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What Is Alcoholism? Definition, Signs & Treatment

Last Updated: November 1, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcoholism is a term often used to describe someone with signs of an alcohol use disorder, including a struggle to quit drinking.

Alcoholism may be the common term used to refer to alcohol addiction, but it is not technically or politically correct. When people talk about alcoholism, they usually describe a person with symptoms of an alcohol use disorder.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a brain disease in which a person has limited ability to stop drinking, even when they face serious consequences from alcohol misuse. An AUD is a legitimate medical condition because it leads to brain changes that make a person vulnerable to relapse. With treatment, a person can overcome an alcohol use disorder and reduce the harm alcohol misuse has on their life. 

Signs and Symptoms of an Alcoholic 

People who worry that their drinking may be a problem often ask, “How do I know if I’m an alcoholic?” The signs of alcoholism often correlate with the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder. A person with an AUD is likely to show some or many of the following symptoms:

  • Strong alcohol cravings, which may lead them to drink early in the day
  • Spending a significant amount of money on alcohol
  • Giving up other activities in favor of alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink, even when it causes problems with important relationships, such as with a spouse or children
  • Being unable to function at work because of alcohol misuse
  • Drinking when it places a person in danger, such as driving under the influence 

Why Do People Drink?

When people have an alcohol use disorder, they may have begun drinking because alcohol served a purpose or alleviated a problem. Unfortunately, over time, continued drinking can lead to addiction. Below are some common reasons people may begin drinking. 

Stress Relief

Research on people who consume alcohol has found that binge drinking is often used as a form of stress relief. Alcohol consumption may be viewed as a way to relax and alleviate stress. 


Drinking can also become a way of coping with unpleasant emotions. Studies have found that this is especially true for people who live with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Alcohol may temporarily boost a person’s mood and alleviate anxiety, becoming an unhealthy coping mechanism for psychological distress and other life problems. 

Social Anxiety

Alcohol can also be a way to deal with anxiety in social situations. Social motives have been found to play a role in motivating young people to drink. Those who have difficulty opening up to others may find that their shyness decreases and self-esteem temporarily increases while they’re under the influence. 

Short- and Long-term Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse

While alcohol use may temporarily relieve stress, it often does more harm than good over time, especially when used in large amounts. Over the short term, alcohol intoxication increases the risk of:

  • Injuries
  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Drownings
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Unwanted pregnancy 

A person who drinks heavily can also develop alcohol poisoning, which can be life-threatening. Finally, alcohol use is associated with violence and sexual assault.

Over the long term, alcohol misuse is linked to numerous health problems, including the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive system problems
  • Increased risk of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon and rectum
  • Immune system dysfunction 
  • Problems with learning and memory
  • Increased risk of dementia
  • Mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety 

Treatment Options for Alcoholism

Because an alcohol use disorder is a legitimate medical condition, many people require treatment to overcome it. The good news is that numerous quality treatment options and different levels of care are available. 


Alcohol use disorder treatment often begins with a medical detox program to help people stay safe and comfortable through alcohol withdrawal. Even mild withdrawal symptoms, which include tremors, anxiety and sleep disturbance, can be unpleasant. A medical detox program can offer supportive care and, if necessary, medical intervention to minimize withdrawal side effects. 

In some cases, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even fatal. Patients may develop seizures or experience delirium tremens, a life-threatening condition if not treated. A medical detox program can provide medications to treat severe withdrawal side effects and reduce the risk of serious complications. 


After completing a medical detox program, it’s important to transition into an ongoing rehabilitation program. Some programs fall under the residential level of care, meaning patients live on-site at a treatment center. Others are outpatient, which allows patients to attend appointments at a clinic or facility, and then return home afterward. Regardless of the specific level of care, alcohol use disorder is typically treated with a combination of talk therapy, support groups and medications. 


After completing an alcohol rehab program, staying committed to recovery is important. Aftercare services begin once you complete an intensive treatment program, such as a stay in a residential rehab or a full outpatient program. Quality aftercare programs help you stay engaged in the recovery community and reduce your risk of relapse. An aftercare program connects you to other services in the community, such as local support groups or medical care, and helps make a relapse prevention plan. 

Get Help for Alcohol Addiction at The Recovery Village Kansas City

If you or someone you love is seeking alcohol addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Kansas City is here to help. We’re located in Raytown, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City. We offer a full continuum of care, including residential rehab, partial hospitalization programming and intensive outpatient services. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to learn more or to begin the admissions process. 

Explore Our Levels of Care

Our full continuum of customizable treatment plans ensure each patient gets professional care that meets their needs.


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed April 28, 2023.

Ferrarelli, Leslie K. “Binge drinking for stress relief.” Science Signaling, April 7, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2023.

Lars Sjödin, Lars; Larm, Pete; Karlsson, Patrik; Livingston, Michael; Raninen, Jonas. “Drinking motives and their associations with alcohol use among adolescents in Sweden.” Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, June 2021. Accessed April 28, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” April 14, 2022. Accessed April 28, 2023.

Bayard, Max; Mcintyre, Jonah; Hill, Keith; Woodside, Jack. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” American Family Physician, March 15, 2004. Accessed April 29, 2023.