What is an Alcohol Problem?

Researchers use the term "alcohol problems" to refer to any type of condition caused by drinking which harms the drinker directly, jeopardizes the drinker's well-being, or places others at risk. Depending on the circumstances, alcohol problems can result from even moderate drinking, for example when driving, during pregnancy, or when taking certain medicines. Alcohol problems exist on a continuum of severity ranging from occasional binge drinking to alcohol abuse or dependence (alcoholism).

Is There a Difference?
The term alcoholism usually refers to alcohol abuse or dependence. Alcohol dependence is the most severe alcohol problem and typically consists of at least three of seven symptoms experienced within one year. These symptoms include repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut down, need for increased amounts of alcohol (tolerance), or symptoms of withdrawal upon cessation of drinking (physical dependence). Many other types of alcohol problems do not entail alcohol dependence but are nevertheless harmful in their effect on a person's job, health, and relationships. Also, alcohol problems of lesser severity can often progress to alcoholism if untreated.

The most common alcohol problems include:

Binge Drinking
Binge drinking is the type of problem drinking most often engaged in by young people in the 18- to 21-year-old age range. Within this age group binge drinking is more prevalent among college students than non-students. Researchers often define binge drinking as the consumption of four or more drinks at one sitting for males and three or more drinks at one sitting for females. Binge drinkers on college campuses are more likely to damage property, have trouble with authorities, miss classes, have hangovers, and experience injuries than those who do not. Students living on campuses with high rates of binge drinking experience more incidents of assault and unwanted sexual advances than students on campuses with lower binge drinking rates.

Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol abuse often results in absence from, and impaired performance at, school and on the job, neglect of child care or household responsibilities, legal difficulties and alcohol consumption in physically dangerous circumstances such as while driving. Individuals who abuse alcohol may continue to drink despite the knowledge that their drinking causes them recurrent and significant social, interpersonal, or legal problems.

Alcohol Dependence
Alcohol dependence is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes a strong need to drink despite repeated social or interpersonal problems such as losing a job or deteriorating relationships with friends and family members. Alcohol dependence has a generally predictable course, recognizable symptoms, and is influenced by a complex interplay of genes, psychological factors such as the influence of family members and friends, and the effect of culture on drinking behavior and attitudes. Scientists are increasingly able to define and understand both the genetic and environmental factors that make an individual vulnerable to alcoholism.

This information was compiled by Screening for Mental Health from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

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