Alcohol addiction is a chronic addiction to or dependence on alcohol. This addiction can involve being too focused on alcohol and when you will have your next drink, binge drinking, and physical or mental dependence on alcohol or its effects.

Alcoholism is often progressive, which means it worsens over time. Some people who are addicted to alcohol find they must drink increasing amounts to achieve a desired effect. Many alcoholics experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit drinking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 88,000 Americans die each year due to excessive drinking, making alcohol the third deadliest lifestyle risk in the US.

Alcoholism is not caused by a virus or bacteria, so its symptoms can be somewhat more difficult to assess than those of other diseases. Most symptoms of alcohol addiction center on a loss of control over drinking habits.

Symptoms of alcoholism may include the following:

  • Losing interest in activities that don't involve drinking
  • Being unable to control how much alcohol you consume
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Feeling a strong need to drink
  • Becoming drunk on purpose to achieve a feeling of normalcy
  • Drinking alone
  • Hiding your drinking
  • Becoming irritable if you cannot drink
  • Blacking out from drinking

No specific physical tests diagnose alcohol addiction. Instead, doctors typically ask a series of questions to determine your alcohol-related habits. A doctor also may ask to speak with family members about your alcohol use.

Once the doctor has gathered the necessary information, he or she will usually see whether you have met at least three of the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism defined by the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" in the last year.

According to the Mayo Clinic, those criteria are as follows:

  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  • Having withdrawal symptoms
  • Drinking more than intended
  • Having a continued desire to decrease the amount you drink
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or hungover
  • Neglecting important activities not related to alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite the problems it causes

Treatment for alcohol addiction varies depending on your level of addiction and individual needs. No matter which treatment you undergo, you will likely have to complete detoxification (the process of letting the alcohol leave your body) and ongoing support like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Detoxification usually lasts for about a week. Patients detoxing from alcohol are often given medication to help them through the process, which can involve withdrawal symptoms like shaking and hallucinations.

After detoxing, patients can undergo a number of treatments, including counseling, medication or a combination of the two.

Counseling for alcohol addiction usually focuses on setting goals and developing new behavior patterns that do not trigger the desire for alcohol. You may also receive counseling with your family (known as family therapy).

Medications are available for recovering alcoholics. They usually reduce the desire for alcohol. For example, disulfiram (sold as Antabuse) causes you to feel physically ill if you drink while taking the medicine. Various other medicines block the mood-boosting effects of alcohol or reduce cravings.

Alcoholism can develop as a result of a variety of causes, which range from social to genetic.

Social causes of alcohol addiction include friends or family who drink excessively, the age at which you begin drinking and drinking on a regular basis.

Research has shown that beginning to drink at a young age increases the risk of becoming an alcoholic, partly because it increases the amount of time you drink on a regular basis, which can also lead to a physical and mental dependence.

Genetic factors in alcohol dependence often come from your family history. You are more likely to become an alcoholic if you have close blood relatives who are alcohol-dependent. Also, mental health problems like depression can increase the risk of developing alcoholism.

Alcohol abuse and addiction can be life-threatening. If you think you might be addicted to alcohol, seek professional medical care immediately.

You can also enroll in ongoing support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and tell your family and friends about your addiction to gain extra support.

Excessive drinking can pose a serious threat to your health. Drinking during pregnancy, however, not only puts you at risk, but also your fetus. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can cause physical and mental disabilities in your child, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. The most certain way to prevent these effects is to completely abstain from drinking during pregnancy.

Many people recover from alcoholism and live full, healthy lives. Most treatment plans are ongoing and involve extended counseling. Addictions can be difficult to break, so many doctors tell their alcohol-dependent patients to develop new habits that don't involve alcohol or trigger a craving for it.

Also key to life after alcoholism is support from friends and family. Tell your family if you've made the decision to quit drinking and ask for their support.

Review Date: 
March 13, 2012
Overview Video: 
Alcohol dependence