Most Americans can't go a whole day without viewing a beer ad on the television, passing the neon signs of a bar, or glimpsing a billboard promoting the newest brand of vodka. Alcohol permeates American culture, and it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

However, for people with alcohol dependency issues, these common sights may hold a different meaning. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 17.6 million adults in the United States are alcoholics or have alcohol problems. Alcoholism can lead someone to allow drinking to affect work, relationships, and overall health. Here, a guide to alcoholism and what you can do if it affects you and your loved ones.

Symptoms of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

Though the symptoms of alcohol dependency may vary from person to person, some are very common. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) defines an alcohol abuser as someone who allows drinking to interfere with work, home, or school situations, suffers from drinking-related legal problems, or allows alcohol to impede on his or her social life. An alcoholic, according to JAMA, will experience the same issues as the abuser; however, the alcoholic has complete mental, emotional, and physical alcohol dependence. Both alcoholics and alcohol abusers will undergo the following symptoms; however, alcohol intake and withdrawal are more severe in alcoholics. Here, the symptoms of alcoholism as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Commonly, an alcoholic will:

  • Drink alone or in secret;
  • Not be able to limit alcohol consumption;
  • Black out or not be able to remember conversations and events;
  • Take part in ritualistic drinking-drinking before, during, or after a specific time, such as meals or after work;
  • Lose interest in activities and hobbies that used to be pleasurable;
  • Feel a need or compulsion to drink;
  • Become irritable when alcohol isn't available;
  • Become intoxicated intentionally to feel "good" or "normal";
  • Have an unusually high tolerance, which results in increased consumption;
  • Undergo withdrawal symptoms-nausea, sweating and shaking-if he or she doesn't drink.


The cause of alcoholism has been extensively studied, but researchers haven't pinpointed a specific cause. Studies have found that there are a number of possible reasons that could contribute to having a disposition toward alcoholism, including genetic, socio-cultural, emotional, and historic factors.

  • Genetics.
  • Although heavy drinking is largely a behavioral act, studies suggest that some people are genetically pre-disposed to high amounts of consumption. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, children of alcoholics are up to four times more likely to develop the disease. However, a genetic disposition doesn't mean a person will definitely abuse alcohol, simply that they may be more inclined to do so.

  • Socio-economic factors.
  • There is no evidence that shows that alcoholism is restricted to any one level of society. In fact, a 1996 study found that the difference in rates of alcoholism between those on welfare and the general population was only 7 percent. What has been found, however, is a higher rate of alcohol-related deaths with those in lower socio-economic groups. A Finnish study found that deaths due to alcohol increased 3.5 to 4.5 times among men in the lowest socioeconomic groups, compared with men in the highest socioeconomic bracket. Among women, it increased two to three times.

  • Emotional factors.
  • Stress derived from work, money issues, family, and friends, combined with anxiety or emotional pain can lead some people to drink alcohol to block out the turmoil. Though there is no physical link between increased stress and alcohol consumption, some researchers have found that high levels of stress may influence drinking when substitutive resources are not available, when alcohol is easily accessed, and, most importantly, when the individual believes that alcohol will help to reduce the stress.

  • Previous alcohol-related problems.
  • Having a previous problem with alcohol abuse can make you more prone to continued abuse. A recent study found that alcoholics who attempted to abstain relapsed due to severe stress. In this study, it was found that severe anxiety increased the likelihood of relapse in alcoholic males due to the belief that alcohol would reduce their stress.

Treatment and Prevention for Alcoholism

The adage holds true--the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. As many as 30 percent of Americans will have a drinking problem at some point in their lives, but many are reluctant to admit it. Treatment can involve personal evaluations, family interventions, counseling, or residential inpatient stay.

Abstaining from alcohol is crucial to a full recovery from alcohol dependency. Here, some tips on how to learn to live without alcohol.

  • Stay away.
  • To avoid old habits, it is important to steer clear of people and places that rekindle memories of drinking--even if it means losing some friends.

  • Join.
  • A self-help group can be a wonderful tool to assist in your recuperation. Often these groups offer support by others that went or are going through the same process you are. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide the emotional and psychological support necessary to aid in your recovery. Al-Anon and Alateen maybe beneficial for family members of alcoholics.

  • Rely.
  • Enlist your family or friends to assist you. It may be only to talk or to help you get away from old habits.

  • Exercise.
  • By taking up a new hobby, like exercising, you can replace the time you formerly spent drinking doing something productive. What's more, studies have shown that exercise helps release chemicals in the brain that can provide a natural positive feeling.

  • Know your limits.
  • Knowing when you need professional assistance can mean the difference between a full recovery and a relapse. Pay attention to your body and your needs. If abstaining from alcohol makes you feel helpless, it's acceptable to enlist the help of a counselor or an alcohol-recovery program.