There is much debate amongst people if alcoholism is a disease or not. It doesn't fit the mold of a disease and most of the time we deny it exists. Even though alcoholism has been recognized by the medical community as a chronic, progressive and even fatal disease, those who suffer from it sometimes refuse to admit they have a disease. Even though alcoholism has some of the same characteristics of diseases. Alcoholism has a predictable course just like any other disease and comes with recognized symptoms also.
What is alcoholism?
The most simple way to put it is that alcoholism is a mental obsession that causes a physical compulsion to drink alcohol. A alcoholic has no control over his urge to drink and the only way to stop that urge is to take a drink. Alcoholism also progresses overtime. You don't start out automatically drinking 10 drinks a day, instead you start off with maybe 2 drinks, and then 2 becomes 3 drinks and so on. This happens slowly sometimes over the course of a few years and more often than not, you will never even realize when alcohol has taken over your life.
Many people are hesitant to call alcoholism a disease because the cause of the disease is alcohol dependence. It is not a germ or anything invades your body. Some could argue that alcohol is a toxin that enters your body and causes the disease. Not everyone buys that though. To some of us alcoholism might just be an excuse to drink.
However the medical field feels differently. Some doctors have begun to refer to alcoholism as "alcohol dependence syndrome". Many also state that it is a progressive disease and moves through stages. There is an early stage, which is when it might take only one or two drinks to get the cravings to stop. As it moves into the middle stage it takes more drinks to stop the cravings. Alcohol begins to have more control in the middle stages of alcoholism. Finally in end stage alcoholism, an alcoholic has no control over his or her own life. Alcohol is calling the shots. Most alcoholics do not even know that they lost control as time goes on. This is why denial is a symptom that almost all alcoholics suffer from.
Doctors can diagnose alcoholism after a full exam that includes a behavioral evaluation and a medical evaluation. A behavioral evaluation will look at your history, drinking patterns and even environmental issues like your stress level to determine what your alcohol use is. A medical evaluation is when your doctor will look for physical symptoms of alcohol dependence. You might be submitted to tests to see if there is any neurological damage or any damage done to your organs.
Just as with many diseases, alcoholism can be treated and managed but there is no cure for it. You can not say you were an alcoholic but rather you are a recovering alcoholic.
Is Alcoholism Hereditary?
The topic of much medical debate is can alcoholics pass their disease on to their children? Many signs are pointing to yes but not in the typical fashion.
With a "typical" disease, our genetic makeup can contribute to if we are more vulnerable to diseases such as cancer, or other medical diseases. However there is no genetic makeup that will make our kids crave alcohol.
So does that mean that there are certain personality traits that can be inherited from our genetic makeup that could make our kids more prone to turning to alcohol down the line? Studies are showing that there are, although these characteristics are usually only partially inherited.
So while it's not genetically inherited, alcoholism can pass from one generation to the next due to the influence of the environment. If you are a child of an alcoholic you are 4 times more likely to grow up to be an alcoholic than someone who isn't a child of an alcoholic. This is true even if you live in a house with an alcoholic and it doesn't have to be a parent. It could be a sibling or aunt who lives with you. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. You grow up watching your parents in this behavior and it tends to be learned. You become a product of your environment. If you grow up learning that the only way to deal with a stressful situation is to have a drink then that is what you are going to do.
I have a childhood friend whose mother was an alcoholic and sad to say she started drinking when she was seventeen. By 21 she was a full fledge alcoholic who insisted to everyone that she didn't have a drinking problem and she could stop drinking whenever she wanted to. These were the exact words she had heard her mother countless times through out the years. It was her mother's death from liver failure that finally woke up her up and got her to open her eyes. She finally got help by joining AA and has been sober for 4 years.
This isn't to say though that everyone who grows up in a home with an alcoholic is bound to be an alcoholic, there is just a greater risk. There are some people who realize that what they see at home is not always right and they take steps to avoid falling into the same traps they have seen. My husband comes from a family of alcoholics. His uncle, brother and cousin are all recovering alcoholics. Because of what he saw them go through, and he watched them fall deeper and deeper into the disease that he gave up drinking once our first daughter was born nearly 2 years ago.
So while it is not passed down generation to generation by our genes, it can be passed down generation to generation.
Drugs to Treat Alcoholism
For some of you out there, going to Alcoholic anonymous might not be enough. While they offer a great support system and belief system with the 12 steps, it might not be enough. The call of alcohol might be too great to handle without some sort of medical assistance.
Right now there are only three medications that the FDA has approved for the treatment of alcohol abuse. These medicines will never be prescribed to you if you are still drinking because they do not stop you from drinking. They are only prescribed if you have already stopped drinking and are trying to stay clean.
The first medicine that is approved is Disulfiram
Disulfiram was the first drug that was FDA approved for treatment of alcohol dependence. The purpose of this drug is cause a negative reaction if you were to drink while taking it. This happens because Disulfiram works against the alcohol to have a build up of acetaldehyde (which causes hang over symptoms) that is nearly 5x or even 10x greater than what would normally occur. In other words, this will give you the worse hangover you ever experienced. If you drink while taking this you could experience nausea, chest pain, headache, confusion, and marked uneasiness among others. Remember though that Disulfiram does not treat any withdrawal symptoms nor does it stop cravings.
The second drug is Naltrexone which is otherwise known as Revia or Depade.
This drug reduces the craving for alcohol. It is not really clear how it works to reduce the craving but it's believed that the drug affects the pathways in the brain where dopamine is found. Usually it is taken as a pill and is taken over a period of 12 weeks to help people who have already committed to stop drinking. As with Disulfiram, it is not used to teat the symptoms of withdrawal other than the cravings.
Lastly there is Acamprosate or Campral.
Out of all three medications Campral is the most recent one that received FDA approval, however it has been used in Europe for many years. As with Naltexone, it is not really clear how Campral works with the brain to help you maintain your abstinence. Many doctors believe that it restores a chemical balance in your brain that has been out of whack due to long term alcohol abuse. This is also the only drug that reduces the physical distress and emotional discomfort you might experience once you quit drinking. You might find that you don't suffer from as severe sweating, anxiety or sleep disturbances than other who are not taking this might.
If you have recently quit drinking either by entering therapy or joining Alcoholics anonymous and find yourself struggling with it, you should talk to your doctor to see if any of these medications would help you. When it comes to kicking the bottle, you should make it a priority to pursue every option to help you beat your addiction.