Why is Alcoholism Considered a Chronic Disease?


Published On: December 13, 2023

No one chooses to become addicted to alcohol.

Alcoholism is considered to be a chronic disease characterised by frequent relapses, ongoing progression if left untreated and a potential genetic predisposition.

In this article, we will discuss the disease model of addiction, how chronic disease is defined and whether it is possible to fully recover from alcohol addiction.

What is Alcoholism?

Four glasses of pale and dark cider in a tasting platter

Alcoholism is more commonly known as alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol addiction.

It is a chronic disease in which the affected person compulsively drinks alcohol even when it negatively affects their life. [1]

They will find it difficult to control their behaviour around alcohol and may wish to stop drinking but be unable to cut down or quit entirely.

Alcohol addiction can affect every aspect of your life – your mental and physical health, your relationships with friends and family, your career, your finances and even your freedom if you are convicted of an alcohol-related crime.

What is a Chronic Disease?

Internal organs on a dummy

Before discussing the reasons why alcoholism is considered a chronic disease, it’s important to understand exactly what a chronic disease is.

The agreed definition of a chronic disease is a condition that has been ongoing for at least one year, limits your daily activities and/or requires regular medical attention. [2]

Some of the more well-known chronic diseases include:

Many chronic diseases have no cure and can only be controlled through lifestyle choices, medication and/or regular medical intervention. They may also get worse over time, particularly if left untreated.

Why is Alcoholism Considered a Chronic Disease?

relapse

As alcoholism meets the above conditions, it is therefore considered a chronic disease.

Another key reason that alcohol addiction is considered a chronic disease is that it is thought to be a hereditary condition.

Some studies have found that certain genes can be passed down through generations of family members, making them more predisposed to developing an addiction.

This is through no fault of their own – it is deeply ingrained in their genetic makeup.

The Disease Model of Alcohol Addiction

The disease model of addiction looks at all aspects of alcoholism such as the physical changes that are made in the brain, specific genes that can predispose addiction, each person’s physiology and the environment in which they were raised. [3]

This theory views alcohol addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease.

Is Alcoholism Progressive?

pain

When a disease is progressive, it will slowly worsen over time.

This progression can refer to the physical growth and spread of the disease as in the case of cancer, or worsening in severity as in the case of alcoholism.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It may start small and gradually increase, eventually taking over every aspect of your life.

The more you drink, the more tolerance your body will build towards this substance. This means that you will need to drink larger amounts to achieve the same effect, thus progressing the disease.

If the consequences of your behaviour around alcohol remained the same, there may be little to no incentive to change. Suffering through a day or two with a hangover may seem a small price to pay for the supposed ‘benefits’ of escaping through alcohol.

In reality, as the addiction grows so too do the consequences. In the most severe cases, you could lose your life.

Is Calling Alcoholism a Disease just an Excuse?

Two glasses of whisky being poured

Some people believe that alcohol addiction should not be classified as a disease, arguing that drinking alcohol is a personal choice.

After all, if you never drink alcohol, how can you become an alcoholic?

There are many flaws in this argument, namely the fact that while alcohol addiction is preventable this does not necessarily mean that it is not a disease.

If you never expose your skin to the sun, you are far less likely to develop skin cancer. If you never smoke a cigarette, you are far less likely to develop lung cancer.

Even though these two conditions are preventable, they are still classified as diseases. So why should alcohol addiction be any different?

Alcoholism is not an excuse to justify unhealthy behaviours around alcohol. It is not a reason to drink as much alcohol as you want.

It is a physical and psychological disease that may be rooted in genetics, trauma, and mental health.

What are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?

Table of smiling people clinking alcoholic beverages

In some cases, it may be quite obvious that you or someone you know has developed a problem with alcohol.

But often it can be more difficult to spot. Many people keep their drinking behaviours a secret, but over time you may begin to notice the signs as the addiction progresses.

1. Physical symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Appearing dishevelled, unkempt and poorly groomed
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol and needing to drink more
  • Frequently being intoxicated
  • Suffering from regular headaches
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Feeling fatigued and exhausted
  • Excessive sweating even without physical activity

2. Psychological symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Having cravings for alcohol when you are not able to drink
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you are not able to sleep
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Having trouble concentrating and focusing on tasks
  • Memory loss, including blackouts after drinking alcohol
  • Depression, anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts

3. Behavioural symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Trying to stop drinking alcohol but being unable to
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol regularly
  • Arguing with concerned friends and family about alcohol
  • Withdrawing from others and spending more time alone
  • Drinking alcohol at unnecessary and unusual times
  • Using alcohol to cope with stress or negative emotions
  • Prioritising alcohol over hobbies, activities and responsibilities
  • Being unable to imagine life without alcohol

Receiving an official diagnosis for your alcohol addiction can help you to receive the help and support that you need.

We will discuss the various ways that alcoholism is diagnosed and treated further in this article.

What Causes Alcoholism?

woman drinking 2

There is no one cause of alcohol addiction, and it is often a series of factors that combine to create the perfect breeding ground for an addiction to develop.

It’s important to remember that having an addiction is not your fault. It’s not a personal choice you made or something you did wrong.

Below are some of the factors that are thought to play a role in the development of alcohol addiction.

1. Experiencing a traumatic event

Someone who has experienced a traumatic event such as a sexual assault, death of a loved one, terrorist attack or childhood trauma is more susceptible to developing an addiction.

They may use alcohol to numb the memories and feelings associated with the event, and over time may find it difficult to cope without this substance.

Childhood trauma can also physically change the brain, making you more likely to become addicted to alcohol.

2. Genetics and family history

Studies have found a link between family members with addiction, suggesting that genetics may play a role in the development of alcohol use disorder.

If a family member who is related to you by blood has an alcohol addiction, you are more likely to develop one too.

More research is needed to determine exactly why this is, but it is thought that certain genes are passed down through generations which can make you more susceptible to developing an addiction.

3. Childhood

If you were exposed to alcohol use from a young age and grew up in an environment where drinking heavily was normalised or even encouraged, you are more likely to mimic these behaviours as a teenager or adult.

You will have never experienced any other way of living, so these behaviours will seem normal to you.

Drinking alcohol from a young age while your brain is still developing can also make you more likely to develop an addiction, due to the physical changes that this substance can make to your brain.

4. Physical and mental health problems

Some people may use alcohol as a way to cope with the symptoms of a physical or mental health problem.

As it can have a relaxing effect, people with anxiety may develop a routine of having a drink when they need to calm down. This can easily spiral into an addiction if the underlying problem is not addressed.

Similarly, someone with a physical health condition that makes it more difficult to leave the house may begin drinking alcohol to stave off boredom. As this substance is so addictive, they may become dependent on it over time.

How is Alcoholism Diagnosed?

Diagnosis

A professional diagnosis can be extremely helpful in allowing you to access the support that you need to recover from alcohol addiction, including financial assistance.

Speak to your doctor if you are concerned that you may have an addiction – they will be able to use a variety of tools to assess you and provide a diagnosis.

Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT)

Your doctor may use the AUDIT to diagnose you with an alcohol addiction.

AUDIT stands for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test and is a series of questions that can help to determine whether you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Each of your answers will be scored between 0 and 4, and if you score 20 or more points then you will likely be diagnosed with an alcohol addiction.

You can find the full list of AUDIT questions here. [4]`

CAGE Questionnaire

A simple way for a doctor to diagnose you with alcohol addiction is through the <strong>;CAGE questionnaire.</strong

This short questionnaire is simple enough for you to use at home, but it is not recommended that you self-diagnose.

CAGE stands for Cut, Annoy, Guilty and Eye. Your doctor will ask you the following questions, assigning points for every answer.

  • Do you ever feel that you should cut down on your alcohol use?
  • Do you ever feel annoyed at other people for commenting on your alcohol use?
  • Do you ever feel guilty about your alcohol use?
  • Do you ever use alcohol as soon as you open your eyes in the morning?

If you score two or more points, you are likely to have some form of alcohol addiction.

DSM’s 11 Criteria of Addiction

Another way that your doctor can diagnose you with alcohol addiction is by using the <strong>;DSM’s 11 criteria of addiction.</strong

The <strong>;Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) contains a list of specific criteria that must be met for a professional diagnosis to be obtained.</strong

It includes developing a tolerance, experiencing withdrawal symptoms and being unable to stop drinking alcohol even when you want to.

You can find the full list of the DSM’s 11 criteria of addiction here. [5]

Is it Possible to Recover from Alcoholism?

Talking therapy

While alcohol addiction has the potential to destroy your life and affect your relationships, finances, employment and health, it is possible to recover from this disease.

The sooner you get help the better, but many people recover after years or even decades of alcoholism.

No matter how much you drink or how long you have been drinking, the best place for you is at a rehab clinic that specialises in treating alcohol addiction.

This may be as an inpatient or an outpatient depending on what your medical team decides.

You can be referred to a rehab clinic by your doctor after receiving an official diagnosis, or you can self-refer by getting in touch with your preferred clinic.

Over 130,000 people in the UK entered drug and alcohol treatment between 2020 and 2021, and many of them will go on to live happy and healthy lives free from addiction.

How can I Overcome Alcoholism?

Two women talking

You don’t have to live with alcohol addiction for the rest of your life. It can be extremely difficult to overcome alcoholism, but it is possible.

However, you do need professional help. It can be dangerous to attempt to stop drinking without medical support, as some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly.

You will also lose your tolerance to alcohol very quickly when you stop drinking, so a relapse can put you at greater risk of alcohol poisoning.

Attending a specialised inpatient rehab clinic for alcohol addiction is the most effective way to recover, as you will benefit from a personalised treatment plan including counselling, medication and a full detox.

Rehab 4 Alcoholism can help to put you in touch with a rehab clinic or outpatient programme that can guide you safely through this process.

Call us on 0800 111 4108 for friendly and professional advice.

You can also speak to your doctor and ask for a diagnosis and a referral to a rehab clinic or treatment programme.

References

[1] https://hsrc.himmelfarb.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1258&context=sphhs_policy_facpubs

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/index.htm

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625994/

[4] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1113175/Alcohol-use-disorders-identification-test-AUDIT_for-print.pdf

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767415/

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