Alcoholism is a chronic (long-term), progressive disease that includes alcohol cravings and continued drinking despite repeated alcohol-related problems, such as losing a job or getting into trouble with the law. Symptoms include cravings, impaired control, physical dependence, and increased tolerance. Left untreated, alcoholism can be fatal.
Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive (affecting the mind or mental processes) drug.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, almost 18 million Americans abuse alcohol. Almost three times as many men (9.8 million) as women (3.9 million) are problem drinkers and prevalence is highest for both sexes in the 18 to 29 years-old age group. Each year more than 100,000 Americans die of alcohol-related causes. Alcohol is a factor in nearly half of all U.S. traffic deaths.
About 43% of U.S. adults (76 million people) have been exposed to alcoholism in the family. They either grew up with or married an alcoholic or a problem drinker, or had a blood relative (cousin, aunt, uncle, etc) who was an alcoholic or problem drinker.
People who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who begin at age 21.
Alcohol and drug abuse costs the American economy an estimated $276 billion per year in lost productivity, healthcare expenditures, crime, and motor vehicle crashes.
One-quarter of all emergency room admissions, one-third of all suicides, and more than half of all homicides and incidents of domestic violence are alcohol-related. Heavy drinking contributes to illness in each of the top three causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Almost half of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related. Between 48-64% of people who die in fires have blood alcohol levels indicating intoxication.
Healthcare professionals recommend drinking alcoholic beverages in moderation. Experts suggest limiting intake to one drink per day for women or two per day for men taken with a meal to slow alcohol absorption. A drink of alcohol is considered 12 ounces beer, 5 ounces of wine (one glass) or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (liquor). Avoid drinking before or when driving. Avoid drinking alcohol while taking prescription medications, unless otherwise recommended by a healthcare professional.
Binge drinking: Binge drinking is irresponsible heavy drinking that often comes under the disguise of fun and games. Binge drinking can be dangerous to the drinker and to people around him or her, possibly resulting in death. Binge drinkers drink "to get drunk." The goal is to drink large amounts of alcohol quickly resulting in loss of control of mental and physical faculties. Binge drinkers may engage in foolish, potentially deadly behaviors such as driving drunk, starting fights, and taking unnecessary risks such as having unprotected sex.
Studies that have been conducted in the past 10 years indicate that the highest proportion of drinkers, binge drinkers, and individuals with multiple substance dependencies tend to be within the age range that encompasses nearly 92% of all enrolled college students. College-aged individuals, from 18-22 years of age, are at very high risk for binge drinking and abusing alcohol. Binge drinking among college students has been consistently associated with higher incidences of physical injury, unplanned sexual activity, sexual and physical assaults, alcohol-related driving injuries and fatalities, date rape, criminal mischief, property damage, and trouble with campus and local police. Numerous college students die annually from alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a serious and sometimes deadly result of consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol. When the body absorbs too much alcohol (depending on the weight, sex, heredity, and health of the individual), it can directly impact the central nervous system, slowing the breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex. This can lead to choking, coma, and death.
U.S. Government warning: The Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act (or ABLA) is a U.S. Federal law enacted in 1988. The act requires that, among other provisions, the labels of alcoholic beverages must carry a "government warning," that reads: "Government Warning: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects; (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs the ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems."
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alcohol and the body
Alcohol, or ethanol, acts as a drug affecting the central nervous system (CNS). Its behavioral effects, such as slurred speech or stumbling, are a result of its influence on the response in the nervous tissue and not on the muscles or senses themselves. Alcohol is a depressant, and depending on the dose, can be a mild tranquilizer or a general anesthetic. At very low doses, alcohol can appear to be a stimulant by suppressing certain inhibitory brain functions. However, as concentration increases, further suppression of nervous tissue functions produce the classic symptoms of intoxication, including slurred speech, unsteady gate, disturbed sensory perceptions, and inability to react quickly. At high concentrations, ethanol produces general anesthesia. A highly intoxicated person will be in a coma-like state and very difficult to wake. In extreme cases, if the alcohol concentration is high enough, it will inhibit basic involuntary bodily functions such as breathing and can cause death.
Alcohol is metabolized (a body process of converting ingested substances to other compounds) by the liver. Metabolism involves a number of processes, one of which is referred to as oxidation. Through oxidation in the liver, alcohol is detoxified to the chemical acetaldehyde, then to acetic acid (vinegar), and finally to carbon dioxide and water. Alcohol and toxins are removed from the blood, preventing them from accumulating and destroying cells and organs. A small amount of alcohol escapes metabolism and is excreted unchanged in the breath, in the sweat, and in urine. Until all the alcohol consumed has been metabolized, it is distributed throughout the body, affecting the brain and other tissues.
The liver can metabolize only a certain amount of alcohol per hour, regardless of the amount that has been consumed. The rate of alcohol metabolism depends, in part, on the amount of metabolizing enzymes in the liver, which varies among individuals. In general, after the consumption of one standard drink, the amount of alcohol in the drinker's blood peaks within 30-45 minutes. A standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, all of which contain the same amount of alcohol. Alcohol is metabolized more slowly than it is absorbed. Since the metabolism of alcohol is slow, consumption needs to be controlled to prevent accumulation in the body and further intoxication.
Moderation: Drinking in moderation may lower the risk for coronary heart disease, including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and heart attack, mainly among men over age 45 and women over age 55. However, with increased consumption of alcohol, there are increased public health dangers, such as alcoholism, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, stroke (neurological damage resulting from lack of oxygen to brain tissue), cardiomyopathy (inflammation of the heart muscle), a number of cancers, liver disease, accidents, suicides, and fetal alcohol syndrome. In addition, individuals with an inherited predisposition to a variety of metabolic conditions, such as hypertriglyceridemia (genetic disorder where the levels of triglycerides in the blood are abnormally high), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), and porphyria (an inherited disease that results in low heme or iron carrying particle in the blood), should not consume alcohol at all. There are other factors that reduce the risk of heart disease, including a healthy diet, physical activity, avoidance of smoking, and maintenance of a healthy weight. Moderate consumption provides little, if any, health benefit for younger people.