Alcohol dependence

Alcohol dependence: Description, Causes and Risk Factors

Alcohol dependence is a chronic disease that is often progressive and fatal. Although alcoholism tends to run in families, it is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. An individual who is dependent upon alcohol typically uses it to avoid personal and social factors in his or her life.

Alcohol use is highly prevalent in most Western countries. However, in most Asian cultures, the overall prevalence of alcohol-related disorders is relatively low. In Muslim countries, the Islamic religion strictly prohibits alcohol (hence the rates of alcohol-related disorders are very low). In the Western countries, this disorder occurs much more commonly in males (with a male-to-female ratio of 5:1). The lifetime risk of alcohol dependence is approximately 15% in the general population. In any year, 5% of the general population will actively be suffering from Alcohol Dependence.Alcohol dependence

There are several possible alcohol dependence causes and risk factors for the disease. The individual is the determining factor when assessing risk of contracting the disease. One or more of these causes/risk factors can indicate the presence of alcohol dependence.

  • Genetic: If your parents or grandparents were addicted to alcohol, the chances are strong that you will be vulnerable to the disease. Healthcare professionals will take a family history to look for risk factors for many diseases. Children of alcoholics will not necessarily become alcoholics themselves, but the medical history indicates a possibility.
  • Emotional Makeup: People may use alcohol to block the pain in the life. Alcohol is used as a coping device and there are certain stress hormones that may contribute to the progression of the disease.
  • Psychological: People suffering from depression or low self-esteem may be more likely to develop a drinking problem. They are more likely to try to “fit in” with their friends, who “enable” the problem to continue.
  • Social: Alcohol is legal, readily available and drinking is socially acceptable. Alcohol is promoted heavily in the media, and having a few beers before, during and after a sporting event is part of American culture. There is a peer pressure to drink, to be a part of the crowd.
  • Frequency: Drinking alcohol regularly can cause alcohol dependence. People who drink regularly over time may be at risk of developing a physical dependence on alcohol. If studies show that one/two drinks per day for the average person (15 per week for men, 12 per week for women) is within safe limits, then it follows that going beyond that limit can produce problems.
  • Age: Young people are at greater risk of developing alcohol dependence, especially if they start drinking by age 16 or sooner.
  • Gender: Men are more likely to develop the disease than women.


Symptoms and signs may include:

  • Drop in blood sugar: A drop in blood sugar can cause dizziness, confusion, weakness, nervousness, shaking and numbness. These symptoms can most certainly trigger a bout of anxiety.
  • Mood: Alcohol can affect our mood because it can affect the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a feel good brain chemical that when in short supply can cause feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Dehydration: This has been known to cause nausea, dizziness, fatigue, light-headedness and muscle weakness. These symptoms wouldn't cause anxiety per say but they add to a sense of illness which fosters anxiety.
  • Nervous System: The nervous system is affected because in order for the body to fight off the sedative effects of alcohol it puts the body into a state of hyperactivity in order to counteract this effect. This hyperactivity can lead to shaking, light/sound sensitivity and sleep deprivation.
  • Heart Rate: Your heart rate can become elevated as a result of consuming alcohol which can cause a palpitation false alarm and put you into a state of anxious anticipation. Is it a heart attack or isn't it you might ask. This “what if” questioning can increase your general state of anxiety.
  • Concentration: A hard night of drinking can also make you hazy, bring on headaches and create a sense of disorientation. So if you're going to have a glass of wine with dinner I don't think you should be concerned. On the other hand, if you're a heavy drinker, or binge drinker, then this might cause a real problem for you.
  • In addition, although alcohol does have a sedative effect it should not be used as a coping tool. This type of behavior can lead to alcoholism and worse yet, more anxiety.

Other Symptoms:

  • Obsessive Thoughts.
  • Difficulty thinking about anything other than the fear.
  • Really bad images and/or movies of alcohol.
  • Feelings of unreality or of being detached from yourself.
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy.
  • Fear of fainting.
  • Persistent worrying about upcoming events that involve alcohol.
  • Desire to Flee: An intense instinct to leave the situation (which is tough when its purely in the mind).
  • Dizziness, shaking, palpitations.
  • Shortness of breath or smothering sensation.
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Trembling or shaking.
  • Feeling of choking.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea or stomach distress.
  • Feeling unsteady, dizzy, lightheaded, or faint.
  • Numbness or tingling sensations.
  • Hot or cold flashes.


As is true with virtually any mental-health diagnosis, there is no one test that definitively indicates that someone has an alcohol-use disorder. Screening tools, including online or other tests may help identify individuals who are at risk for having a drinking problem. Therefore, health-care practitioners diagnose alcohol abuse or dependence by gathering comprehensive medical, family, and mental-health information. The practitioner will also either perform a physical examination or request that the individual's primary-care doctor perform one. The medical examination will usually include lab tests to evaluate the person's general health and to explore whether or not the individual has a medical condition that might have mental-health symptoms.

In asking questions about mental-health symptoms, mental-health professionals are often exploring if the individual suffers from alcohol or other drug abuse or dependence disorders, as well as depression and/or manic symptoms, anxiety, substance abuse, hallucinations, or delusions or behavioral disorders. Practitioners may provide the people they evaluate with a quiz or self-test as a screening tool for substance-use disorders. Since some of the symptoms of alcohol abuse or dependence can also occur in other mental illnesses, the mental-health screening is to determine if the individual suffers from a mood disorder or anxiety disorder, as well as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and other psychotic disorders, or a personality or behavior disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


For individuals who are diagnosed with alcohol dependence, treatment may be appropriate and can take on a variety of forms. Careful consideration should be given to which approach is most fitting, most likely to elicit the desired effect, and most compatible with a particular culture. The effectiveness of different approaches to treatment hinges upon the cultural setting in which they are applied and the prevailing societal views on dependence and priorities. In general, treatment is administered with the goal of allowing the affected individual to resume normal functioning.

There are various approaches to treating alcohol problems. They can be divided into two groups, depending on the severity of the problem: (1) treatment approaches directed at alcohol-dependent individuals and severe problem drinkers, and (2) approaches that target those who are not yet dependent, but are at high risk. The choice of which treatment is appropriate depends to a large extent on the severity of the problems being addressed. Some individuals may require only minor behavioral modifications to address emerging problems. For those whose drinking patterns have resulted in more serious and established negative consequences, more intensive secondary and tertiary prevention may be needed.

A variety of treatment approaches exists, each of them appropriate for particular individuals and less so for others. They include behavior modifications, support groups, as well as pharmacological treatment. Some treatment has as its goal abstinence from alcohol, while other approaches seek to change the pattern of drinking to one that is moderate and compatible with a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Whatever the final goal, most treatment comprises three stages: detoxification to minimize withdrawal, rehabilitation, and maintenance. Which approach and end result is best for a particular individual should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

NOTE: The above information is for processing purpose. The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.

Related: Alcohol Saliva Test


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