What is Alcoholism?

Published On: March 27, 2024

In the UK, alcohol is a big part of our culture and social life. Heavy drinking and binge drinking have become normalised, while alcoholism remains misunderstood.

Many people sense a stigma around alcohol-related problems, and don’t feel comfortable opening up about addictive behaviour.

One of the characteristics of alcoholism is secrecy, which means people keep their drinking discreet and don’t feel they can talk about their struggles.

So it’s no wonder that you might be wondering ‘what exactly is alcoholism?’

Alcoholism – What’s the Definition?

Patient and therapist sat down together discussing alcohol addiction

Scientists have defined alcoholism as ‘a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations.’ [1]

This means it’s not simply a choice or a lifestyle, it’s an illness which some people are more likely to encounter due to their genes and life experiences.

Alcoholism is an umbrella term that encompasses both alcohol abuse (which is milder) and dependence (which is more severe). [2]

What are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?

A person with clasped hands, thinking

  • Drinking has become the most important thing in life
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences for you or your loved ones
  • Not being able to cope without alcohol – eg. While working or carry out daily tasks
  • Craving alcohol or having withdrawal symptoms
  • Finding it hard to stop drinking, even when you want to
  • Finding it difficult to control the amount of drinks you have
  • Not being in control of how much you are going to drink
  • Drinking increasing amounts
  • Not seeming drunk after drinking large amounts[3]

What are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Alcohol?

A man reading in bed

When someone with a severe alcohol addiction stops suddenly, their body goes into shock.

This can cause:

  • Sweating
  • Seeing Things That Aren’t There (Visual Hallucinations)
  • Hand Tremors – ‘the Shakes’
  • Trouble Sleeping (Insomnia)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety[4]

The more you drink, the more severe your withdrawal will be.

In extreme cases of alcohol dependence (people who drink a lot every day), you could experience dangerous complications like delirium tremens, hallucinations, and seizures.

Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, so it’s important to seek medical advice before quitting drinking.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

A brain and neurons

Drinking alcohol every day creates a change within our brain. Your neurotransmitters (GABA and glutamate) will begin inhibiting certain neurons.

This means they slow down the neurons and stop them from functioning fully.

At this point, you’ve built up a tolerance to alcohol, which means your brain has adjusted to its presence.

When heavy drinkers cut alcohol out cold turkey, these adjusted GABA receptors remain slow and weak, which makes the brain more excited.

This is known as neuron hyperexcitability, and it’s the reason your nervous system will be on edge creating jitters and anxiety. [5]

What Increases the Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder?

A man buttoning his suit blazer over his tie


Many people drink to unwind from a stressful day. While there’s no harm in doing this, using alcohol in this way too much turns it into a coping mechanism.

This means you lose the ability to deal with your stress in healthier ways, and can end up dependent on alcohol to take your troubles away.


Alcohol (in the short term) can give you a serotonin boost, so it’s tempting when feeling a bit low to reach for the bottle.

But in the long run, regularly drinking alcohol can actually make depression more likely, because of the changes it makes to your brain chemistry. [6]


An alcoholic suffering from grief

Losing someone you care about can take a toll on your mental health, and in these trying times, it can seem tempting to use alcohol to find relief.

A survey of clinical case histories found that 12 out of 50 admissions in an alcohol treatment centre were people dealing with grief. [7]


Alcohol reduces our inhibitions and makes us feel confident, sociable and carefree.

However, this is only a temporary effect, and many experience even worse ‘hangxiety’ the next day. This is caused by the drop in these feel-good hormones once you stop drinking.


A teenage alcoholic walking down a road with backpack, head down

Trauma can manifest in negative feelings. If you had an unstable upbringing, or a stressful event that made a lasting impression on you, you may find yourself experiencing negative feelings, like guilt or unworthiness.

Many people with trauma develop alcohol-related problems by using drink to try to heal these wounds, but it’s important to seek therapy or another more suitable mental health treatment.


Shame is often routed in trauma, and leads to feelings of inadequacy, depression and anxiety. Many try to drown these sorrows with a beverage.

Shame can also arise after alcohol abuse has begun, as you may feel guilty for drinking, and ashamed of the hold alcohol has over you, or your actions while you’re drunk.

This can lead to a cycle of drinking and shame.

Health Complications from Alcohol Abuse

A doctor typing on a keyboard with a stethoscope to her side

Short-Term Effects

Excessive drinking (large amounts of alcohol in one go) takes a toll on our mind and bodies, and in the short term, can result in:

  • Miscarriage, stillbirth & fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
  • Injuries – crashes, falls, drownings, burns
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Violence – homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence
  • Risky sexual behaviours – unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV[8]

Long-term Effects

A doctor discussing alcohol use disorder with a client

Excessive drinking in the long run can cause even worse medical conditions such as:

  • Weakened immune system – increased colds and viruses
  • Social problems – family problems, job-related problems, unemployment
  • High blood pressure, heart disease, digestive problems, stroke, liver disease
  • Cancer – breast, mouth, throat, oesophagus, voice box, liver, colon, rectum
  • Learning and memory problems – dementia, poor school performance
  • Mental disorders – depression, anxiety
  • Alcohol use disorders[9]

How Can I Overcome Alcoholism?

Women talking 1-1

No matter how mild or serious your alcohol addiction is, you can beat it.

In the UK, 127,080 people left a drug and alcohol treatment system in 2015-16, with 62% of alcoholics leaving free from addiction. [10]

What Type of Treatment is Available for Alcoholism?

A woman taking a white pill


If your dependence is severe, you’ll need a medically overseen detox. This is where you’re monitored in the first stages of quitting alcohol.

A tranquiliser called chlordiazepoxide is a medication usually used for alcohol detox. [11] This will take the edge off your symptoms and ensure you don’t experience any dangerous withdrawal symptoms.


Rehab comes in many shapes and sizes, so you can find the right fit for you.

Options include:

Depending on the severity of your alcoholism, you may need more or less intervention.


Once you’ve detoxed and received treatment for your addiction, you can enter a new life in recovery.

Rehabs offer aftercare to ensure you remember the coping mechanisms you’ve learned, and to check you’ve transitioned into life outside of rehab in a way you feel is manageable.

Will My Insurance Cover Rehab for Alcoholism?

An insurance policy document, magnifying glass and currency note

Many major insurance providers do offer funding towards alcohol rehab clinics. However, it can depend on the company and package.

How Do I Get Rehab for Alcoholism Through My Insurance?

  1. Call your chosen rehab clinic and ask about your insurance cover, the admissions process and the treatments included
  2. Call your health insurance provider to see if your insurance package covers this treatment
  3. Ask your GP for a referral to a private rehab, and send the clinic your insurance number
  4. The admissions team at your rehab clinic will get in touch with your insurance to arrange admission

Can I go to Alcoholism Rehab for Free?

A blue bank card on a laptop paying for the costs of rehab for alcoholism

There are no NHS inpatient rehabs, but it is possible to go to an inpatient rehab through the NHS if you meet their requirements.

This will mean you’ll get rehab for free, or a subsidised charge. To do this, you’ll need a referral from your GP, or another local trust or organisation.

These services are very underfunded, so you may find yourself waiting in a very long queue for help.

What Other Services Do the NHS Provide for Alcoholism?
  1. Medically assisted detox – medicine can help you to manage your alcohol withdrawal symptoms safely
  2. Addiction counsellingtherapy will support you to get your mental health and priorities in order, for a secure recovery
  3. Referrals to other organisationsgroup counselling, addiction charities and support groups are a good free alternative to rehab

Please be aware that these services also often have very long waiting lists, and you may have less choice about the treatment you receive.

What Should I Do if I Think Someone is Dependent on Alcohol?

Two people talking about addiction to alcohol

It can be really difficult to see someone you care about falling into addiction. You might be wondering what to say, when to approach the subject and how you can help.

If you’ve noticed they’re drinking very regularly, they’ve lost interest in other activities, or they’re becoming secretive and dishonest, now is a good time to try talking about it.

The earlier you can get help, the more likely the person is to be able to recover, so don’t wait.

Choose a time when they’re sober, be honest about your feelings, and try to gauge whether or not they have accepted they have a problem, and if they want to change.

If the person is open to receiving help, you can go through their options for treatment together.

Be prepared that they may be defensive and unwilling to make a change. If so, know that you cannot convince someone who is unwilling and that this must be their choice.

An intervention for alcoholism

Interventions are group meetings where loved ones gather, sometimes with the help of a professional, to tackle this conversation about addiction.

Finally, ensure you’re not entering into a co-dependent relationship, or enabling them.

This means that you need to allow the person struggling to deal with the consequences of their addiction.

Look after yourself too and know that the best way you can help someone is by keeping your own mental health strong.

What Are the Types of Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Recoverees working together on getting sober and staying sober from alcohol use disorder


The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommend the following medications for alcohol misuse[12]:

  • Disulfiram – (Antabuse) deters you from drinking by making you sick if you consume alcohol. This is useful if you’re concerned about relapse
  • Acamprosate – (Campral) also prevents relapse by reducing the cravings for alcohol. You may be prescribed a course for six months after you’ve detoxed
  • Naltrexone – this is used to limit the number of drinks a person has, as well as prevent relapse if the user is abstinent. It stops the effects of alcohol, making it less pleasurable
  • Nalmefene – (Selincro) also makes you less likely to relapse, or helps you limit your intake if you’re simply cutting down. This should only be used if you’re receiving other treatment

Behavioural Treatments

These are treatments that work on your thoughts and patterns of behaviour:

Mutual Support Groups and Free Services

An alcohol support group with notes

Below are some of the charities that can offer you and your loved ones help and support for issues surrounding alcoholism, completely free of charge.

We Are With You


Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

0800 9177 650


Alcohol Change UK


Turning Point


Can People with Alcohol Use Disorder Recover?

A bumpy road to recovery from alcoholism

Getting sober is absolutely possible, and many people enter recovery every day.

In one study 76% of people were still in remission 10 years after treatment. Of people who sponsored others in AA meetings, the success rate was even higher, at 91%.[13]

This shows that the more you remain in support groups after your recovery, the less likely you are to relapse.

Alcoholism FAQs

Coffee and book

What’s Binge Drinking?

Drinking 5 or more drinks on an occasion (men) or 4 or more drinks on an occasion (women) is considered binge drinking. [14]

What’s Heavy Drinking?

8 or more drinks (women) and 10 or more drinks (men) on one occasion is classified as ‘high-intensity drinking’. [15]

The higher your intake, the worse chances you have of developing related medical conditions.

Who Does Alcoholism Affect?

A sober support group sat together talking

Alcoholism has the potential to affect people of all ages and backgrounds.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 16.4% of adults ages 18 to 25 met the criteria for past-year alcohol use disorder (AUD). [16]

Can I Recover with Self Help?

The level of treatment you’ll need depends on the severity of your addition and your support network. Self-help groups like the AA may be enough for you if you have mild alcohol misuse.

Alcohol dependency however is more severe, so you may need to use self-help groups alongside more thorough intervention, like inpatient rehab.

Get Help for Alcoholism Today from Rehab 4 Alcoholism

A woman holding a mobile phone

Rehab 4 Alcoholism’s help centre is made up of a non-judgemental team of people, many of us are in recovery ourselves and understand what you’re up against.

Whether you’re concerned about yourself or someone you know, we can offer no-obligation advice. Once you’re ready to consider rehab, we can refer you to a rehab of your choice, anywhere in the UK.

Reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 140 4690.


[1] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/399449

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a7da31fe5274a6b89a513dc/alcohol_dependency.pdf

[3] https://www2.hse.ie/living-well/alcohol/dependence/signs-patterns/

[4] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6761824/

[6] https://www.wearewithyou.org.uk/help-and-advice/advice-you/link-between-alcohol-and-depression/

[7] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/00952998209002645

[8] https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm#:~:text=High%20blood%20pressure%2C%20heart%20disease,liver%20disease%2C%20and%20digestive%20problems.&text=Cancer%20of%20the%20breast%2C%20mouth,liver%2C%20colon%2C%20and%20rectum.&text=Weakening%20of%20the%20immune%20system%2C%20increasing%20the%20chances%20of%20getting%20sick.

[9] https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm#:~:text=High%20blood%20pressure%2C%20heart%20disease,liver%20disease%2C%20and%20digestive%20problems.&text=Cancer%20of%20the%20breast%2C%20mouth,liver%2C%20colon%2C%20and%20rectum.&text=Weakening%20of%20the%20immune%20system%2C%20increasing%20the%20chances%20of%20getting%20sick.

[10] https://ukhsa.blog.gov.uk/2016/11/03/what-weve-learned-from-our-annual-drug-and-alcohol-treatment-statistics/

[11] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/treatment/

[12] https://www.okrehab.org/local-areas/drug-alcohol-rehab-lincolnshire/

[13] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1530-0277.1990.tb00465.x

[14] https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

[15] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/binge-drinking

[16] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-and-young-adults-ages-18-25


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