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Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a disease in which a person drinks alcohol even though drinking hurts his or her life. Alcoholics often find that they have problems with people close to them, with school or work, and with other parts of their lives.

Alcoholism can happen after a month or years of drinking. It is a disease that gets worse the more the person keeps drinking. Without treatment, it can destroy both emotional and physical health and can lead to death.

Alcoholism is often called a family disease because it hurts the lives of family members and others who are close to the alcoholic. For the alcoholic to get well, family members often must take part in treatment.

People with alcoholism:

  • Can be any age
  • May feel a physical need or craving for alcohol
  • Cannot be cured, but must get treated to stop drinking
  • Often don't think they have a drinking problem
  • Will develop serious health problems if the disease is not treated
  • Can recover and get back their lives, with treatment

What are the symptoms of alcoholism?

Symptoms are different for each person. Just a few, or nearly all, of the following symptoms may be present:

Early stages
  • Drinking for relief from problems
  • Need for more and more alcohol to feel drunk
  • "Blackouts:" Not being able to remember events or blocks of time that happened while drinking
  • Hiding alcohol or sneaking drinks
  • Thinking more and more about alcohol
  • Planning activities around drinking
Middle to late stages
  • Drinking more than planned
  • Not admitting to having a drinking problem
  • Trying to control drinking by using mind games, such as deciding to never drink before noon
  • Breaking promises
  • Having personality changes and mood swings
  • Drinking as soon as they wake from a night's sleep
Late stages
  • Having severe withdrawal symptoms (symptoms when the body is no longer getting alcohol) such as delirium tremens (also known as the DTs or morning shakes)

What causes alcoholism?

There is no single cause for alcoholism. A person's emotions, physical health, and upbringing can all play a part. Alcoholism runs in families, which suggests it may have a genetic cause.

An individual may also drink to get over difficult feelings or emotions caused by a treatable illness. Others may drink to lessen feelings of guilt, loneliness, or confusion.

How can I know if I am an alcoholic?

A person trained in treating alcoholism can tell if you or someone you care about is an alcoholic. This person may ask a series of questions. This information is also used to select the best treatment, if needed.

How is alcoholism treated?

Treatment for alcoholism can be different for each person. If the person has a serious physical illness due to the alcohol, he or she must get medical care right away.

Treatment often begins with "detox," or detoxification, which is the body's withdrawal from alcohol. After the body is clean of alcohol, the alcoholic enters a counseling program. The goal of counseling is to help the alcoholic face emotional issues that lead to drinking and to learn ways to stop drinking. Medications may be given to curb a physical craving for alcohol.

Treatment programs can last from a few weeks to years. Places for treatment include hospitals, live-in treatment centers, clinics, and counseling offices.

Where can I get help?

For referral to drug and alcohol treatment programs in your area, call:

Assessment Center Drug and Alcohol Abuse Hotline
1 (800) 234.0420

National Alcohol and Drug Help Line
1 (800) 821.HELP (4357)

© Copyright 1995-2009 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/18/2009...#3909