Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol dependency, or alcoholism, is the condition of being addicted to, or functionally dependent on alcohol in any of its forms (wine, beer, hard liquor, etc.). It is an insidious form of addiction, because it is often not seen as one: moderate drinking is widely accepted in our society, and at times an individual suffering from alcohol addiction is difficult to distinguish from someone who is casually indulging in a drink or two. Thus, many addicts are able, intentionally or otherwise, to mask their alcohol addiction, and may often be unaware of it, or its full extent themselves. In addition, some people can remain high-functioning addicts — they are able to maintain, for a long while, most of their physical and social functioning with little sign of intoxication, thus, again, masking their condition.
It is important therefore to be on the lookout for some of the following early signs of alcohol addiction:
- Compulsively using alcohol to counter anxiety or depression
- Compulsively needing alcohol to steady shaking hands or other tremors
- Developing alcohol tolerance: the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to stay at the desired degree of intoxication
Alcohol addiction is a source of many significant and long-term health and social problems for a person who suffers from this dependence, quite apart from the immediate, short-term symptoms of drunkenness such as loss of co-ordination, reduced inhibitions and potential blackouts. Long-term health problems of alcohol addiction are usually twofold: physical and psychological. Alcohol addiction means prolonged consumption of large quantities of alcohol, which, simply put, is a biologically harmful substance. Depending on the length of one’s alcohol addiction, physical damage can range from relatively mild to severe. Continued alcohol addiction will cause damage to various internal organs and can result in severely impaired liver function, peptic ulcers, epilepsy, inflammation of the pancreas, neuropathy (loss of physical sensation and/or muscle controlling various parts of the body) as well as harmful changes in the brain. Long-term drinking increases the risk for breast cancer and reproductive problems for women; men will often suffer sexual dysfunction as well. Other, general effects include malnutrition, with concurrent vitamin deficiencies, as well as the loss of immune system function, resulting in higher vulnerability to infectious disease. Psychological problems of alcohol addiction result from the toxic effect of alcohol on the brain: there is a high risk of dementia showing loss of memory and reasoning skills. Social cognitive skills such as perceiving humor, recognition of facial emotions in others are also impaired. As with other addictions, individuals suffering from alcohol addiction will also experience serious, long-term social problems. The compulsive need to become, or stay, intoxicated and to obtain larger and large quantities of alcohol causes people to neglect or otherwise harm their social relationships and standing, both at work and within their families. While alcohol addicts’ individual ability to function varies most people will end up losing their job and income. Many people who suffer from alcohol addiction have an increased risk of engaging in criminal activity such as domestic violence, or assault and burglary. Many will also lose much-needed and cherished family connections and may end up divorced and often homeless.
Beyond the early warning signs described above, further symptoms of alcohol addiction include:
- Repeated, excessive drinking
- Denying, or hiding evidence of drinking
- Intense cravings for any type of alcohol
- Persistent preoccupation with obtaining the next “fix”, or source of alcohol
- Inability to curtail or quit drinking in spite of persistent efforts to stop
- Loss, or sacrifice, of close emotional ties caused by drinking or alcohol-seeking behavior
- Difficulties in managing responsibilities at work and at home
- Alcohol-related physical health effects as determined by a doctor
One of the simplest and most common diagnostic tests, developed by the World Health Organization, and used internationally, is the “Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test” (AUDIT), available at many web sites. Here is a link to a copy made available by the state of Washington: http://www.agencymeddirectors.wa.gov/Files/aas.pdf