Alcohol Addiction and Treatment

For many people, the facts about alcoholism are not clear. What is alcoholism, exactly? How does it differ from alcohol abuse? When should a person seek help for a problem related to his or her drinking problem? The following information explains both alcoholism and alcohol abuse, the symptoms of each, when and where to seek help, and treatment choices.

What is Alcoholism?

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 occasion.
  • 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 "get high".

People who are not alcoholics sometimes do not understand why an alcoholic can't just "use a little willpower" to stop drinking. However, alcoholism has little to do with willpower. Alcoholics are in the grip of a powerful "craving", or uncontrollable need, for alcohol that overrides their ability to stop drinking. This need can be as strong as the need for food or water.

The health risks and medical complications that have been linked with excessive use of alcohol include the following:

  • Brain damage and impaired brain development
  • Various types of cancers
  • Kidney disease and liver damage
  • Impairments to the immune system
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other damage to the fetus
  • Increased risk of death from automobile crashes
  • Increased likelihood of suicide and homicide

Getting professional help to overcome problem with alcohol is the best means of achieving long-term sobriety, and understanding the nature of the problem is often the first step in the search for appropriate treatment.

The following are explanations of common terms related to the misuse and abuse of alcohol:

What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that results in one or more of the following situations within a 12-month period:

  • Failure to fulfill major work, school, or home responsibilities;
  • 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; and
  • Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems that are caused or worsened by the drinking.

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.

What are the Signs of a Drinking Problem?

How can you tell whether you may have a drinking problem? Answering the following four questions can help you find out:

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (as an "eye opener") to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

One "yes" answer suggests a possible drinking problem. If you answered "yes" to more than one question, it is highly likely that a problem exists. In either case, it is important that you see your doctor or other health care provider right away to discuss your answers to these questions. He or she can help you determine whether you have a drinking problem and, if so, recommend the best course of action.

Even if you answered "no" to all of the above questions, if you encounter drinking-related problems with your job, relationships, health, or the law, you should seek professional help. The effects of alcohol abuse can be extremely serious, even fatal, both to you and to others.

Can Alcoholism be Cured?

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 successful alcoholism recovery.

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.

The Decision to Get Help

Accepting the fact that help is needed for alcoholism recovery may not be easy. But keep in mind that the sooner you get help, the better are your chances for a successful recovery.

Any concerns you may have about discussing a drinking problem with your health care provider may stem from common misconceptions about alcoholism and alcoholism treatment. In our society, the myth prevails that a drinking problem is a sign of moral weakness. As a result, you may feel that to seek help is to admit some type of shameful defect in yourself. In fact, alcoholism is a disease that is no more a sign of weakness than is asthma. Moreover, taking steps to identify a possible drinking problem has an enormous payoff-a chance for a healthier, more rewarding life.

Help for Alcohol Abuse

The term “alcohol abuse” refers to a pattern of drinking that is marked by excessive intake and the potential for destruction and other dangers. Examples of alcohol abuse include the following:

  • Binge drinking – or drinking merely “to get drunk” (especially on repeated occasions)
  • Drinking while or just before operating a motor vehicle.
  • Experiencing alcohol-related legal problems – such as being arrested for assaulting another person while drunk, or driving while under the influence of alcohol – yet continuing to drink.

Many people who abuse alcohol insist that they don’t have a “real problem” because they are not physically dependent upon the drug. However, even in the absence of dependency, alcohol abuse can be a serious and potentially destructive experience.

If you can answer “yes” to any of the following questions, you may, indeed, have a problem with alcohol:

  • Have you ever felt that you should reduce how much (or how often) you drink?
  • Do you have little patience for others who question or criticize your drinking habits?
  • Do you ever feel guilty or remorseful about your drinking – or about something you did when you were drunk?
  • Have you ever felt the urge to drink early in the morning as a means of ridding yourself of a hangover or to “steady your nerves” in preparation of the day’s challenges?

Answering "yes" to more than one of these questions indicates a high likelihood that you have a drinking problem – and that contacting your primary physician or other health care provider to talk about this problem in greater detail is definitely in your best interest.

If your health care provider determines that you are not alcohol dependent but are nonetheless involved in a pattern of alcohol abuse, he or she can help you to:

  • Examine the benefits of stopping an unhealthy drinking pattern.
  • Set a drinking goal for yourself. Some people choose to abstain from alcohol. Others prefer to limit the amount they drink.
  • Examine the situations that trigger your unhealthy drinking patterns, and develop new ways of handling those situations so that you can maintain your drinking goal.

Some individuals who have decided to stop drinking after experiencing a drinking problem choose to attend AA meetings for information and support, even though they have not been diagnosed as alcoholic.


If you seek professional help for alcohol dependence or abuse, the type of treatment that you receive will depend upon several factors, including the nature, severity, and duration of your  problem. Common treatment options and techniques include the following:

  • Detoxification – The first step in recovery is ridding your body of any remaining alcohol. If you have been drinking for a long time – or ingesting considerably large quantities of alcohol – detox may require professional medical oversight to ensure your safety.
  • Medications – Some recovering alcoholics take prescription medications to help their bodies adjust to the absence of alcohol, and to quash cravings.
  • Support groups – Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups have had great success helping adults and young people overcome a dependence upon alcohol and life a sober life. However, the 12-step model is not the only option for continued support. Your doctor or recovery specialist should be able to educate you about the aftercare opportunities that best meet your specific needs.
  • Location & Duration – Some people respond well to outpatient therapy, while others are more likely to find success in a residential or inpatient program. Studies show longer treatment programs are more likely to result in successful recovery – but again, your consultation with the professionals who are treating you will determine the course of treatment that best addresses your personal challenges.
  • Aftercare – Ongoing therapy (including family therapy) can provide you with the support and guidance that you need to deal with pressures, stresses, and other “triggers” that may otherwise lead to a relapse. And if you do suffer a relapse, your aftercare support can help you weather the storm and resume your pursuit of long-term sobriety.

For more information about alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and the many treatment options that are available to you, call 866-323-5608 to speak to a counselor.

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