Alcohol is a legal drug, but this doesn't mean it
isn't the cause of extensive problems. Indeed, it is the most commonly
abused drug in the Western world, and alcohol addiction is probably
responsible for destroying more lives and relationships than all other
forms of drug-addiction added together!
Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused drug in
the United States. For most people who drink, alcohol is a pleasant
accompaniment to social activities. Moderate alcohol use - up to two
drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people
- is not harmful for most adults. (A standard drink is one 12-ounce
bottle or can of either beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine,
or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)
Nonetheless, a large number of people get into
serious trouble because of their drinking. Currently, nearly 14 million
Americans - 1 in every 13 adults - abuse alcohol or are alcoholic.
Several million more adults engage in risky drinking that could lead to
alcohol problems. These patterns include binge drinking and heavy
drinking on a regular basis. In addition, 53 percent of men and women
in the United States report that one or more of their close relatives
have a drinking problem.
The consequences of alcohol misuse are serious -
in many cases, life threatening. Heavy drinking can increase the risk
for certain cancers, especially those of the liver, esophagus, throat,
and larynx (voice box). Heavy drinking can also cause liver cirrhosis,
immune system problems, brain damage, and harm to the fetus during
In addition, drinking increases the risk of death
from automobile crashes as well as recreational and on-the-job
injuries. Furthermore, both homicides and suicides are more likely to
be committed by persons who have been drinking. In purely economic
terms, alcohol-related problems cost society approximately $185 billion
per year. In human terms, the costs cannot be calculated.
Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a
disease that includes four symptoms:
* Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
* Loss of control: The inability to limit one's drinking on any given
* Physical dependence: Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating,
shakiness, and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped after a
period of heavy drinking.
* Tolerance: The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to
Although some people are able to recover from
alcoholism without help, the majority of alcoholics need assistance.
With treatment and support, many individuals are able to stop drinking
and rebuild their lives.
Many people wonder why some individuals can use
alcohol without problems but others cannot. One important reason has to
do with genetics. Scientists have found that having an alcoholic family
member makes it more likely that if you choose to drink you too may
Genes, however, are not the whole story. In fact,
scientists now believe that certain factors in a person's environment
influence whether a person with a genetic risk for alcoholism ever
develops the disease. A person's risk for developing alcoholism can
increase based on the person's environment, including where and how he
or she lives; family, friends, and culture; peer pressure; and even how
easy it is to get alcohol.
Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it
does not include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of
control over drinking, or physical dependence. Alcohol abuse is defined
as a pattern of drinking that result in one or more of the following
situations within a 12-month period:
* Failure to fulfill major work, school, or home
* Drinking in situations that are physically dangerous, such as while
driving a car or operating machinery
* Having recurring alcohol-related legal problems, such as being
arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for physically
hurting someone while drunk.
* Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems that
are caused or worsened by the drinking.
Although alcohol abuse is basically different from
alcoholism, many effects of alcohol abuse are also experienced by
Although alcoholism can be treated, a cure is not
yet available. In other words, even if an alcoholic has been sober for
a long time and has regained health, he or she remains susceptible to
relapse and must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages. "Cutting
down" on drinking doesn't work; cutting out alcohol is necessary for a
However, even individuals who are determined to
stay sober may suffer one or several slips, or relapses, before
achieving long-term sobriety. Relapses are very common and do not mean
that a person has failed or cannot recover from alcoholism.
Keep in mind, too, that every day that a
recovering alcoholic has stayed sober prior to a relapse is extremely
valuable time, both to the individual and to his or her family. If a
relapse occurs, it is very important to try to stop drinking once again
and to get whatever additional support you need to abstain from
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