Alcoholism is a chronic disease that gets worse over time. Like many chronic diseases, it can be diagnosed and treated but not cured, and it carries a risk of relapse.
One underlying question many people have about addiction is, “Why is it considered a chronic disease?” More specifically, “Is alcoholism a disease?” Alcoholism and other drug addictions have many things in common with other chronic diseases. This article reviews the components and parallels between alcoholism and other chronic diseases.
What Is a Chronic Disease?
To compare alcoholism to chronic diseases, it can be helpful to understand the medical definition of chronic disease. Chronic disease is classified as one that lasts three months or more and has other common features, including:
- Vaccines cannot prevent them.
- They cannot be cured by medicine.
- They do not just “go away.”
According to the CDC, six out of ten Americans have at least one chronic disease. Some behaviors contribute to chronic diseases, including using tobacco, not being physically active and having poor eating habits. Some of the most common chronic diseases include arthritis, cardiovascular disease, breast and colon cancer, obesity and oral issues.
Chronic diseases are the top cause of disability and death in the U.S. and the leading contributor to the nation’s $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs. While no cure may exist, many chronic conditions can be managed or treated with lifestyle changes or certain medicines. While medications can treat the symptoms of many chronic conditions, these drugs often have their own side effects and may also interact with one another.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism, also called alcohol use disorder, is using alcohol in excessive amounts and being unable to control one’s use of alcohol. Someone who has an alcohol use disorder isn’t able to manage their drinking. Alcohol use disorder may be characterized as mild, moderate or severe, and every category has its own symptoms and side effects.
Alcohol use disorder was previously broken into two categories by the medical community: abuse and dependence. It’s now measured on a spectrum. Depending on the number of criteria a person meets, they can be diagnosed as having a mild to severe alcohol use disorder. Some of the alcoholic diagnosis criteria include having a craving to use alcohol, drinking more than intended or continuing to use alcohol despite problems in relationships. Research shows that alcohol use disorder often co-occurs with other mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder and major depression.
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are serious problems in the U.S. In 2019, 14.5 million adults had alcohol use disorder, with only 7.9% receiving treatment. Another 401,000 teens aged 12 to 17 had an alcohol use disorder.
Alcoholism is a problem on a personal, familial and societal level. Alcoholism diminishes the health of the addicted person, damaging the liver, brain and heart and leading to disease and, ultimately, death. Addicted individuals are also at a higher risk of sustaining injuries, hurting someone else or having relationship issues or financial problems that impact their loved ones, especially children. Alcoholism’s impact on society includes drunk driving deaths and injuries, high healthcare costs and losses in productivity.
What Causes Alcoholism?
There is no single cause of an alcohol use disorder. Instead, it is a combination of factors that increases a person’s risk for addiction. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following risk factors contribute to alcohol use disorder:
- Drinking prior to age 15
- Genetics and family history
- Mental health disorders and history of trauma
- Heavy alcohol use and binge drinking
In many cases, it is a combination of genetics and environmental risk factors, such as stress or trauma, that leads to the development of an alcohol use disorder. People who begin drinking early in life (prior to age 15) are more likely to become addicted than people who wait until age 21 to drink.
When Alcoholism Becomes a Disease
It can be difficult to determine when alcohol use becomes alcoholism, but in the simplest terms, it’s often when a person loses control over their use of alcohol. You may start drinking casually and then more heavily. This could constitute an abuse problem but not necessarily the disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism typically becomes a disease when:
- You try to stop and can’t.
- You continue despite sometimes extremely adverse outcomes.
- You have a physical dependence on alcohol and experience withdrawal if you try to stop.
Medical providers can diagnose when alcoholism becomes a disease using sets of criteria established by experts to describe the signs and symptoms of alcoholism.
So, Why Is Alcoholism Considered a Chronic Disease?
Alcoholism is considered a chronic disease for several reasons. It has some elements of heritability, meaning there are genetic components that can run in families. Environmental factors are also part of the equation. Consider diabetes, another chronic disease. Whether or not you develop diabetes is based on a combination of your family’s genes and your personal lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise. Alcoholism is similar. You may be genetically more predisposed to developing alcoholism if you have a family member or ancestor who had an alcohol addiction. Growing up in an environment where alcohol is prevalent contributes to this risk. The environmental risk factors and genetics work together and determine the course of the disease.
Like other chronic diseases, alcoholism can be identified and diagnosed based on certain symptoms and can be managed with professional treatment. Treatment options often include a combination of medications, therapy and cognitive behavioral treatment in inpatient and outpatient settings.
When alcoholism and other chronic diseases aren’t being properly treated and managed, relapse is possible. While you can’t necessarily cure diabetes, you can keep it under control with medications and lifestyle choices like exercise and a healthy diet. If you stopped doing these things, your diabetes would be out of control, and there would be adverse consequences.
Alcoholism similarly has no cure and carries a risk of relapse. However, if you participate in an alcohol rehab program or a group like AA, make lifestyle changes and potentially take certain medicines, you can keep it under control. Otherwise, you’re putting yourself at risk of relapse. Alcoholism’s progressive nature is another reason it’s considered a chronic disease. Alcoholism moves through stages, and certain symptoms and behaviors mark each stage. For example, during early-stage alcoholism, the person is usually drinking larger amounts and becoming more secretive or elusive about what they’re doing. As alcoholism progresses, behaviors become more out of control and more health symptoms begin to appear.
How To Overcome Alcoholism
Since alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease, people often require treatment to overcome it. If you live with an alcohol addiction, there is support available. There is not one single treatment approach that works best for everyone, so it is important to reach out to a treatment center to discuss options and develop a plan that works best for you.
Some people may need to enroll in an inpatient treatment program, meaning they live onsite at a treatment center. Others may be able to find success with outpatient care, which allows them to continue to live at home and go to work while in treatment. Regardless of the specific treatment location, alcohol use disorder is often treated with a combination of medication, which can alleviate cravings, and counseling, which can teach people the tools for coping with stress and overcoming triggers for drinking. Attending support group meetings like AA can also be beneficial for staying committed to recovery.
How To Help Someone With Alcoholism
If you’re looking to help someone with alcohol addiction, there are steps you can take to offer support. Consider the strategies below:
- Learn about alcohol use disorder, so you can understand what your loved one is facing.
- Do not blame or pass judgment when speaking with them; instead, come from a place of care and concern.
- Give specific examples of behavior that concerns you, rather than making vague statements such as, “You’re addicted!”
- Offer to support them in their recovery by providing resources or helping them to get into treatment.
- Avoid enabling them by giving them money or covering up for their mistakes.
- Understand that drinking around them places them at risk of relapse, so it’s respectful if you refrain from drinking or serving alcohol in their presence.
Chronic Alcoholism Is a Disease That Requires a Treatment Plan
Alcoholism is considered a chronic disease with a long-term course, so treatment must mirror this concept. The best treatment plans are typically long term and evolve over time to continue addressing the changing needs of the individual as they move through the steps of recovery.
If you’re looking for treatment for an alcohol use disorder, The Recovery Village is here to help. We have locations around the country, and we offer multiple levels of care, ranging from inpatient treatment to outpatient services. Call us today to begin the admissions process.
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