- 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 get "high."
For clinical and research
purposes, formal diagnostic criteria for alcoholism also have been
developed. Such criteria are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, published by the American
Psychiatric Association, as well as in the International Classification
Diseases, published by the World Health Organization.
Yes, alcoholism is a
disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as
strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to
drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.
Like many other diseases,
alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it
usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for
developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his
or her lifestyle. (See also "Publications," Alcohol Alert No. 30: Diagnostic Criteria for Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.)
Research shows that the
risk for developing alcoholism does indeed run in families. The genes a
person inherits partially explain this pattern, but lifestyle is also a
factor. Currently, researchers are working to discover the actual genes
that put people at risk for alcoholism. Your friends, the amount of
stress in your life, and how readily available alcohol is also are
factors that may increase your risk for alcoholism.
But remember: Risk is not
destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families doesn't mean
that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an
alcoholic too. Some people develop alcoholism even though no one in
their family has a drinking problem. By the same token, not all
children of alcoholic families get into trouble with alcohol. Knowing
you are at risk is important, though, because then you can take steps
to protect yourself from developing problems with alcohol.