Alcohol use disorders are medical conditions that doctors can diagnose when a patient's drinking causes distress or harm. In the United States, about 18 million people have an alcohol use disorder, classified as either alcohol dependence-perhaps better known as alcoholism-or alcohol abuse.
Alcoholism, the more serious of the disorders, is a disease that includes symptoms such as:
- Craving-A strong need, or urge, to drink.
- Loss of control-Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun.
- Physical dependence-Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety after stopping drinking.
- Tolerance-The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effect.
- People who are alcoholic often will spend a great deal of their time drinking, making sure they can get alcohol, and recovering from alcohol's effects, often at the expense of other activities and responsibilities.
Although people who abuse alcohol are not physically dependent, they still have a serious disorder. They may not fulfill responsibilities at home, work, or school because of their drinking. They may also put themselves in dangerous situations (like driving under the influence) or have legal or social problems (such as arrests or arguments with family members) due to their drinking.*
Like many other diseases, alcoholism is typically considered chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime. However, we continue to learn more and more about alcohol abuse and alcoholism; and what we're learning is changing our perceptions of the disease. For instance, data from NIAAA's National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions has shown that more than 70 percent of people who develop alcohol dependence have a single episode that lasts on average 3 or 4 years. Data from the same survey also show that many people who seek formal treatment are able to remain alcohol free, and many others recover without formal treatment.
However severe the problem may seem, many people with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from treatment.