Alcoholism and Problem Drinking
Many people drink alcohol. For some, alcohol is something that they enjoy in moderation. Other people drink alcohol at levels that are likely to lead to physical or mental health problems. Some people can find it very difficult to control, or stop, their drinking.
What is alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a word which many people use to mean alcohol dependence (alcohol addiction). Some people are problem drinkers without being dependent on alcohol. If you are alcohol-dependent then detoxification ('detox') can help you to stop drinking, alongside other support.
Problems with drinking alcohol
There are roughly four levels of alcohol drinking - low-risk, hazardous, harmful, and dependent. As a rule, each level increases the risk to your health and safety.
Many people drink some alcohol. It's thought that drinking within the UK's recommended maximum limits has a low risk of causing health problems. The recommended maximum limits are a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across three days or more, with several alcohol-free days a week.
This is low-risk, but not completely safe; any amount of alcohol increases the risk of health problems, such as some types of cancer, although at these levels the risk is low. However, even a small amount of alcohol can be dangerous if you drive, you operate machinery, or you take some types of medication.
This is a pattern of drinking which increases the risk of harm. It can be defined as drinking more than 14, but less than 35, units of alcohol a week for women, and more than 14, but less than 50, units of alcohol a week for men. Hazardous drinking increases the risk of health problems from alcohol.
Read more about alcohol and sensible drinking.
Harmful drinking is where alcohol consumption is directly causing health problems (such as depression, anxiety, alcohol-related accidents, or liver damage), or other issues, like harming relationships or negatively affecting life in other ways.
Almost 1 in 4 adults in England and Wales drink more than the safe levels. This is thought to be more common in men than in women, but it's probably under-reported in women. Many people who drink heavily are not addicted to alcohol and are not alcohol-dependent. To stop or reduce alcohol would not be a problem if there was the will to do so. However, for various reasons, many people have got into a habit of drinking regularly and heavily. But, drinking heavily is a serious health risk.
If you drink heavily you have an increased risk of developing:
- Alcohol-related liver problems.
- Some cancers (for example, mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast).
- Stomach disorders.
- Severe inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
- Mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and various other problems.
- Wernicke's encephalopathy - an alcohol-related brain disorder treated with vitamin B1 (thiamine); Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder caused by severe deficiency of vitamin B1, most commonly caused by alcohol misuse.
- Sexual difficulties such as impotence.
- Muscle and heart muscle disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Damage to nervous tissue.
- Drinking alcohol is associated with a much increased risk of accidents.
- In particular, injury and death from fire and car crashes. About 1 in 7 road deaths are caused by drinking alcohol.
- Obesity (alcohol is calorie-rich). One glass of wine has as many calories as a bag of crisps and a pint of lager is the calorie equivalent of a sausage roll.
Damage to an unborn baby in pregnant women
Alcohol gets to a baby through the placenta if a pregnant woman drinks alcohol. A baby cannot process alcohol very well. So, any alcohol in your baby stays in their body much longer than in you. This is known to be a risk for causing serious problems such as:
- A low birth weight.
- Learning, behavioural and thinking (cognitive) problems.
- Defects of the heart and other organs.
- Abnormal facial features.
When these problems are severe, the condition is called fetal alcohol syndrome.
We know that heavy alcohol use in pregnancy is harmful. We don't know if there is any safe level of alcohol in pregnancy, so pregnant women, and women planning a pregnancy, are advised to avoid alcohol completely.
There is a small amount of evidence that suggests that women who drink occasionally in early pregnancy - before they knew they were pregnant - do not seem to have a high risk of pregnancy problems, but we don't have enough data to be sure.
Alcohol drinking and problems to others
Heavy alcohol drinking in one person often seriously damages others. Many families have become severely affected by one member becoming a problem drinker. Emotional and financial problems often occur in such families. It is estimated that 3 in 10 divorces, 4 in 10 cases of domestic violence and 2 in 10 cases of child abuse are alcohol-related. Often, the problem drinker denies or refuses to accept that the root cause is alcohol.
Some people are dependent on alcohol. This can also be called alcohol addiction. People with alcohol dependence feel a strong urge to drink, and often find that they need to drink more and more alcohol to get the same effect. People with alcohol dependence often prioritise drinking over other things - such as family life, relationships, work, and other interests - or continue drinking despite evidence that it's causing harm.
People with alcohol dependence may also get unpleasant, and potentially dangerous, withdrawal symptoms, and use alcohol to prevent these happening. In the UK, roughly 600,000 people have alcohol dependency.
What are the symptoms of alcohol dependence?
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If you are alcohol-dependent you have a strong desire for alcohol and have great difficulty in controlling your drinking. In addition, your body is used to lots of alcohol. Therefore, you may develop withdrawal symptoms 3-8 hours after your last drink as the effect of the alcohol wears off. So, even if you want to stop drinking, it is often difficult because of withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms include:
- Feeling sick (nausea).
- The 'shakes' (trembling).
- Craving for alcohol.
- Feeling unwell.
- Convulsions or seizures - these occur in a small number of cases.
As a result, you drink alcohol regularly and depend on it to prevent withdrawal symptoms. If you do not have any more alcohol, withdrawal symptoms usually last 5-7 days but a craving for alcohol may continue for longer.
If you have alcohol dependence, suddenly stopping drinking completely can be dangerous. Seek medical advice and support about the best way of reducing and stopping safely.
The severity of dependence can vary. It can develop gradually and become more severe. You may be developing alcohol dependence if you:
- Often have a strong desire to drink alcohol and need a drink every day.
- Drink alone often.
- Need a drink to stop trembling (the shakes).
- Drink early, or first thing in the morning (to avoid withdrawal symptoms).
- Spend a lot of your time in activities where alcohol is available. For example, if you spend a lot of time at the social club or pub.
- Neglect other interests or pleasures because of alcohol drinking.
If you are alcohol-dependent you are usually tolerant to the effect of alcohol. This means that you need more alcohol to notice any effects and to become drunk. This can make things worse, as it tends to make you drink even more.
If you are alcohol-dependent you may get drunk regularly. However, you may not get drunk. You may drink small amounts regularly to keep any withdrawal symptoms away. You may then be able to hide your problem from others. However, you are still at serious risk of developing conditions due to excessive drinking (liver damage (cirrhosis), cancers, etc).
The problem of denial
Some people who are heavy drinkers or who are alcohol-dependent deny that they have a problem. The sort of thoughts that people deceive themselves with include:
- "I can cope."
- "I'm only drinking what all my mates drink."
- "I can stop at any time."
Coming to terms with the fact that you may have a problem and seeking help when needed are often the biggest step to sorting out the problem.
If you feel that you need, or a relative or friend needs, help about alcohol, see your doctor or practice nurse.
Should I cut back, or should I stop alcohol completely?
If you are alcohol-dependent then it is best to cut back gradually and then stop alcohol completely. Do not stop alcohol suddenly if you are alcohol-dependent. Some withdrawal effects can be severe. This is why it is best to cut down gradually and then stop, or see your doctor about a 'detox'. Also, it is best to cut out alcohol completely if you have a condition due to alcohol, such as liver damage (cirrhosis). Otherwise, reducing to a safe level of drinking is an option.
If you are trying to cut down, some tips which may help include:
- Consider drinking low-alcohol beers, or at least do not drink strong beers or lagers.
- Try pacing the rate of drinking. Perhaps alternate soft drinks with alcoholic drinks.
- If you eat when you drink, you may drink less.
- It may be worth reviewing your entire social routine. For example, consider:
- Cutting back on types of social activity which involve drinking.
- Trying different social activities where drinking is not involved.
- Reducing the number of days in the week where you go out to drink.
- Going out to the pub or club later in the evening.
- Trying to resist any pressure from people who may encourage you to drink more than you really want to.
Some people are helped by books, websites, leaflets and their own determination. It is thought that about 1 in 3 people who have a problem with alcohol return to sensible drinking, or stop drinking, without any professional help.
Do you need help?
Help and treatment are available if you find that you cannot cut down your drinking to safe limits. Counselling and support from a doctor, nurse, or counsellor are often all that is needed.
Some people are helped by counselling and advice from a practice nurse or doctor. Sometimes a referral to a specially trained counsellor may be advised. They can help you to talk through the issues in more detail and help you to plan how to manage your drinking. In some cases, more intensive talking treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, or motivational enhanced therapy may be appropriate. For example, CBT helps you to change certain ways that you think, feel and behave; it may help some people with alcohol problems.
Talking treatments are particularly useful for children with alcohol-related problems who are aged between 10 and 17. Children may also be offered family therapy in which other members of their family may be involved in a course of treatment.
A 'detox' (detoxification) treatment may be advised if you are alcohol-dependent. Referral for specialist help may be best for some people.
Alcohol detoxification involves taking a short course of a medicine which helps to prevent withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol. Benzodiazepine medicines such as chlordiazepoxide or diazepam are used for detox. Read more about alcohol withdrawal and detox.
After detoxification and staying off alcohol
Many people who successfully 'detox' go back to drinking heavily again at some point. There are various reasons why this may occur. It is thought that you are less likely to return to drinking heavily if you have counselling or other support to help you to stay off alcohol. Your doctor, practice nurse, or local drug and alcohol unit may provide ongoing support when you are trying to stay off alcohol. Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous have also helped many people to stay off alcohol.
If you do go back to heavy drinking, you can always try again to stop or cut down. Some people take several attempts before they stop drinking, or keep within the safe limits, for good.
Further reading and references
Alcohol-use disorders: diagnosis, assessment and management of harmful drinking and alcohol dependence; NICE Clinical Guideline (February 2011)
Antenatal care; NICE guidance (August 2021)
Schutze M, Boeing H, Pischon T, et al; Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2011 Apr 7342:d1584. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d1584.
Guidelines on alcohol consumption; House of Commons Library, UK Parliament, June 2016
Try Dry: the app to track your progress during Dry Jan and beyond; Alcohol Change UK
No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health; World Health Organization, 2023