Alcohol consumption is, for many people, a deeply ingrained part of modern life.
A drink after work, a few more after dinner, and a number on the weekends is the status quo for a good chunk of Americans.
But when that pattern of behavior becomes absolutely necessary, that’s when it’s turned from casual drinking into alcoholism.
This problem is on the rise too. In fact, studies show that alcoholism has risen by 166% in 2012-2013 (30 million people) compared to 2001-2002 (18 million).
That’s why it’s critical that you know the signs and symptoms of alcoholism – so you can get the help you need to recover.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is, as you probably know, an addiction to beer, wine, liquor, or any other form of alcohol.
More than just a physical dependency on the substance, alcoholism penetrates deep into the mind and affects nearly all parts of the self. This includes decision making, patterns of behavior, reasoning, memory, and more.
Alcoholism is not just being physically hooked on drink – it’s an all-encompassing way of life.
It is a dangerous disease but, like all other addictions, it is in fact a disease, not a choice.
That means that being an alcoholic isn’t some sort of moral failure (as it was believed to be in the past). But rather, alcoholism is a misalignment of nerves and chemical pathways that make alcohol consumption especially satisfying, controlling, and in the mind of an addict, entirely necessary.
What Is the Definition of Alcohol Abuse and How Is It Different Than Alcoholism?
It’s important that you’re able to distinguish the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism as they aren’t necessarily one in the same.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains in their 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines that alcohol should only be consumed in moderation – up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Excessive drinking, then, is considered alcohol abuse. This level is defined in these same guidelines as:
the consumption of 4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more drinks per week for women and 5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks per week for men.
Alcoholism, on the other hand, is a systematic pattern of behaviors and modes of thought that drive an individual to not only crave alcohol, but depend on it.
You can, then, abuse alcohol without being addicted to it. On the flip side though, you can’t be addicted to it without first abusing it.
Quick & Easy Alcoholism Test
As with most other substance use disorders, the first step on the road to recovery is actually admitting that you have a problem. And as anyone who has had to overcome addiction knows, getting past your own denial can take a whole lot of self-reflection and willpower.
That’s where alcoholism tests come in. These can help you stop and really think about some of your destructive habits instead of just brushing them aside and pretending they don’t exist.
And once you’ve taken the first step of figuring out if you’re an alcoholic, you can then work towards eventual recovery.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides a few short groups of alcohol assessment questions (CAGE and T-ACE) to help you get on the road to recovery, as well as a more detailed one called AUDIT. We’ve reproduced the first quick one (CAGE) below.
CAGE – This test can identify alcohol problems over a lifetime and two positive answers indicate the need for further testing.
- Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
- Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
- Eye opener: have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions, you should taking a closer look at the more detailed tests provided by the NIAAA to see if you have a drinking problem.
The DSM-V’s Definition of Alcoholism
The DSM-V is the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and is, for most psychiatrists, a complete handbook for diagnosing mental disorders in patients.
The DSM-V contains ten warning signs of alcoholism that were contained in the DSM-IV as well as one new piece of criteria.
The test is structured like this: you’ll read through eleven scenarios and verify if you’ve experienced it before. Then you’ll add up your positive answers and, depending on the total, you’ll be able to see whether your alcohol use disorder is mild (2 to 3 symptoms), moderate (4 to 5 symptoms), severe (6 or more symptoms) or none of the above.
DSM-V Test for an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Are you ready? Have a look. In the past year, have you:
- Ended up drinking more or longer than you intended?
- More than once tried to cut down on your drinking or stop entirely, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking or being sick or recovering from drinking?
- Wanted a drink so badly that you couldn’t concentrate on anything else?
- Had problems taking care of your home or family or been unable to fulfill work or school obligations because of your drinking?
- Continued with your drinking despite knowing it was causing family or social troubles?
- Abandoned activities you used to enjoy in order to drink?
- Engaged in risky behaviors because of your drinking (driving, swimming, having unsafe sex, operating machinery, walking in a dangerous area, etc.)?
- Continued to drink despite it making you feel depressed or anxious, adding to other health problems, or losing your memory?
- Had to drink more than before in order to get the desired effect?
- Found that you experience withdrawals from alcohol?
If this sounds all too familiar, you may want to seek help from a qualified professional to get an expert diagnosis so you can begin your journey towards recovery.
Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal occurs when the body, which has grown accustomed to the continuous presence of alcohol, struggles to return to a state of normal processing without it.
This process can be long and hard as the symptoms of withdrawal are often incredibly uncomfortable. According to MedlinePlus, they include:
- Mood swings
- Muddled thinking
- Rapid heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
What’s more, severe alcohol withdrawals can actually be deadly. A condition known as delirium tremens can cause a variety of symptoms like hallucinations, fever, confusion, and seizures that may result in death.
As such, anyone looking to kick their alcohol addiction should first consult a qualified professional and explore all of their treatment options before deciding to do it on their own.
Neglecting to do so might not only lead to a much more painful recovery process that’s far likely to result in relapse, it may even be putting your life in actual danger.
How to Tell If You’re Living with An Alcoholic
Sometimes it can be tough to come to terms with the fact that someone you love is an alcoholic.
In fact, you may think to yourself that they’ll end up getting it together on their own and you shouldn’t say anything at all.
But it’s absolutely critical to realize that by ignoring the signs, you’re actually enabling their addiction and putting off their recovery even further.
You may start to suspect alcoholism based on a feeling alone. Maybe they’re a bit more distant than usual, or perhaps moodier, more secretive, or withdrawn.
You may also have noticed a change in their physical appearance. Maybe they’re not as concerned about their personal hygiene as they once were or they constantly appear tired, sick, or, as is most likely the case, hungover.
Signs of Hiding Drinking
Sometimes you need physical proof to really convince yourself of what you already suspect.
One of the most notable indications of alcoholism in someone you love is if they’re hiding their drinking. Here are just a few signs of hiding drinking that you may notice around the house:
- Large amounts of alcohol regularly go missing
- Bottles, cups, and glasses appear in strange places
- Your liquor tastes watered down
- You’ve found secret compartments in, say, end tables or cabinets
- There’s alcohol on receipts with no bottles to be found
- Numerous unnoticed bottles end up in the garbage or recycle bin
If you’ve observed a fair number of these signs, then you just may be living with someone that’s trying to hide their addiction.
A Few Short- and Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism
The most severe short-term effect of alcoholism includes a tendency to put oneself in high-risk situations like drunk driving.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 28 people in the U.S. die every single day due to motor vehicle crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. That’s one death every 51 minutes.
What’s more, the annual cost of crashes involving alcohol total over $44 billion!
Driving drunk, then, can be absolutely catastrophic.
Alcoholism can cause a variety of other problems as well. According to the NIAAA, alcoholism can lead to a host of long-term health problems down the line including:
- Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired coordination
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Mouth, esophageal, throat, liver, and breast cancer
- Compromised immunity
- Mood and personality changes
- Other psychiatric disorders
As you can see, there are a lot of detrimental health effects that come from long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism. The safest way to avoid them, then, is getting control of your alcohol use disorder now, before it’s too late.
Treatment Options for Alcoholism
Now that you’ve learned how to spot alcoholism, it’s time to talk a bit about how to treat it.
In the past, the options for alcoholics were fairly limited. In many cases, individuals would attend twelve step meetings for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
And while there’s definitely something to be said about the effectiveness of this program (it has, after all, helped an enormous amount of people get sober), alcoholics today are no longer confined to treating their addiction with this method alone.
In fact, many addiction specialists are moving away from the twelve-step method and towards more science-based approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
And while there’s no treatment plan that’s perfect for everyone, the most important step is admitting you need help and asking for it. When you consider how rare it is for addicts to actually make it that far, doing so is an accomplishment on its own.
Alcoholism: Recognize the Signs and Start Your Recovery Today
Alcoholism can be an absolutely devastating addiction to deal with. What makes the process even more difficult is that sometimes it’s tough to know if someone really has a problem.
But by recognizing the signs above, you can help identify this debilitating disease in its earliest stages and take the steps towards a cleaner, sober, and happier life.