Skip Navigation Bar
NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Feature:
Alcohol Use and Abuse

Alcohol Use Disorders

NIAAA guidelines for low-risk drinking diagram

NIAAA guidelines for low-risk drinking for alcohol use disorders call for men to drink no more than four drinks in a day and no more than 14 drinks per week. For women, the guidelines are three or fewer drinks per day and no more than seven drinks per week. Click for larger view.
Illustration: KramesStaywell

Alcohol use disorders are medical conditions. Doctors diagnose them when a patient's drinking causes distress or harm. In the United States, about 18 million people have an alcohol use disorder. The disorders are classified as either alcohol dependence (alcoholism) or alcohol abuse.

Alcoholism, the more serious of the disorders, is a disease that includes symptoms such as:

  • Craving—A strong need, or urge, to drink.
  • Loss of control—Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun.
  • Physical dependence—Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety after stopping drinking.
  • Tolerance—The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effect.

People who are alcoholic often will spend a great deal of their time drinking, making sure they can get alcohol, and recovering from alcohol's effects, often at the expense of other activities and responsibilities.

Although people who abuse alcohol are not physically dependent, they still have a serious disorder. They may not fulfill responsibilities at home, work, or school because of their drinking. They may also put themselves in dangerous situations (like driving under the influence) or have legal or social problems (such as arrests or arguments with family members) due to their drinking.

Like many other diseases, alcoholism is usually considered chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime. However, we continue to learn more and more about alcohol abuse and alcoholism, and what we're learning is changing our perceptions of the disease.

For instance, data from NIAAA's National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions has shown that more than 70 percent of people who develop alcohol dependence have a single episode that lasts on average 3 or 4 years. Data from the same survey also show that many people who seek formal treatment are able to remain alcohol free, and many others recover without formal treatment.

However severe the problem may or may not seem, many people with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from treatment. Treatment options include prescription medications, behavioral therapy, and social support. Talk with your doctor to determine the best course of action for you, or see www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/ToolsResources/Resources.asp#Pro for resources.

Fast Facts

  • Alcohol dependence and problem use is one of the 10 leading causes of death and disability worldwide.
  • Alcohol problems cost the nation an estimated $235 billion annually.
  • One in four children grows up in a household where alcohol is a problem.
  • Approximately 18 million people in the U.S. suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence.
  • Individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) who enter treatment are four times more likely to stop drinking. But less than one quarter of those with AUDs actually receives treatment or participates in mutual or self-help groups.
  • Excessive and/or chronic alcohol use may result in medical conditions such as liver and heart disease, pancreatitis, short and/or long-term harm to the brain, and esophageal and liver cancer.
  • Alcohol is the substance of choice among adolescents and is used by far more young people than tobacco or marijuana; early alcohol use is associated with future alcohol dependence.
Read More "Alcohol Disorder" Articles

Understanding Alcohol Use Across Your Lifespan / Use and Abuse / Research Findings / Tips To Reduce Consumption

Winter 2013 Issue: Volume 7 Number 4 Page 23