What Is Alcoholism?

Differences between dependence and abuse.

Alcoholism is a lifelong illness. People with alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, have crave alcohol, and as their tolerance grows, they need to drink more to achieve the same "buzz." Alcohol is a drug.
In addition to cravings and tolerance, alcoholism includes these symptoms:

  • Loss of control. A person cannot stop drinking once he or she has started.
  • Physical dependence. Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped.

Is alcohol abuse different from alcoholism?
Yes, alcohol abuse is different from alcoholism, but it can be just as dangerous. People who abuse alcohol may drink too much alcohol at a time and drink too often. You may know someone who abuses alcohol who has problems at work, at home or with the law because of problem drinking. People who abuse alcohol may not be dependent on it and have alcoholism. But people who abuse alcohol have a higher risk of developing alcoholism.
For people who choose to drink, doctors usually recommend no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.
Does alcohol abuse cause the same problems as alcoholism?

A problem drinker or alcohol abuser may not be addicted to alcohol, but he or she shares many of the same health risks. Quality of life, in particular, can be severely lessened. In addition, alcoholics and alcohol abusers alike may bring havoc into the lives of their loved ones and on others around them.
Studies show that alcoholism and alcohol abuse are not only a leading cause of death but also a significant factor in violent crime, teen pregnancy, date rape and certain other types of crime.
How can I know if I have an alcohol problem?

Ask yourself the following questions. You may want to print this article so you can check off any symptoms you find in yourself.
In the past year, have you had times when:

You ended up drinking more or longer than you intended?

Y or N

More than once, you wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but could not?

Y or N

More than once, you have been in situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area or having unsafe sex)?

Y or N

You had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?

Y or N

You continued to drink even though it made you feel depressed or anxious or added to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?

Y or N

You spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other after-effects?

Y or N

You continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?

Y or N

You found that drinking¿or being sick from drinking-often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles or school problems?

Y or N

You have given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?

Y or N

More than once, you have been arrested, been held at a police station or had other legal problems because of your drinking?

Y or N

You found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?

Y or N

Note: These questions were taken from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) website and are based on symptoms used by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose alcohol use disorders.

If you have answered "yes" to any of the above questions, you may have a problem with alcohol. The more symptoms you have, the more urgent is your need for help.

Take this test to your doctor to talk about your concerns. He or she can look at your answers to tell whether you have an alcohol problem. Several therapies are available to help people stop drinking, including counseling, medications and support groups.

Recognizing symptoms, being honest about them and making a change is tough for many people. People with a drinking problem must decide for themselves when to quit. For many, that decision to quit comes only after an arrest, divorce or other tragic scenario.

You can make positive steps even if you are not ready to quit drinking. You might want to:

  • Keep track of how much and when you drink.
  • Make a list of all of the consequences of continuing to drink.
  • Look at situations that may be contributing to a drinking problem, such as stress, lifestyle, peer pressure, habits or other factors.
  • Talk to someone you trust about making a change.