AskDefine | Define alcoholics

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  1. Plural of alcoholic

Extensive Definition

Alcoholism is a term with multiple and sometimes conflicting definitions. In common and historic usage, alcoholism refers to any condition that results in the continued consumption of alcoholic beverages despite the health problems and negative social consequences it causes. Medical definitions describe alcoholism as a disease which results in a persistent use of alcohol despite negative consequences. Alcoholism, also referred to as dipsomania, may also refer to a preoccupation with or compulsion toward the consumption of alcohol and/or an impaired ability to recognize the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Although not all of these definitions specify current and on-going use of alcohol as a qualifier, some do, as well as remarking on the long-term effects of consistent, heavy alcohol use, including dependence and symptoms of withdrawal.
While the ingestion of alcohol is, by definition, necessary to develop alcoholism, the use of alcohol does not predict the development of alcoholism. The quantity, frequency and regularity of alcohol consumption required to develop alcoholism varies greatly from person to person. In addition, although the biological mechanisms underpinning alcoholism are uncertain, some risk factors, including social environment, emotional health and genetic predisposition, have been identified.

Definitions and terminology

The definitions of alcoholism and related terminology vary significantly between the medical community, treatment programs, and the general public.

Medical definitions

The Journal of the American Medical Association defines alcoholism as "a primary, chronic disease characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking."
The DSM-IV (the standard for diagnosis in psychiatry and psychology) defines alcohol abuse as repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences. It further defines alcohol dependence as alcohol abuse combined with tolerance, withdrawal, and an uncontrollable drive to drink.. Note that there is debate whether dependence in this use is physical (characterised by withdrawal), psychological (based on reinforcement), or both.


Many terms are applied to a drinker's relationship with alcohol. Use, misuse, heavy use, abuse, addiction, and dependence are all common labels used to describe drinking habits, but the actual meaning of these words can vary greatly depending upon the context in which they are used. Even within the medical field, the definition can vary between areas of specialization. The introduction of politics and religion further muddles the issue.
Use refers to simple use of a substance. An individual who drinks any alcoholic beverage is using alcohol. Misuse, problem use, and heavy use do not have standard definitions, but suggest consumption of alcohol to the point where it causes physical, social, or moral harm to the drinker. The definitions of social and moral harm are highly subjective and therefore differ from individual to individual.
Within politics, abuse is often used to refer to the illegal use of any substance. Within the broad field of medicine, abuse sometimes refers to use of prescription medications in excess of the prescribed dosage, sometimes refers to use of a prescription drug without a prescription, and sometimes refers to use that results in long-term health problems. Within religion, abuse can refer to any use of a poorly regarded substance. The term is often avoided because it can cause confusion with audiences that do not necessarily share a single definition.
Remission is often used to refer to a state where an alcoholic is no longer showing symptoms of alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association considers remission to be a condition where the physical and mental symptoms of alcoholism are no longer evident, regardless of whether or not the person is still drinking. They further subdivide those in remission into early or sustained, and partial or full. Some groups, most notably Alcoholics Anonymous, do not recognize remission. Instead, these groups use the term recovery to describe those who have completely stopped consumption of alcohol and are addressing underlying emotional and social factors.


The term "alcoholism" was first used in 1849 by the physician Magnus Huss to describe the systematic adverse effects of alcohol.
In the United States, use of the word "alcoholism" was largely popularized by the inception and growth of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. Although lacking a specific definition for alcoholism, AA's "Big Book" compares alcoholism to an allergy and an illness.
A 1960 study by E. Morton Jellinek is considered the foundation of the modern disease theory of alcoholism. Jellinek's definition restricted the use of the word "alcoholism" to those showing a particular natural history. The modern medical definition of alcoholism has been revised numerous times since then. The American Medical Association currently uses the word alcoholism to refer to a particular chronic primary disease. A small minority within the field, notably Herbert Fingarette and Stanton Peele, argue against the existence of this disease. However, critics of the disease model acknowledge that the word "alcoholism" refers to a disease, and use the term "heavy drinking" when discussing the negative effects of alcohol consumption.


Substance use disorders are a major public health problem facing many countries. "The most common substance of abuse/dependence in patients presenting for treatment is alcohol." In the United Kingdom, the number of 'dependent drinkers' was calculated as over 2.8 million in 2001. The World Health Organization estimates that about 140 million people throughout the world suffer from alcohol dependence.
Within the medical and scientific communities, there is broad consensus regarding alcoholism as a disease state. For example, the American Medical Association considers alcohol a drug and states that "drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite often devastating consequences. It results from a complex interplay of biological vulnerability, environmental exposure, and developmental factors (e.g., stage of brain maturity)."
Current evidence indicates that in both men and women, alcoholism is 50-60% genetically determined, leaving 40-50% for environmental influences.
A 2002 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism surveyed a group of 4,422 adult alcoholics and found that after one year some were no longer alcoholics, even though only 25.5% of the group received any treatment, with the breakdown as follows:
  • 25% still dependent
  • 27.3% in partial remission (some symptoms persist)
  • 11.8% asymptomatic drinkers (consumption increases chances of relapse)
  • 35.9% fully recovered — made up of 17.7% low-risk drinkers plus 18.2% abstainers.

Identification and diagnosis

Multiple tools are available to those wishing to conduct screening for alcoholism. Identification of alcoholism may be difficult because there is no detectable physiologic difference between a person who drinks frequently and a person with the condition. Identification involves an objective assessment regarding the damage that imbibing alcohol does to the drinker's life compared to the subjective benefits the drinker perceives from consuming alcohol. While there are many cases where an alcoholic's life has been significantly and obviously damaged, there are always borderline cases that can be difficult to classify.
Addiction Medicine specialists have extensive training with respect to diagnosing and treating patients with alcoholism.


Several tools may be used to detect a loss of control of alcohol use. These tools are mostly self reports in questionnaire form. Another common theme is a score or tally that sums up the general severity of alcohol use.
  • The CAGE questionnaire, named for its four questions, is one such example that may be used to screen patients quickly in a doctor's office.
The CAGE questionnaire, among others, has been extensively validated for use in identifying alcoholism. It is not valid for diagnosis of other substance use disorders, although somewhat modified versions of the CAGE are frequently implemented for such a purpose.

Genetic predisposition testing

Psychiatric geneticists John I. Nurnberger, Jr., and Laura Jean Bierut suggest that alcoholism does not have a single cause—including genetic—but that genes do play an important role "by affecting processes in the body and brain that interact with one another and with an individual's life experiences to produce protection or susceptibility." They also report that less than a dozen alcoholism-related genes have been identified, but that more likely await discovery.
At least one genetic test exists for an allele that is correlated to alcoholism and opiate addiction. Human dopamine receptor genes have a detectable variation referred to as the DRD2 TaqI polymorphism. Those who possess the A1 allele (variation) of this polymorphism have a small but significant tendency towards addiction to opiates and endorphin releasing drugs like alcohol. Although this allele is slightly more common in alcoholics and opiate addicts, it is not by itself an adequate predictor of alcoholism, and some researchers argue that evidence for DRD2 is contradictory. A year after completing a rehab program, about a third of alcoholics are sober, an additional 40 percent are substantially improved but still drink heavily on occasion, and a quarter have completely relapsed.


Alcohol detoxification or 'detox' for alcoholics is an abrupt stop of alcohol drinking coupled with the substitution of drugs that have similar effects to prevent alcohol withdrawal.
Detoxification treats the physical effects of prolonged use of alcohol, but does not actually treat alcoholism. After detox is complete, relapse is likely without further treatment. These rehabilitations (or 'rehabs') may take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting.


Further reading

  • Berry, Ralph E.; Boland James P. The Economic Cost of Alcohol Abuse The Free Press, New York, 1977 ISBN 0-02-903080-3
  • Royce, James E. and Scratchley, David Alcoholism and Other Drug Problems Free Press, March 1996 ISBN-10: 0-684-82314-4 ISBN-13: 978-0-684-82314-0
  • Valliant, George E., ''The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited, Harvard University Press, May 1995 ISBN-10: 0-674-60378-8 ISBN-13: 978-0-674-60378-3
  • Pence, Gregory, "Kant on Whether Alcoholism is a Disease," Ch. 2, The Elements of Bioethics, McGraw-Hill Books, 2007 ISBN-10: 0-073-13277-2.
  • Milam, Dr. James R. and Ketcham, Katherine Under The Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism. Bantam, 1983, ISBN 0-553-27487-2
  • Warren Thompson, MD, FACP. “Alcoholism.”, June 6, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-02.
  • Etiology and Natural History of Alcoholism. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

External links

alcoholics in Arabic: إدمان كحولي
alcoholics in Min Nan: Chiú-cheng tiòng-to̍k
alcoholics in Bosnian: Alkoholizam
alcoholics in Bulgarian: Алкохолизъм
alcoholics in Catalan: Alcoholisme
alcoholics in Czech: Alkoholismus
alcoholics in Welsh: Alcoholiaeth
alcoholics in Danish: Alkoholisme
alcoholics in German: Alkoholkrankheit
alcoholics in Estonian: Alkoholism
alcoholics in Spanish: Alcoholismo
alcoholics in Esperanto: Alkoholismo
alcoholics in Basque: Alkoholismo
alcoholics in Persian: الکلیسم
alcoholics in French: Alcoolisme
alcoholics in Galician: Alcoholismo
alcoholics in Croatian: Alkoholizam
alcoholics in Indonesian: Alkoholisme
alcoholics in Icelandic: Alkóhólismi
alcoholics in Italian: Alcolismo
alcoholics in Hebrew: אלכוהוליזם
alcoholics in Javanese: Alkoholisme
alcoholics in Latin: Alcoholismus
alcoholics in Lithuanian: Alkoholizmas
alcoholics in Macedonian: Алкохолизам
alcoholics in Maltese: Alkoħoliżmu
alcoholics in Malay (macrolanguage): Alkoholisme
alcoholics in Dutch: Alcoholisme
alcoholics in Japanese: アルコール依存症
alcoholics in Norwegian: Alkoholisme
alcoholics in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alkoholmisbruk
alcoholics in Occitan (post 1500): Alcolisme
alcoholics in Polish: Alkoholizm
alcoholics in Portuguese: Alcoolismo
alcoholics in Russian: Алкоголизм
alcoholics in Simple English: Alcoholism
alcoholics in Slovak: Alkoholizmus
alcoholics in Slovenian: Alkoholizem
alcoholics in Serbian: Алкохолизам
alcoholics in Serbo-Croatian: Alkoholizam
alcoholics in Finnish: Alkoholismi
alcoholics in Swedish: Alkoholism
alcoholics in Tagalog: Alkoholismo
alcoholics in Vietnamese: Chứng nghiện rượu
alcoholics in Tajik: Алкоголизм
alcoholics in Turkish: Alkolizm
alcoholics in Ukrainian: Алкоголізм
alcoholics in Yiddish: אלקאהאליזם
alcoholics in Chinese: 酗酒
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