Alcoholism refers to the drinking of alcoholic beverages to such a degree that major aspects of an individual's life--such as work, school, family relationships, or personal safety and health--are seriously and repeatedly interfered with. Alcoholism is considered a disease, meaning that it follows a characteristic course with known physical, psychological, and social symptoms. The alcoholic continues to consume alcohol despite the destructive consequences. Alcoholism is serious, progressive, and irreversible. If not treated, it can be fatal. It is generally thought that once the disease has developed, the alcoholic will not drink normally again.
An alcoholic who abstains from drinking, however, can regain control over the aspects of life with which alcohol interfered. The alcoholic is then said to be "recovering," not "cured" of the disease. It is important to note that the particular symptoms and pattern of drinking problems may vary with the individual. Alcoholism is, therefore, a very complex disorder, and this complexity has led some recent researchers to question the accuracy of the disease concept of alcoholism.
A person does not have to drink every day to be an alcoholic. Moreover, someone who drinks frequently or sometimes gets drunk is not necessarily an alcoholic. It is possible to abuse alcohol for a short or contained period of time without developing alcoholism. For example, some people may drink abusively during a personal crisis and then resume normal drinking.
College students tend to drink more heavily than other age groups. It is often difficult to distinguish such heavy and abusive drinking from the early stages of alcoholism. How well the person can tolerate giving up alcohol for an extended time, and the effect of the drinking on family, friends, work, and health, may indicate the extent of the alcohol problem. More than 10 million Americans are estimated to be alcoholic. Alcoholism is found among all age, sociocultural, and economic groups.
An estimated 75 percent of alcoholics are male, 25 percent female. Alcoholism is a worldwide phenomenon, but it is most widespread in France, Ireland, Poland, Scandinavia, the United States, and the USSR. Symptoms and Causes Some common signs of alcoholism in the early stages are constant drinking for relief of personal problems, an increase in a person's tolerance for alcohol, onset of memory lapses while drinking ("blackouts"), surreptitious drinking, and an urgent need for the first drink ("craving"). In the middle and late phases, dependence on drinking increases and memory blackouts become more frequent.
A physical dependence on alcohol first appears with early morning tremors and agitation that require a drink for relief. In the late stage, drinking bouts are usually very frequent. There is an acute withdrawal syndrome (delirium tremens, or DTs) when drinking ceases. This includes agitation, tremor, hallucination, and possibly seizures. Most...