Alcoholism, Alcohol Misuse, and Alcohol Dependence

By Jeyashree Sundaram, MBA

Drinking alcohol is a culturally accepted practice in many families and traditions worldwide. The terms alcoholism, alcohol misuse, and alcohol dependence all relate to the serious problem of excessive drinking that leads to negative health and social implications. Chemically termed as ethanol, alcohol has been in use since ancient times.

Credit: Axel Bueckert/

The most popular use of alcohol worldwide is as a beverage by adult humans for purposes of recreation. When consumed in excessive amounts, alcohol causes intoxication. The specific impacts of high amounts of alcohol on the body are depression of the central nervous system, producing extreme joyousness, decreasing anxiety, increasing sociability, and impaired cognitive, memory, and motor functions.

Misuse of alcohol

Misuse of alcohol is the deliberate, excessive, and harmful drinking on special occasions, for the purpose of celebration. This category includes binge drinkers who drink heavily at social gatherings. Such drinkers are open to risks of having an accident or getting into a brawl or argument, and they are also likely to become alcohol addicts when their indulgence crosses the limit.

Misuse of alcohol is intake of:

  • more than 3 to 4 drinks in a single sitting for women and
  • more than 4 to 5 drinks in a single sitting for men.

A single drink is equivalent to

  • one 12-ounce bottle of wine or beer, or
  • one 5-ounce glass of wine, or
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Alcohol abuse

Alcohol abuse refers to drinking “too much, too often.” It affects a person’s work, and family and social life, and yet the person continues with it. There is repeated drinking at the workplace or while driving, and so it becomes a physical hazard. This stage is the beginning state of the disorder of alcoholism.

Alcohol addiction

Alcohol addiction is a primary condition where there is a growing inability to stop consuming alcohol in spite of the knowledge of its negative repercussions.

Alcohol addicts display a very strong urge to drink. Their uncontrollable urge to drink crosses their own self-imposed limits, and overrides other family or work-related obligations. Their bodies soon develop a physical tolerance for it, or they undergo withdrawal symptoms when they stop.

They also need to have more and more drinks to bring about the same effects. These traits mark the beginnings of a physical dependence on alcohol.

How Alcohol Affects Your Brain And Body

Alcohol dependence

Long-term abuse of alcohol leads to alcohol dependence. It is the incapacity to quit drinking and is the most severe form of alcohol addiction. Also known as alcoholism, the individual is mentally and physically dependent on alcohol and feels that he must drink just to carry on.

It is no more a weakness, but becomes a chronic progressive disease characterized by a course of duration with specific symptoms. It can also become fatal.

Dependency cannot be easily identified as persons tend to hide their weakness for alcohol. A few visible symptoms are however reliable pointers to this disease.

An alcohol-dependent person            

  • shows disinterest in regular activities;
  • appears tired, ill, or irritable;
  • appears to be intoxicated more often;
  • needs to drink more than considered usual to attain the same outcomes;
  • becomes dishonest and secretive;
  • is unable to say no to alcohol, despite being aware that it is harmful.

Alcoholism is a disease that arises from environmental, genetic, and psychosocial factors and may display any or all of the above symptoms.

A majority of alcohol dependence cases seem to be genetically predisposed to the disease, although this can be overcome. Alcoholism needs proper treatment and medical counseling to get over the drinking habit and to lead a healthy life. The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholics (NIAA) reports four main symptoms that characterize dependency:

  • Craving
  • Loss of control
  • Physical dependence (withdrawals signs of nausea, sweating, and vomiting).
  • Tolerance (person will need more alcohol to meet his cravings and to get drunk).

Safe drinking

A daily instead of a weekly limit is suggested. Drinking small amounts daily is considered safer than binge drinking on special occasions or on weekends.

The UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines suggest 14 pints (2 cups) a week as the safe level of consumption, with each drink containing roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol.

Moderate drinking provides health benefits that are

  • Psychological—stress reduction
  • Cardiovascular—reduction in risk of coronary artery disease
  • Increased appetite—especially in the elderly.

The US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have defined moderate drinking as:

  • one drink a day for women and those above 60 years old and
  • two drinks per day for men (only one per hour).

Extensive research is ongoing by government bodies and medical and research scientists to help individuals overcome their problem of alcohol addiction. New treatment options are in the offing for sufferers in alcohol de-addiction and rehabilitation centers.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 29, 2022


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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