Alcoholism, chronic disease marked by a craving for alcohol. People who suffer from this illness are known as alcoholics. They cannot control their drinking even when it becomes the underlying cause of serious harm, including medical disorders, marital difficulties, job loss, or automobile crashes. Medical science has yet to identify the exact cause of alcoholism, but research suggests that genetic, psychological, and social factors influence its development. Alcoholism cannot be cured yet, but various treatment options can help an alcoholic avoid drinking and regain a healthy life.
People tend to equate any kind of excessive drinking with alcoholism. But doctors and scientists recognize that disorders related to alcohol use lie along a continuum of severity. They prefer to use the term alcohol dependence instead of alcoholism to designate the most severe of the alcohol-use disorders. The terms alcohol abuse and problem drinking designate less severe disorders resulting from immoderate drinking.
Alcohol dependence develops differently in each individual. But certain symptoms characterize the illness, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a United States government agency that is part of the NIH. Alcoholics develop a craving, or a strong urge, to drink despite awareness that drinking is creating problems in their lives. They suffer from impaired control, an inability to stop drinking once they have begun. Alcoholics also become physically dependent on alcohol. When they stop drinking after a period of heavy alcohol use, they suffer unpleasant physical ailments, known as withdrawal symptoms, that include nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety. Alcoholics develop a greater tolerance for alcohol—that is, they need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to reach intoxication. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that other behaviors common in people who are alcohol dependent include seeking out opportunities to drink alcoholic beverages—often to the exclusion of other activities—and rapidly returning to established drinking patterns following periods of abstinence.