Feb 1, 2005 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Alcoholism—What Should I Know About It?

Am Fam Physician. 2005 Feb 1;71(3):509-510.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a disease that affects the part of the brain that controls your feelings, the way you make decisions, and the way you act. People with alcoholism cannot control how much they drink.

What causes alcoholism?

Nobody knows what causes alcoholism. People with parents who have alcoholism have a greater chance of getting the disease. Alcoholism may be related to the things we learn when we are growing up. Alcoholism is not caused by a lack of will power or moral values.

How can I tell if I have alcoholism?

It is not easy to tell if you have alcoholism. You might drink socially at first, but over time the drinking can get out of control. Your family, friends, or doctor might notice it before you do. You might drink to help yourself go to sleep or deal with stress and anxiety. Over time, you need to drink more to feel the same way. As the drinking gets worse, you may have some of the following:

  • Stomach ulcers

  • Liver disease

  • Mood problems, such as depression and irritability

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Problems with family and friends

  • Problems at work.

You might have alcoholism if you have tried to quit drinking but were not able to stop. Alcoholism can make you do things you wouldn't do if you were sober. Some of these things can hurt other people, even the people you love.

Where can I get help for alcoholism?

Your doctor can help you find the right treatment program. You also can check with your health insurance company. Some insurance plans cover alcohol treatment only at certain places.

If you have been a heavy drinker for a long time, do not stop drinking suddenly. This can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms.

What is withdrawal?

When you stop drinking, your body might find it hard with no alcohol. You might have some uncomfortable feelings. That is called withdrawal. You might feel anxious and confused or have trouble sleeping. If you get “the shakes” when you don't drink, or if you feel like you need to have a drink early in the day, you might need to take medicine when you stop drinking to help with the withdrawal. This is called detoxification (say: dee-tox-uh-fuh-kayshun, or “detox,” for short).

How can my doctor tell if I need detoxification?

Your doctor will ask you questions to see if you need to take medicine to stop drinking. It is important to be honest with your doctor about how much you drink and the kinds of drugs you take.

Can detoxification be done at home?

Yes, but only with close supervision from your doctor. You will need to have another person at home to help you take your medicine. If you have serious withdrawal symptoms or other medical problems, you might have to go to a hospital for detoxification. Tell your doctor if you had a seizure or got delirious when you tried to stop drinking before.

What happens after detoxification?

Detoxification is not enough to treat alcoholism. You should have counseling before and after detoxification. Counseling will help keep you from drinking again.

What about Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous, or “A.A.,” is a free support group for people with alcoholism. The people in A.A. help each other stay sober. Most communities have A.A. meetings, and most alcohol treatment programs tell their patients to go to these meetings.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

Alcoholics Anonymous

Telephone: 1-212-870-3400,

or check your local telephone book

Web site: http://www.aa.org

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Web site: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Web site: http://www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2005 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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