What Is It?
Alcoholism (alcohol dependence) is the most severe type of drinking problem. There is no absolute number of drinks per day or quantity of alcohol that defines alcoholism, but experts have defined a limit above which the risks of drinking increase significantly.
Here are some defining characteristics of alcohol dependence:
A person with alcohol dependence has come to rely on alcohol physically, psychologically and emotionally. The brain adapts to the presence of alcohol and undergoes persistent changes. When alcohol use suddenly stops, the body's accustomed internal environment changes drastically, causing symptoms of withdrawal.
Alcoholism can be linked many psychological, interpersonal, social, economic and medical problems. Alcoholism can increase the risk of depression and suicide and play a role in violent crimes, including homicide and domestic violence (abuse of a spouse or child). It can lead to traffic accidents and even accidents involving intoxicated pedestrians who decide to walk home after drinking. Alcoholism also can lead to unsafe sexual behavior, resulting in accidental pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
Alcohol dependence increases the risk of liver disease (hepatitis and cirrhosis), heart disease, stomach ulcers, brain damage, stroke and other health problems. In pregnant women who drink alcohol, there is also the danger that the child will develop fetal alcohol syndrome, a cluster of health problems including unusually low birth weight, facial abnormalities, heart defects and learning difficulties.
The lifetime chance of developing alcoholism is very difficult to determine, but it is very common. In the United States, about 1 in 16 adults have severe problems with drinking and millions more are engaged in what experts consider risky drinking. In fact, a recent analysis revealed that 30% of a representative sample of U.S. residents reported an alcohol use disorder at some time in their lives.
Alcohol problems come about from a combination of biological tendencies and environmental influences.
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