Alcoholism, also known as “alcohol dependence,” is a disease that includes alcohol craving and continued drinking despite repeated alcohol-related problems, such as losing a job or getting into trouble with the law. It includes four symptoms:
– Impaired control—The inability to limit one’s drinking on any given occasion.
– Physical dependence—Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.
– Tolerance—The need for increasing amounts of alcohol in order to feel its effects.
Alcoholism is a chronic, often progressive disease with symptoms that include a strong need to drink despite negative consequences, such as a serious job or health problems. Like many other diseases, it has a generally predictable course, has recognized symptoms, and is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors that are being increasingly well defined.
Alcoholism tends to run in families, and genetic factors partially explain this pattern. Currently, researchers are on the way to finding 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. Still, other factors, such as social support, may help to protect even high-risk people from alcohol problems.
Risk, however, 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.
Alcoholism is a treatable disease, and medication has also become available to help prevent relapse, but a cure has not yet been found. This means that even if an alcoholic has been sober for a long time and has regained health, he or she may relapse and must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages.