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Is Alcoholism Considered a Disease?

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What is Moderate Alcohol Consumption?

In the U.S., many people drink alcohol in the form of beer, wine, and spirits. 

In a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 55% of Americans aged 18 and older have drunk alcohol in the past month. 

Moderate alcohol use among adults can be defined as 1 to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 for women and older people. A “drink” is equivalent to 1.5 oz. of spirits, 5 oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer. 

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What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Like any other substance, alcohol has addictive properties. When abused long-term, it can lead to serious health problems like alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD).  

Many health institutions apply a disease concept to the definition of alcoholism. These institutions include:

  • American Medical Association (AMA) 
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
  • American Psychiatric Association (APA)
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
  • The American Society of Addiction Medicine 
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

The most common definition of alcoholism is:

Alcoholism, otherwise referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic disease. It is influenced by genetic, social, and environmental factors. Development and signs of alcoholism will vary according to these factors.

In many cases, alcoholism is progressive and deadly.

Symptoms of the disease may be continuous or periodic. However, those suffering from alcoholism have four primary characteristics:

  • Inability to stop drinking or loss of control
  • Preoccupation with alcohol 
  • Drinking despite the negative consequences
  • Distorted thoughts, including denial 

Similar to other diseases like heart disease or asthma, alcoholism can be treated. Proper medical treatment and support groups are available. Individuals suffering from alcoholism can discover a path of recovery and relief. 

Is Alcoholism Considered a Disease?

Yes, alcoholism is considered a disease.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has considered alcoholism a disease since 1956. The disorder is characterized by impulsive behaviors, compulsive decision-making, and relapse.

The AMA's alcoholism disease theory revolves around the following characteristics:

  • Alcoholism does not heal or go away on its own (requires treatment and support)
  • Alcoholism is biological in nature (the illness exists in and of itself)
  • Alcoholism gets worse over time (progressive) and can be deadly if left untreated
  • Alcoholism has noticeable signs/symptoms
  • The timeline of developing an alcohol addiction is predictable
  • The recovery timeline is also predictable

The most common reasons why people drink include:

  1. To cope with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
  2. To relieve stress caused by work, relationships, or daily responsibilities
  3. Social and peer pressure, such as in college
  4. Pressure from the media (because alcohol use is seen as "normal")
  5. Family history of alcohol use or alcoholism
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The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction

In 2016, the US Surgeon General issued a breakthrough report. One of the leading findings was that substance use disorders are chronic brain diseases that function in a 3-phase cycle. Substance use disorders are also called drug addictions.

Each phase corresponds to one of three regions of the brain, including the:

  • Basal ganglia
  • Extended amygdala
  • The prefrontal cortex

To understand addiction, it is important to consider how each of these phases connects.

Those living with alcoholism or a substance use disorder may experience the cycle in weeks or months. They may even experience them several times in one day.

While people tend to progress through these cycles differently, with varying degrees of intensity, one fact remains. The cycle of alcohol addiction grows in intensity with time. It can result in more extensive psychological and physical harm, if not treated quickly.  

Reward System of Repeated Use

Consuming alcohol, although a depressant, can produce sensations of pleasure at the beginning. These positive or rewarding effects occur as a result of more dopamine and opioid neurotransmitters being activated in the basal ganglia. 

This brain region is critical in this phase because it serves as the brain’s reward system. It also triggers changes in how an individual responds to stimuli related to alcohol use.

Stimuli examples can include:

  • People
  • Places
  • Drug paraphernalia 
  • Moods

This means that the stimuli can activate the dopamine system and stir up powerful, lasting urges. These stimuli can also have drug-like effects on the brain. This increases the risk of relapse for those with a prior addiction. 

Drinking to Avoid Problems

There is a relationship between the brain’s dopamine system and stress neurotransmitters.

The dopamine system pushes individuals to seek pleasure. The stress neurotransmitters help people avoid pain and unpleasant experiences. Both are essential to how people act. 

However, alcohol abuse can upset this balance and cause individuals to continue drinking.

Avoiding Withdrawal Symptoms

When an individual decides to stop drinking, different alcohol withdrawal symptoms may arise, including:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Insomnia and nightmares
  • Hallucinations that can be tactile, auditory, or visual
  • Intense cravings 

Alcohol addiction shares characteristics found in opioid addictions. These include the risk of binge drinking or heavy drinking followed by withdrawal.

People may return to drinking alcohol to avoid the negative effects of this phase of the cycle. As cravings are strong, it can be difficult for them to maintain abstinence. 

For the average male, binge drinking represents five drinks or more within two hours. For the average female, it represents four drinks or more within the same time frame.  

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Is Alcoholism “Curable?”

Alcohol use disorder can affect anyone regardless of race, gender, or age.

Alcoholism does not have any known cure. But the condition can be treated effectively with help from professionals at a licensed treatment center.

Although treatable, alcohol addiction is a challenging medical condition to overcome. However, with help from advancements in therapies and medications, people are more likely to recover and maintain abstinence.

Professional Treatment for Alcoholism

Treatment options for alcoholism (alcohol use disorder) include:

Rehab treatment programs

Inpatient or outpatient treatment facilities are available. These programs can help individuals through detox.

Partial hospitalization program (PHP)

This program is sometimes used instead of an inpatient program. It provides similar therapy and treatment options. However, patients can return home at the end of the day.


Current drugs available for alcohol treatment are naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate. Some of these drugs help to reduce cravings or the effects caused by withdrawal. 

Interventions from health professionals

It is important to consult a practitioner before quitting alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms may be severe and result in relapse or overdose. The practitioner can explain the different therapies available. These treatments help address underlying problems that may be affecting the addiction.

If you or your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, seek medical attention. These specialists can design a treatment plan that can accompany you to a path of recovery and relief.

Aftercare Programs and Support Groups

There are a few aftercare programs available after you finish treatment. These groups can help you abstain from alcohol long-term and prevent relapse.

Common options include:

  • SMART Recovery stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. The goal is to support individuals who give up alcohol and help them abstain from substance use.
  • Al-Anon is an international mutual support program for people impacted by a loved one's drinking.
  • Sober living homes provide an environment that is an ideal stepping stone between detox and a fresh start. They are also known as halfway houses.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a worldwide organization of peer-facilitated support groups. AA helps people recover from alcoholism.
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Updated on March 14, 2022
9 sources cited
  1. “About SMART Recovery: 4-Point Program®: Addiction Recovery.” SMART Recovery,
  2. “Anon Slogans: Al-Anon Family Groups.” Al-Anon Family Groups, Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 20 Mar. 2019,
  3. “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health - Full Report.” Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health - Full Report | Publications and Digital Products, Nov. 2016,
  4. Kaskutas, Lee Ann. "Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science." Journal of Addictive Diseases, US National Library of Medicine, 2009,
  5. Melemis, Steven M., Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery., The Yale journal of biology and medicine vol. 88,3 325-32. 3 Sep. 2015,
  6. Morse, Robert M, and Daniel K Flavin. “The Definition of Alcoholism.” JAMA, American Medical Association, 26 Aug. 1992,
  7. NIDA. "Treatment and Recovery." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 10 Jul. 2020, Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.
  8. Understanding Alcohol and Alcoholism.
  9. "What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?", Alcoholics Anonymous,

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