Navigation Link

110 East Main Street
Ottumwa, Iowa 52501
Phone: (641) 682-8772


What is Alcoholism?

man holding alcohol bottle

Alcoholism is a commonly used term that describes an impaired ability to limit alcohol use, despite the harmful consequences of continued use.  In this respect, alcoholism meets the definition of addiction. In our topic center on addiction, we define addiction:

Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.

Alcoholism is not a diagnostic term recognized by American Psychiatric Association.  The correct diagnostic term would be alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction).   The process of diagnosing alcohol addiction is discussed here.


Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What is alcoholism?

  • Alcoholism is a commonly used term that describes an impaired ability to limit alcohol use, despite the harmful consequences of continued use.
  • In this respect, alcoholism meets the definition of addiction, which is "the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable."
  • Alcoholism is not a diagnostic term recognized by American Psychiatric Association. The correct diagnostic term would be alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction).
  • Like all addictions, the severity of alcohol addiction may range from mild to severe.
  • Alcoholism generally refers to an extreme range of severity, but problems with alcohol use begin long before this degree of severity.
  • In 2011, 15 million people were classified with a substance use disorder for alcohol.
  • Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, were $235 billion for alcohol.

For more information

What causes alcoholism?

  • There is no one single cause of alcohol addiction. Instead, there are multiple causes that can be grouped into four basic categories.
  • These four categories are: 1) biological causes, 2) psychological causes, 3) socio-cultural causes, and 4) spiritual causes. Psychologists call this the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of addiction.
  • The biological causes of alcohol addiction include each person's unique physiology and genetics.
  • Psychologically, people learn to anticipate some benefit from drinking alcohol even though it is harmful. These benefits can include: 1) stress reduction, 2) relief from boredom, 3) pleasurable sensations, 4) coping with negative feelings or situations, or 4) simply the benefit of avoiding withdrawal symptoms.
  • Socio-cultural influences also contribute to the development of alcohol addiction as it affords opportunities for pleasing social discourse and interaction.
  • Spirituality is another causal factor that can determine whether an addiction develops and flourishes.

For more information

What are the signs and symptoms of alcoholism?

  • The diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder is based upon a pathological set of behaviors related to alcohol use. These behaviors fall into four main categories:
    • Impaired control - 1) Using alcohol for longer periods of time than intended, or using larger amounts than intended; 2) Wanting to reduce alcohol use, yet being unsuccessful doing so; 3) Spending excessive time getting/using/recovering from the alcohol use; 4) Cravings that are so intense it is difficult to think about anything else.
    • Social impairment - 1) People may continue to use alcohol despite problems with work, school or family/social obligations; 2) Someone continues to use alcohol despite having interpersonal problems because of that use; 3) Important and meaningful social and recreational activities may be given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
    • Risky use - 1) someone repeatedly uses substances in physically dangerous situations; 2) Some people continue to use alcohol even though they are aware it is causing or worsening physical and psychological problems.
    • Pharmacological indicators (tolerance and withdrawal) - 1) Tolerance occurs when people need to increase the amount of alcohol to achieve the same desired effect; 2) Withdrawal is the body's response to the abrupt cessation of a alcohol, once the body has developed a tolerance to it.

For more information 

How is alcoholism treated?

  • There are four basic approaches to alcoholism treatment: Biological, Psychological, Socio-Cultural, and Spiritual.
  • People can combine these various approaches to match their individual needs and circumstances as they work to develop their own individualized, custom-tailored approach to recovery.
  • Biological approaches to addictions treatment attempt to correct or modify the presumed underlying biological causes of addiction. According to biological models of addiction, a "broken" or damaged brain causes addiction.
  • Psychological approaches to alcoholism recovery aim to increase a person's motivation for change.
  • In addition to changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, individuals embracing recovery may also need to restructure their social world.
  • Strengthening the motivation for recovery is very helpful. One such approach is called Motivational Interviewing.
  • There are also several effective types of psychotherapy for addictions. These are: Relapse Prevention Therapy; Contingency Management; Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy; Dialectical Behavioral Therapy; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
  • Socio-cultural approaches to addictions recovery emphasize the important influence of social groups on individuals as they attempt to recover. These include: 1) harm reduction strategies such as needle exchange programs, or public campaigns such as designated drivers, 2) family approaches to addictions treatment, and 3) the social support approach to addictions treatment.
  • Spiritual approaches to alcoholism recovery are based on research that has repeatedly demonstrated that spirituality can have a positive effect on recovery from many diseases and disorders. The most well-known spiritual approaches to addictions recovery are the 12-step support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

For more information 

News Articles

  • High-Risk Typologies for Heavy Drinking ID'd in Underage Women

    For underage women, high-risk trajectories have been identified for heavy episodic drinking, and feminine norms are associated with latent trajectory classes, according to a study published online Feb. 7 in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. More...

  • Alcohol Use Disorder Registration Impacts Risk for Spouse

    Among married individuals, first alcohol use disorder registration in national medical, criminal, or pharmacy registries is associated with an increased risk of first alcohol use disorder registration in the spouse, according to a study published online Feb. 7 in JAMA Psychiatry. More...

  • Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders Estimated

    The estimated prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome varies from 1.1 to 5.0 percent among first graders in four U.S. communities, according to a study published in the Feb. 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. More...

  • Parental Supply of Alcohol to Adolescents Is Harmful

    Parental supply of alcohol to adolescents is associated with increased odds of alcohol-related harms, and there is no evidence to support the view that parental supply protects from adverse drinking outcomes, according to a study published online Jan. 25 in The Lancet Public Health. More...

  • Reduce Legal Blood-Alcohol Limit to Cut Drunk Driving Deaths: Report

    Lower legal blood alcohol levels for drivers are needed to eliminate drunk driving deaths in the United States, according to a new report. More...

  • 21 More
    • Higher Booze Taxes Might Pay Off for Public Health

      Raising one particular tax just might have a public health benefit. More...

    • Think Before You Drink

      With the traditional flood of holiday parties and festivities approaching, chances to drink excessively increase. So, what to do? More...

    • ASCO Issues Statement Regarding Alcohol and Cancer

      Alcohol use is associated with certain types of cancer, and the risk of cancer can be reduced by strategies to prevent excessive use of alcohol, according to a statement published online Nov. 7 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. More...

    • Locus ID'd That Links Comorbid Alcohol Dependence, Depression

      A newly identified genetic risk variant is associated with comorbid alcohol dependence and major depression in African Americans, according to a study published online Oct. 25 in JAMA Psychiatry. More...

    • Alcoholic Cirrhosis Linked to Increased Admissions, Costs

      Compared with patients who have non-alcoholic cirrhosis, those with alcoholic cirrhosis are sicker at presentation, have more admissions and readmissions, and have nearly double the health care costs, according to a study scheduled for presentation at The Liver Meeting, being held by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases from Oct. 20 to 24 in Washington, D.C. More...

    • Ride-Sharing Services Could Cut Alcohol-Related Crashes

      Ride-sharing services may reduce the rate of motor vehicle crashes, particularly alcohol-involved crashes, in some cities, according to a study published online Oct. 4 in the American Journal of Epidemiology. More...

    • New Online Tool Aids Search for Alcohol Treatment

      The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has released a new online resource to help people recognize and find high-quality care for alcohol use disorder. More...

    • How Much Alcohol Is Really OK?

      Know your limit to protect your health. More...

    • Increase in Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking in U.S. Adults

      From 2001-2002 to 2012-2013 there was an increase in alcohol use, high-risk drinking, and in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition alcohol use disorder, according to a study published online Aug. 9 in JAMA Psychiatry. More...

    • Alcohol Use, Abuse on the Rise in U.S.

      Women and older adults among those drinking more, study finds. More...

    • Review: Positive Link for Alcohol, Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer

      Alcohol intake seems to be positively associated with basal cell carcinoma and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, according to a review and meta-analysis published online July 28 in the British Journal of Dermatology. More...

    • Boozing Can Age You Right Down to Your Cells

      DNA studies reveal alcoholics have shorter telomeres, key markers of aging and overall health. More...

    • Fewer U.S. Kids Binge Drinking

      But 1 in 7 still had excess alcohol at least once in past month, study finds. More...

    • Trends in Teen Binge Drinking Still Raise Concerns

      Binge drinking rates are down among adolescents in the United States; however, the trend isn't benefiting all teenagers equally, according to a study published online May 22 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Could a Weight-Loss Surgery Lead to Alcohol Abuse?

      Patients who undergo Roux-en-Y gastric bypass appear more likely to develop drinking problem, study says. More...

    • Think You're a 'Fun Drunk?' A 'Mean Drunk?' Think Again

      Study finds people overestimate just how much boozing changes their personality. More...

    • Alcohol Linked to Higher Risk of Breast Cancer in Black Women

      Consuming seven or more alcoholic drinks a week appears to raise a black woman's risk of breast cancer, according to a study published in the May issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. More...

    • Moms-to-Be Are Heeding Store Warnings About Alcohol

      Drinking down 11 percent in states where liquor retailers must post signs, study finds. More...

    • Family History May Magnify Your Hangover

      People whose relatives have drinking problem recall day-after symptoms more clearly, study finds. More...

    • Alcohol Consumption Trending Upward Among Older Adults

      For adults age 60+ years, there is an upward trend in the prevalence of current drinking, according to a study published online March 24 in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. More...

    • More Older Women Hitting the Bottle Hard

      Study found dramatic jump in binge drinking in this vulnerable group. More...

Share This