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What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, which is medically now called “Alcohol Use Disorder” is a disease that is characterized by at least two of the following symptoms as described in the current edition of the DSM-V:

  • Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
  • There is a recurrent craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  • Recurrent alcohol use results in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  • There is continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  • There is recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  • Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  • A tolerance for alcohol has developed defined by either of the following: a) A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect or b) a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol Use Disorder is a progressive disease characterized by three stages:

  • Mild: the presence of 2 to 3 symptoms.
  • Moderate: the presence of 4 to 5 symptoms.
  • Severe: the presence of 6 or more symptoms

As you can see from this description of the disease, Alcohol Use Disorder has little to do with what kind of alcohol one consumes. Beer, wine and distilled spirits all contain the same addictive drug, ethyl alcohol. It has little to do with how long one has been drinking, or even exactly how much alcohol is consumed. Rather, it has a great deal to do with a person’s uncontrollable need for alcohol and the continued use of alcohol in spite of the negative effects upon one’s life.

Most alcoholics cannot just use a little willpower to stop drinking. He or she is frequently in the grip of a powerful craving for alcohol, a need that can feel as strong as the need for food or water.

Many people wonder: Why can some individuals use alcohol without problems, while others are utterly unable to control their drinking? Recent research supported by NIAAA has demonstrated that for many people a vulnerability to alcoholism is inherited, especially if the father or another
close male relative was addicted. Yet it is important to recognize that aspects of a person’s environment, such as having mostly other heavy drinkers in one’s social circle are also are significant influences. Both inherited and environmental influences are also “risk factors.

But risk is not destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families doesn’t mean that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically develop alcoholism. It does mean that if there are alcoholics in the family, one should be especially careful with his or her use of alcohol. While some people are able to recover without help, the majority of alcoholics need outside assistance to recover from their disease. With support and treatment, many individuals are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives.

If you or someone you know manifests two or more of the symptoms described here, please have them get help. Use the email form on this page or call Central Counseling at (727) 362-8699. We can perform a professional assessment of the problem and make a referral appropriate for the stage of the disease and the individual’s need for help.