What is 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 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.

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)

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy