Alcohol dependence is a disorder of the central nervous system, characterised by a pattern of alcohol consumption leading to physiological, psychological and social impairment.
Alcohol dependence overview
Alcohol dependence is a CNS disorder, with a high risk of a chronic, relapsing and progressive course. Extensive research over the past 20 years has contributed to understanding the disease, moving the concept of alcohol dependence away from a moral character flaw to a medical condition that can be - and indeed should be – treated.
Alcohol is toxic, and excessive drinking increases a person’s risk of developing more than 60 other diseases. Excessive alcohol consumption is also associated with a large cost to society due to violence, lost productivity, and healthcare costs.
Alcohol dependence affects people of all ages and socio-economic groups. It is now clear, that genes and environment contribute about equally to the risk of alcohol dependence. However, the question remains to be answered as to why some people are more vulnerable than others.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence include being unable to limit the amount of alcohol consumed, feeling a need or compulsion to drink, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, and shaking, when abstaining from drinking.
Furthermore, an alcohol-dependent individual may become irritable if alcohol is not available, and the condition may lead to problems with relationships, employment, or finances. These signs may be noticed by the individual, or by members of their family.
Alcohol dependence can also lead to concurrent medical problems, such as cirrhosis of the liver, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and mental health and behavioural disorders.For most conditions, alcohol increases the risk in proportion to the dose, i.e. the higher the consumption, the greater the risk.
Excessive alcohol consumption is common in many parts of the world, especially Europe. In the EU, 5.0% of adult men and 1.4% of adult women are estimated to be alcohol dependent in any one year. This corresponds to approximately 12 million people. Worldwide, 125 million people have alcohol use disorders.
Alcohol dependence has a social cost due to alcohol-related crime and traffic accidents, and loss of productivity due to absenteeism, unemployment and deaths. In Europe, a 2003 estimate of these costs was €125 billion, equivalent to 1.3% of gross domestic product.
More than 80% of alcohol-dependent people worldwide remain undiagnosed. Of those diagnosed, only a small fraction, around 10%, receive treatment.
Seeking diagnosis and care
People who think that they might be alcohol-dependent can receive help and advice from their doctor. The aims of assessment for the disorder are to determine its cause and severity, and to assess the motivation of the person to commit to treatment. Diagnosis considers biological signs, and behavioural and social factors. Information from family, friends and work colleagues can also be important for diagnosis.
Treatment for alcohol dependence consists of behavioural therapy, which is generally provided alongside medicines. Support from those close to the patient is also very important.
It is essential that people with alcohol dependence receive professional advice before seeking treatment.
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