Alcohol abuse facts and prevention
Consumed in moderate amounts, alcoholic beverages are relaxing and in some cases may even have beneficial effects on heart health.
Alcohol is a risk factor in many medical conditions, including cancers of the mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver and depression.
Understanding alcohol abuse - the basics
The immediate physical effects of drinking alcohol include mild mood changes, vision, balance and speech problems, loss of coordination, and collapse, any of which can be signs of acute alcohol intoxication, or drunkenness. These effects usually wear off in a matter of hours after a person stops drinking. The UK legal drink-driving limit is 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. Larger amounts of blood alcohol can impair brain function, cause liver damage and eventually cause unconsciousness. An extreme overdose or alcohol poisoning can be fatal.
Chronic (long-term) alcoholism is a progressive, potentially fatal disease. It is characterised by an incessant craving for, increased tolerance of, physical dependence upon, and loss of control over drinking alcohol. The physical dependence on alcohol may or may not be obvious to other people. While some chronic alcoholics get very drunk, others exercise enough control to give the appearance of coping with everyday affairs in a near normal way. However, alcoholism can lead to a number of physical ailments, including hypoglycaemia, high blood pressure, brain and heart damage, end-stage liver damage, enlarged blood vessels in the skin, chronic gastritis and recurrent pancreatitis.
Alcoholism can also lead to impotence in men, damage to the foetus in pregnant women, and an increased risk of cancer of the larynx, oesophagus, liver, breast, stomach, pancreas and gastrointestinal tract. Because alcoholics seldom have adequate diets, they are likely to have nutritional deficiencies. Heavy drinkers typically have impaired liver function, and at least one in five develops cirrhosis.
The alcoholic's continual craving for alcohol makes abstinence, an important goal of treatment, extremely difficult. The condition is also complicated by denial. Alcoholics employ a range of psychological manoeuvres to blame their problems on something other than drink, creating significant barriers to recovery. Historically, alcoholic behaviour was blamed on a character flaw or weakness of will, but many authorities now consider chronic alcoholism a disease that can afflict anyone.
Virtually every culture has warned against overuse of alcohol, and some have prohibited it outright, rarely with lasting success. While laws and educational campaigns are designed to prevent alcohol abuse, commercial and social pressure continues to put people at risk. Alcoholism is particularly insidious among young people and the elderly, in part because the symptoms are not easily recognised until the affected person becomes truly alcohol dependent.
What causes alcoholism?
The cause of alcoholism seems to be a blend of genetic, physical, psychological, environmental and social factors that vary among individuals. Genetic factors are considered crucial. A person's risk of becoming an alcoholic is four to five times greater if a parent is alcoholic. Some children of alcohol abusers, however, overcome the hereditary pattern by not drinking any alcohol at all.