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Substance Abuse and Addiction - Topic Overview

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This topic is about alcohol abuse and dependence in adults. For information about alcohol problems in teens or children, see the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

What are alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence?

Alcohol abuse means having unhealthy or dangerous drinking habits, such as drinking every day or drinking too much at a time. Alcohol abuse can harm your relationships, cause you to miss work, and lead to legal problems such as driving while drunk (intoxicated). When you abuse alcohol, you continue to drink even though you know your drinking is causing problems.

If you continue to abuse alcohol, it can lead to alcohol dependence. Alcohol dependence is also called alcoholism. You are physically or mentally addicted to alcohol. You have a strong need, or craving, to drink. You feel like you must drink just to get by.

You might be dependent on alcohol if you have three or more of the following problems in a year:

  • You cannot quit drinking or control how much you drink.
  • You need to drink more to get the same effect.
  • You have withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking. These include feeling sick to your stomach, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety.
  • You spend a lot of time drinking and recovering from drinking, or you have given up other activities so you can drink.
  • You have tried to quit drinking or to cut back the amount you drink but haven't been able to.
  • You continue to drink even though it harms your relationships and causes physical problems.

Alcoholism is a long-term (chronic) disease. It's not a weakness or a lack of willpower. Like many other diseases, it has a course that can be predicted, has known symptoms, and is influenced by your genes and your life situation.

How much drinking is too much?

Alcohol is part of many people's lives and may have a place in cultural and family traditions. It can sometimes be hard to know when you begin to drink too much.

You are at risk of drinking too much and should talk to your doctor if you are:1

  • A woman who has more than 3 drinks at one time or more than 7 drinks a week. A standard drink camera.gif is 1 can of beer, 1 glass of wine, or 1 mixed drink.
  • A man who has more than 4 drinks at one time or more than 14 drinks a week.
Interactive Tool: Do You Have a Drinking Problem? calculator.gif

What are some signs of alcohol abuse or dependence?

Certain behaviors may mean that you're having trouble with alcohol. These include:

  • Drinking in the morning, often being drunk for long periods of time, or drinking alone.
  • Changing what you drink, such as switching from beer to wine because you think it will help you drink less or keep you from getting drunk.
  • Feeling guilty after drinking.
  • Making excuses for your drinking or doing things to hide your drinking, such as buying alcohol at different stores.
  • Not remembering what you did while you were drinking (blackouts).
  • Worrying that you won't get enough alcohol for an evening or weekend.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 17, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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