person’s Time
Alcoholics often devote a great deal of time to drinking activities. For some heavy abusers, it may be easy to attribute these activities to social outings. However, even when people largely consume alcohol around others, the activity can still be harmful when it demands a great deal of time.
Not only do alcoholics devote plenty of time to drinking, but they can also spend significant amounts of time planning occasions for drinking alcohol and thinking about consuming alcohol. Much of their time may also be taken up by recovering from the effects of alcohol, whether that process involves hangover symptoms, withdrawal effects or a combination of both.
Negative Effect on Other Parts of Life
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of alcoholism is the toll it can take on the most important parts of a person’s life. While some alcoholics are able to hold steady jobs and function well – particularly in an office culture that supports drinking – other people may have a difficult time keeping up with their work duties. Alcoholics sometimes show up late, forget about meetings and appointments, sleep at work, miss days of work altogether or exhibit unreliable or erratic behavior that may even lead to termination.
Outside of work responsibilities, many people abandon interests that were once important to them, including recreational pursuits, physical fitness goals, charity work or spiritual commitments. However, the strain on personal relationships may be the most devastating sign of alcoholism. This medical condition can severely affect married couples, parent-child relationships and close friendships. Many people seek out help after realizing that their important relationships have been damaged and deciding that they want to work towards repairing them.
While these are some of the common signs that point to alcoholism, everybody is different and people should ultimately seek out professional advice on whether they suffer from alcoholism. The good news is that, regardless of the severity of the alcohol problem, there are numerous programs and treatment options that can help alcoholics and alcohol abusers work toward recovery, happiness and better health.