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Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking. If you have alcoholism, you can't consistently predict how much you'll drink, how long you'll drink, or what consequences will occur from your drinking.

It's possible to have a problem with alcohol, even when it has not progressed to the point of alcoholism. Problem drinking means you drink too much at times, causing repeated problems in your life, although you're not completely dependent on alcohol.

Binge drinking — a pattern of drinking where a male consumes five or more drinks in a row, or a female downs at least four drinks in a row — can lead to the same health risks and social problems associated with alcoholism. The more you drink, the greater the risks. Binge drinking, which often occurs with teenagers and young adults, may lead to faster development of alcoholism.

If you have alcoholism or you have a problem with alcohol, you may not be able to cut back or quit without help. Denying that you have a problem is usually part of alcoholism and other types of excessive drinking.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Alcoholism signs and symptoms include those below. You may:

  • Be unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Feel a strong need or compulsion to drink
  • Develop tolerance to alcohol so that you need more to feel its effects
  • Drink alone or hide your drinking
  • Experience physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don't drink
  • Not remember conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as a "black out"
  • Make a ritual of having drinks at certain times and become annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
  • Be irritable when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn't available
  • Keep alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in your car
  • Gulp drinks, order doubles or become drunk intentionally to feel good, or drink to feel "normal"
  • Have legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances due to drinking
  • Lose interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring you pleasure

If you binge drink or have other problems with alcohol, you may have many of the signs and symptoms above, although you may not feel as much of a compulsion to drink compared with someone who has alcoholism. Also, you may not have physical withdrawal symptoms when you don't drink. But this pattern of drinking can still cause serious problems and lead to alcoholism. As with alcoholism, you may not be able to quit problem drinking without help.

What is considered one drink?

One standard drink is:

  • 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 ounces (237 to 266 milliliters) of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)

What about my drinking?

If you've ever wondered whether your drinking crosses the line into problem drinking or alcoholism, ask yourself these questions:

  • If you're a man, do you ever have five or more drinks in a day?
  • If you're a woman, do you ever have four or more drinks in a day?
  • Do you ever need a drink to get you started in the morning?
  • Do you feel guilty about your drinking?
  • Do you think you need to cut back on how much you drink?
  • Are you annoyed when other people comment on or criticize your drinking habits?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you may have a problem with alcohol.

When to see a doctor

If you feel that you sometimes drink too much or your family is concerned about your drinking, talk with your doctor. See your doctor even if you don't think you have alcoholism, but you're concerned about your drinking or it's causing problems in your life. Other ways to get help include talking with a mental health provider or seeking help from a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Because denial is common, you may not feel like you have a problem with drinking or that you need help to stop. You might not recognize how much you drink or how many problems in your life are related to alcohol use. Listen to family members, friends or co-workers when they ask you to examine your drinking habits or to seek help.

Alcoholism is influenced by genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors that have an impact on how it affects your body and behavior.

The process of becoming addicted to alcohol occurs gradually, although some people have an abnormal response to alcohol from the time they start drinking. Over time, drinking too much may change the normal balance of chemicals and nerve tracks in your brain associated with the experience of pleasure, judgment and the ability to exercise control over your behavior. This may result in your craving alcohol to restore good feelings or remove negative ones.

Risk factors for alcoholism include:

  • Steady drinking over time. Drinking too much on a regular basis for an extended period or binge drinking on a regular basis can produce a physical dependence on alcohol.
  • Age. People who begin drinking at an early age are at a higher risk of problem drinking or physical dependence on alcohol.
  • Family history. The risk of alcoholism is higher for people who have a parent or other close relatives who have problems with alcohol.
  • Depression and other mental health problems. It's common for people with a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder to have problems with alcohol or other substances.
  • Social and cultural factors. Having friends or a close partner who drinks regularly could increase your risk of alcoholism. The glamorous way that drinking is sometimes portrayed in the media also may send the message that it's OK to drink too much.
  • Mixing medication and alcohol. Some medications interact with alcohol, increasing its toxic effects. Drinking while taking these medications can either increase or decrease their effectiveness, or even make them dangerous.

Alcohol depresses your central nervous system. In some people, the initial reaction may be stimulation. But as you continue to drink, you become sedated. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and affects your thoughts, emotions and judgment.

Too much alcohol affects your speech, muscle coordination and vital centers of your brain. A heavy drinking binge may even cause a life-threatening coma or death.

If you have problems with alcohol, you're more likely to also have problems with other substances.

Excessive drinking can reduce your judgment skills and lower inhibitions, leading to poor choices and dangerous situations or behaviors, such as:

  • Motor vehicle accidents and other types of accidents
  • Domestic problems
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Increased likelihood of committing violent crimes

Health problems caused by excessive drinking can include:

  • Liver disease. Heavy drinking can cause alcoholic hepatitis — an inflammation of the liver. After years of heavy drinking, hepatitis may lead to irreversible destruction and scarring of liver tissue (cirrhosis).
  • Digestive problems. Heavy drinking can result in inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), as well as stomach and esophageal ulcers. It also can interfere with absorption of B vitamins and other nutrients. Heavy drinking can damage your pancreas — which produces hormones that regulate your metabolism and enzymes that help digestion — and lead to inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
  • Heart problems. Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure and increases your risk of an enlarged heart, heart failure or stroke.
  • Diabetes complications. Alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from your liver and can increase the risk of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is dangerous if you have diabetes and are already taking insulin to lower your blood sugar level.
  • Sexual function and menstruation. Excessive drinking can cause erectile dysfunction in men. In women, it can interrupt menstruation.
  • Eye problems. Over time, heavy drinking can cause involuntary rapid eye movement (nystagmus) as well as weakness and paralysis of your eye muscles due to a deficiency of vitamin B-1 (thiamine).
  • Birth defects. Alcohol use during pregnancy may cause fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting in giving birth to a child who has physical and developmental problems that last a lifetime.
  • Bone loss. Alcohol may interfere with the production of new bone. This can lead to thinning bones (osteoporosis) and an increased risk of fractures.
  • Neurological complications. Excessive drinking can affect your nervous system, causing numbness and pain in your hands and feet, disordered thinking, dementia and short-term memory loss.
  • Weakened immune system. Excessive alcohol use can make it harder for your body to resist disease, making you more susceptible to illnesses.
  • Increased risk of cancer. Long-term excessive alcohol use has been linked to a higher risk of many cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast cancer. Even moderate drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol use leads to serious consequences for many teens and young adults. In this age group:

  • Alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents are a major cause of deaths.
  • Alcohol is often a cause in other deaths, including drowning, suicides and homicides.
  • Drinking makes it more likely they'll become sexually active, have sex more frequently, engage in risky, unprotected sex, and become victims of sexual abuse or date rape compared with those who don't drink.
  • Alcohol use can lead to accidental injury, assault and property damage.

Early intervention can prevent alcoholism in teens. For young people, the likelihood of addiction depends on the influence of parents, peers and other role models; how much they're influenced by advertising of alcohol; how early in life they begin to use alcohol; the psychological need for alcohol; and genetic factors that may increase their risk of addiction.

If you have a teenager, be alert to signs and symptoms that may indicate a problem with alcohol:

  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies and in personal appearance
  • Bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, problems with coordination and memory lapses
  • Difficulties or changes in relationships with friends, such as joining a new crowd
  • Declining grades and problems in school
  • Frequent mood changes and defensive behavior

You can help prevent teenage alcohol use. Start by setting a good example with your own alcohol use. Talk openly with your child, spend quality time together, and become actively involved in your child's life. Let your child know what behavior you expect — and what the consequences will be if he or she doesn't follow the rules.

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