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Straight Talk About Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a chronic disease in which your body becomes dependent on alcohol. When you have alcoholism, you lose control over your drinking. You may not be able to control when you drink, how much you drink, or how long you drink on each occasion. If you have alcoholism, you continue to drink even though you know it's causing problems with your relationships, health, work or finances.

It's possible to have a problem with alcohol but not have all the symptoms of alcoholism. This is known as "alcohol abuse," which means you drink too much and it causes problems in your life although you aren't completely dependent on alcohol. If you have alcoholism or you abuse alcohol, you may not be able to cut back or quit without help. A number of approaches are available to help you recover from alcoholism, including medications, counseling and self-help groups. Alcohol symptoms include:

  • Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Feeling a strong need or compulsion to drink
  • Developing tolerance to alcohol so that you need an increasing amounts to feel its effects
  • Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances due to drinking
  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — such as nausea, sweating and shaking — when you don't drink
  • Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as "blacking out"
  • Making a ritual of having drinks at certain times and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring you pleasure
  • Irritability when your usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol isn't available
  • Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in your car
  • Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good or drinking to feel "normal"

People who abuse alcohol may have many of the same signs and symptoms as people who have full-blown alcoholism. However, if you abuse alcohol but aren't completely addicted to it, you may not feel as much of a compulsion to drink. You may not have physical withdrawal symptoms when you don't drink. But alcohol abuse can still cause serious problems. As with alcoholism, you may not be able to quit drinking without help.

If you've ever wondered whether your drinking crosses the line into alcohol abuse or dependence, ask yourself these questions

  • If you're a man, do you ever have five or more drinks in a day? (One standard drink is equivalent to 12 ounces (354.9 milliliters) of beer, 5 ounces (147.9 milliliters) of wine or 1.5 ounces (44.4 milliliters) of 80-proof spirits.)

  • If you're a woman, do you ever have four or more drinks in a day?

  • Do you need a drink as soon as you get up?

  • 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 don't have control over your drinking, talk with your doctor. See your doctor even if you don't think you have alcoholism, but you're concerned that you might be drinking too much or that alcohol may be 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 a frequent characteristic of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, you may not feel like you need treatment. 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.

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