What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a potentially harmful depressant of the central nervous system. There are three basic types of alcoholic drinks: beer, wine and hard liquor. All three forms of alcohol have the same potential for intoxication and addiction. One "drink" is defined as:
- 12-ounces of beer
- A 5-ounce glass of wine
- A 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor (distilled spirits)
In theory, one drink contains the same amount of alcohol and, therefore, has an equal effect on the drinker. However, because glass sizes vary, and many mixed drinks contain multiple shots, it is often difficult to gauge how much alcohol is in a single drink.
How Does Alcohol Affect the User?
The effects of alcohol are dependent on a variety of factors, including a person's size, weight, age, and sex. Alcohol is a depressant, but initially, in small quantities, alcohol has a disinhibiting effect which stimulates the drinker, and may produce feelings of talkativeness, euphoria or dizziness. A larger amount of alcohol will cause slurred speech, disturbed sleep, nausea, vomiting and resulting dehydration and hangover. Too much alcohol will depress brain activity, slow down breathing and heart rate -- and can ultimately be fatal. Alcohol, even at low doses, significantly impairs the judgment and coordination required to drive a car safely.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol Use and Intoxication:
- Smell of alcohol on breath
- Loss of physical coordination
- Inappropriate or violent behavior
- Loss of balance
- Unsteady gait
- Slurred and/or incoherent speech
- Slowed thinking
- Impaired short-term memory
- Loss of consciousness
Alcohol Withdrawal, experienced by alcoholics and problem drinkers:
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Paranoia and delusions
- Hallucinations (usually visual)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased body temperature
- Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
- Delirium tremens
- Auditory/Visual Hallucinations
What are the Dangers of Alcohol Abuse?
In addition to the risk of injury or death as a result of accidents, violence, or alcohol poisoning, long-term alcohol abuse can cause or worsen many physical and mental disorders. Negative effects of alcohol abuse include:
- Brain damage
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Heart failure
- Risk of stroke
- Risk for Pneumonia
- Risk for Tuberculosis
- Liver disease (fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis)
- Duodenal ulcers
- Acid reflux
- Suppressed immune system
- Associated traumatic injury
- Unsupervised withdrawal can be life threatening
- Delirium tremens
What is Alcoholism?
The definition of alcoholism is often debated. In simple terms, alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol. An alcoholic is a person who cannot control their drinking, even when it is having a negative effect on his or her life. There are an estimated 10 to 15 million alcoholics or problem drinkers in the United States. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the disease, also known as alcohol dependence, includes the following symptoms:
- Craving: A strong need, or urge, to drink alcohol.
- Loss of control: Not being able to stop 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 feel drunk, or even just normal.
The support group Alcoholics Anonymous states that alcoholism is a progressive illness which can never be cured, but can be treated.
How Much is Too Much?
There is no hard and fast answer to this question. An alcoholic cannot be defined by the quantity of alcohol he or she consumes. It is more important to consider the negative consequences of drinking than to focus on the specific amounts of alcohol or the frequency with which alcohol is consumed.
Alcohol and Pregnancy
Alcohol is especially dangerous for pregnant women. Drinking during pregnancy slows the natural growth of the fetus and increases the risk of the baby being born at a low birth-weight. This can increase the risk of infection, cause feeding difficulties, and result in long-term developmental problems. Drinking during pregnancy can result in the birth of babies with fetal alcohol syndrome and other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These infants are likely to have irreversible physical defects and experience developmental delays.
There are many different ways to quit drinking. Some people require close medical supervision in a hospital or detox as they withdrawal from alcohol. Others may use medications prescribed by a doctor to help the process. For many, residential or outpatient alcohol abuse treatment can offer the necessary support to quit drinking. Ongoing support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are also a tremendous source of support for former alcoholics. There are also a number of medications that can help one achieve sobriety.