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Denial that an alcohol problem exists is common. Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that results in one or more of the following situations within a 12-month period:

  • Repeated problems at work, school, or home due to drinking
  • Risking physical safety by drinking in situations that are dangerous, such as driving or operating machinery
  • Recurring trouble with the law, such as being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for physically hurting someone while drunk
  • Continuing to drink despite alcohol-related difficulties

Alcohol abuse often progresses to alcohol dependence or alcoholism. Alcoholism involves a powerful craving or uncontrollable need for alcohol. This craving overrides the ability to stop drinking. This need can be as strong as the need for food or water. Alcohol dependence may also cause:

  • Needing greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effect
  • Giving up activities in order to drink or recover from the effects of alcohol
  • Drinking that continues even when it causes or worsens health problems
  • Being unable to stop or reduce drinking despite a desire to do so

Dependence may also cause progressive withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is stopped. Withdrawal may cause:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures

Alcoholism has destructive effects on the entire body. These may include:

  • Red palms, flushed face
  • Spidery veins showing through the skin around the umbilicus and on the face
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Yellowing of the whites of the eyes and/or skin— jaundice , which indicates liver problems
  • Enlarged liver and/or spleen
  • Nausea, bloating, dyspepsia , and ulcers
  • Pancreatitis
  • Easy bruising and/or bleeding
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Impaired memory
  • Infertility in both men and women
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Increased susceptibility to infections and cancer

References:

Alcohol use disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 24, 2014. Accessed February 24, 2014.

Alcohol withdrawal. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 6, 2012. Accessed February 24, 2014.

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Helpguide website. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/alcohol_abuse_alcoholism_signs_effects_treatment.htm. Updated August 2013. Accessed February 24, 2014.

Beyond hangovers: Understanding alcohol's impact on your health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2014.

Helping patients who drink too much: a clinician’s guide. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Practitioner/CliniciansGuide2005/guide.pdf. Updated May 2007. Accessed February 24, 2014.



Last reviewed February 2014 by Peter J. Lucas, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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