Alcoholism is a complex disease that causes great damage to people who are affected. It’s caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and personal factors.

Alcoholism is a chronic and debilitating disease of the mind and body caused by a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. Around 14.4 million adult Americans aged 18 and older had an alcohol use disorder in 2018, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is characterized by someone continuing to drink even when it harms themselves, their health, their friendships, their job and other aspects of their life. Alcoholism is caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, environment, upbringing and the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders. While the factors that determine someone’s likelihood of becoming an alcoholic are complex and can only be interpreted by a clinician, the symptoms are much easier to spot. If someone is concerned about their or a loved one’s alcohol use, they can look for some straightforward signs and symptoms.

Symptoms of Alcohol Dependence

Alcoholism has a defined set of symptoms according to the DSM-V. The eleven symptoms that identify alcohol dependence include:

  • Drinking more alcohol than intended or for longer amounts of time than intended
  • Wanting to stop drinking but being unable to
  • Spending a majority of time getting or drinking alcohol, or recovering from hangovers
  • Having cravings to drink
  • Failing obligations at work, home or school because of alcohol use
  • Drinking even when it causes problems with friends, family and other relationships
  • Giving up normal hobbies and activities to drink instead
  • Drinking even when it puts one in physical danger or is harming one’s health
  • Continuing to drink even if it makes a mental health diagnosis worse, like depression or anxiety
  • Having to drink more and more alcohol to get the same effect (tolerance)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, like sweating, nightmares, or seizures

If you or someone you know is experiencing two or more of the above symptoms, it may signify the presence of alcoholism.

The Causes of Alcoholism

Ever wonder what causes alcoholism? Alcoholism has no one single cause. It is a detailed combination of genetic factors and environmental cues.

Researchers know that alcoholism has a genetic component, but it cannot be traced to a single gene. There seem to be several genes, and both their presence and how these genes interact with each other in the body helps determine whether alcoholism will develop. A known example of genetic risk is that having alcoholic parents makes a person four times more likely to develop the diagnosis, per the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Upbringing contributes via involvement with peers as well, and the age at which a person begins drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that individuals who first use alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to suffer from alcohol dependence. Also, parents who downplay the alcohol use contribute to the normalization of alcohol abuse and the development of the disease.

Mental health plays a significant role in all forms of substance abuse. About half of people with a mental health condition will also have a substance use disorder in their lifetime. Among adolescents with serious mental health conditions, more than 60% also use substances and can have a substance use disorder like alcoholism.

Using alcohol to treat mental health symptoms is a significant risk factor for the development of alcoholism. People with a mental illness often self-medicate with alcohol to cover up the symptoms of their disorder. When people with mental health conditions self-medicate with alcohol, it lengthens the time before their mental illness is caught and treated by professionals.

Many times people hide the underlying cause of alcoholism — whether intentionally or not — with explanations for their behavior. Learning to spot these explanations can help a person recognize symptoms of alcoholism.

Denying That a Problem Exists

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health states about 180 million people aged 12 or older reported past-year drinking in 2018. Many individuals drink more than is recommended and may be abusing alcohol. Examples of alcohol abusers may include the college student who binges on the weekends, the attorney who meets their office employees at the bar after work or the mother of two who drinks three or four glasses of wine to unwind in the evening. Alcoholism is not always easy to spot.

Some alcoholics may spend many years in denial of the problem. Denial is especially prevalent in the functional alcoholic because they’re holding down a job, keeping their family together and meeting their social obligations. Society has long perpetuated the idea that alcoholics must fit a stereotype where they hit rock bottom — losing everything that ever meant anything to them. The functional alcoholic often uses this stereotype to their advantage and hides behind it as an excuse to keep drinking.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

In 2018, about 2.3 million people sought professional treatment for their alcohol dependence problem. About 1.2 million of those people sought treatment for both alcohol and illicit drug abuse, or 51% of those needing alcohol treatment.

Since alcohol is so prevalent in our society, people often take it for granted and assume it isn’t as dangerous as other substances. Detox from alcohol can have life-threatening side effects like delirium tremens, so professionals should be there to oversee the process.

Withdrawing from alcohol is usually not a pleasant experience. Common withdrawal symptoms include nausea, trembling, depression, headaches and excessive sweating. While many people experience withdrawal by themselves at home, it may be safer to seek the help of medical professionals with years of experience treating these types of issues.

Clinicians may prescribe medications to lessen the severity of alcohol withdrawal and make the experience safer and more comfortable. Some examples include benzodiazepines, which can manage tremors and anxiety, and anticonvulsants, which help to prevent alcohol-withdrawal seizures.

Medical detox followed by alcohol rehab treatment will strengthen one’s resistance to triggers as they move forward into a sober life. Contacting The Recovery Village can help you leave alcohol behind and take back control of your life.

Melissa Carmona
Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
Conor Sheehy
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Alcohol Use in Families.”, May 2019. Accessed May 12, 2020.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2020.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Underage Drinking: Why Do Adolescents Dr[…]inking Be Prevented?” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. January 2006. Accessed May 12, 2020.

Kelly, Thomas; Daley, Dennis. “Integrated Treatment of Substance Use an[…]ychiatric Disorders.” Social Work in Public Health. 2013. Accessed May 12, 2020.

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol Withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” US National Library of Medicine, April 9, 2020. Accessed May 12, 2020.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2018. “Results from the 2018 National Survey on[…]th: Detailed Tables.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 2018. Accessed May 12, 2020.

World Health Organization. “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018.” Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, 2018. Accessed May 12, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.