Alcohol & Health
Treatment
Helping Alcoholics
Where Does My Call Go?
Updated on February 4, 2023
6 min read

Is Alcoholism 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 several characteristics:

  • Alcoholism does not heal or go away on its own (requires treatment and support)
  • Alcoholism is biological (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

In addition to the American Medical Association (AMA), other health institutions apply a disease concept to the definition of alcoholism. These institutions include:

  • 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)

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

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

The most common definition of alcoholism is:

Alcoholism or 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.

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 

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

Like 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 to recovery and relief.

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The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction as a Disease

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.

To understand addiction, it is essential to consider how each phase connects.

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

While people tend to progress through these cycles differently, with varying intensities, 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.

The 3-phase cycle of substance use disorders includes:

1. Reward System of Repeated Use

Although a depressant, consuming alcohol can produce sensations of pleasure at the beginning. These positive or rewarding effects result from more dopamine and opioid neurotransmitters being activated in the region of the brain called basal ganglia. 

The basal ganglia 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 and emotions

This means the stimuli can activate the dopamine system and cause 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.

2. 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. Stress neurotransmitters help people avoid pain and unpleasant experiences. Both are essential to how people act. 

However, alcohol use can upset this balance and cause individuals to continue or begin drinking.

3. 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 

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

For the average male, binge drinking represents five drinks or more within 2 hours. For the average female, it means four drinks or more within the same time frame.  

Is Alcoholism “Curable?”

Alcoholism has no known cure and can affect anyone regardless of race, gender, or age. However, 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.

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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 the following:

  • Detox
  • Therapy and counseling
  • Treatment medication

Inpatient treatment provides people with 24/7 support in a facility. Outpatient treatment allows people to come and go to keep their jobs, spend time with family, and live a more normal life. 

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.

Medications

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. 

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:

It is essential to consult a practitioner before quitting alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms may be severe and even deadly.

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

Insurance Can Help Pay for Addiction Treatment

Call now to speak with a specialist about your insurance benefits.

Summary

  • Alcoholism is considered a chronic disease
  • Alcoholism often acts in a 3-phase cycle that makes it difficult for the alcoholic to quit fully
  • Although alcoholism isn’t curable, it is treatable
  • Inpatient, outpatient, and partial hospitalization programs can help someone with alcoholism recover
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Updated on February 4, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on February 4, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. About SMART Recovery: 4-Point Program®: Addiction Recovery.” SMART Recovery.
  2. Anon Slogans: Al-Anon Family Groups.” Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2019.
  3. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health - Full Report. Publications and Digital Products,  2016.
  4. Kaskutas, LA. "Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science." Journal of Addictive Diseases, 2009.
  5. Melemis, SM. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2015.
  6. NIDA. "Treatment and Recovery." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020. 
  7. Understanding Alcohol and Alcoholism.” NCADD.
  8. "What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?" Alcoholics Anonymous.

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