What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a complex and chronic disease with a variety of causes, risk factors, symptoms and complications. Characterized by physical dependence to alcohol and a persistent desire to drink despite negative consequences, alcoholism can affect individuals of all ages and from all different backgrounds.
Prolonged or excessive consumption of alcohol can have devastating effects on health and well-being. The following describes some of the most common risks and complications associated with alcoholism.
Complications of Alcoholism
The risks and complications associated with alcoholism are great. These risks can be separated into two different categories: those relating to physical health and those that affect psychological and emotional well-being.
Complications to Physical Health
The physical complications attributed to prolonged alcohol abuse include the following:
- Liver damage. Over time, alcoholism can cause serious damage to the liver. As a result of alcohol-related damage, complications such as cirrhosis, hepatitis and even cancer can occur.
- Damage to the heart. Heavy drinking can put excess strain on the heart, which can result in high blood pressure, heart disease and an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
- Nerve damage. Neurological problems are common among long-term alcoholics and may be characterized by pain, tingling, weakness and numbness in the hands and feet.
- Digestive problems. Alcoholism can have several harmful effects on the digestive system. For example, damage to the esophagus, stomach and colon is common among long-term drinkers. Also, alcohol can damage the pancreas, which can lead to painful and serious conditions like pancreatitis and, in severe cases, cancer.
- Increased cancer risks. In addition to cancers of the pancreas and liver, prolonged alcoholism can increase an individual’s risk for cancers of the colon, mouth, throat and breast.
- Decreased bone density. Alcoholism significantly increases risks associated with bone loss, including those relating to osteoporosis, bone fractures and other complications.
- Weakened immunity. Heavy, prolonged drinking can dramatically weaken the immune system, making it difficult for the body to protect itself from viruses, bacteria and disease.
- Increased risk of diabetes. Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels, which increases an individual’s risk of developing diabetes.
Complications to Psychological and Emotional Health
In addition to the physical risks of alcoholism, complications to psychological and emotional health are common as well.
- Depression. A large percentage of alcoholics suffer from depression, either as a contributing cause of alcoholism or as a direct effect of alcohol abuse. Continued drinking worsens the symptoms of depression, just as symptoms of depression tend to increase an individual’s desire to consume alcohol. As a result, alcoholics are at a significantly increased risk of developing severe depression and accompanying complications.
- Risky behaviors. Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, drinkers are likely to engage in various types of risky and compulsive behaviors. For example, drinking may result in driving under the influence, prostitution, promiscuous and/or unprotected sex, gambling, missing work or school, the use of illicit drugs, aggression and violent behaviors.
- Anxiety. Due to alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system, alcoholics often suffer from nervousness, anxiety and related complications.
- The most serious issue associated with alcoholism is that the expected lifespan is shortened. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol causes more deaths worldwide than tuberculosis, AIDS, and violence. In the United States, alcohol is responsible for approximately 75,000 deaths every year. Listed below are some of the most common types of alcohol-related deaths:
- Traffic accidents – Drunk driving contributes to approximately 10,000 deaths in the United States each year, accounting for around 30 percent of all traffic deaths.
- Cancer – Long-term drinkers usually face some type of cancer in their lives. Cancer of the liver is the most prevalent among alcoholics. However, cancer of the stomach, colon, throat, or mouth are also very common.
- Suicide – Suicide is a tremendous concern among alcoholics and their loved ones due to the psychological effects associated with alcoholism
- Accidents – Because of severely impaired coordination, equilibrium, motor skills, depth perception, and reflexes, alcohol intoxication can cause many issues for personal safety. These impairments can bring danger to the most trivial activities, such as walking across the street, swimming, or cooking.
- Violence – Because of its effects on impulse control, alcohol often is the reason for violent altercations like fights or shootings. Armed robberies, crimes of passion, and domestic violence are usually the outcome of too much to drink.
- Alcohol poisoning – This complication is most common among teenagers, college students, and binge drinkers. Alcohol poisoning is abnormally high blood alcohol levels. This usually occurs due to binge or extended drinking, as well as in people who have started back drinking after a period of abstinence.
- Personality changes – While under the influence of alcohol, many heavy drinkers undergo dramatic changes in personality which is often referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde syndrome.” This is a notable change in someone’s personality. A very mild mannered person may turn into someone who is rude, obnoxious, and violent.
Due to the devastating effects of alcoholism, treating this condition is imperative. Without treatment, symptoms only worsen and the risk of potentially fatal complications is increased. Thankfully, effective treatment for alcoholism can reduce these complications by improving health and quality of life.
The basic components of treatment for alcoholism include detoxification, one-on-one counseling, group therapy and aftercare. Combined, these methods provide alcoholics with the tools necessary to achieve and maintain lifelong health and sobriety.