What Does the Term 'Alcoholic' Mean?

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While many people may use the term "alcoholic" to describe someone who has an alcohol addiction, the term is offensive and outdated. It's more appropriate to say "a person with alcohol use disorder" or "substance use disorder." Following a description of the term "alcoholic," this article will use the more appropriate terminology.

What Does the Term 'Alcoholic' Mean?

Alcoholic

The term alcoholic refers to a person with a condition known as alcohol use disorder (AUD). The disorder makes a person who has it experience an intense desire for alcohol even when it has adverse effects on their health. However, referring to a person with this condition as an alcoholic has negative connotations that can be harmful and hurtful.

AUD is a condition that needs proper treatment and management. Labels such as 'alcoholic' do nothing to help a person with the disorder get the help they need.

A person with AUD can lose control over the amount of alcohol they consume and continue to drink despite any adverse health, social or occupational consequences. 

Traits of Alcohol Use Disorder 

Alcohol use disorder can be a sneaky condition, especially for people who have already consumed alcohol occasionally. Common traits to look out for if you suspect you or a loved one might have the disorder include:

  • Being unable to stop drinking when you start 
  • Hiding the fact that you are drinking alcohol from your family and friends 
  • Drinking alcohol to feel better about yourself or a situation 
  • Frequently blacking out after long bouts of drinking 
  • Feeling an unrelenting urge to drink 
  • Hiding alcohol in places where your family and friends are unlikely to find it 
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed 
  • Feeling stressed, angry, or irritable when you are not drinking or when you are deprived of alcohol 
  • Becoming nauseous or jittery when you are not drinking 

Identifying Alcoholism

Heavy alcohol use is the most identifying feature of alcohol use disorder. However, what comprises heavy alcohol use is often relative.

For this reason, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy alcohol use as consuming more than four drinks a day or fourteen drinks a week for men. For women, they describe it as consuming more than three drinks a day or more than seven drinks a week. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.

"The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" provides diagnostic criteria for identifying alcohol use disorder. For a person to be diagnosed with the condition, three of the following factors must have been present for at least twelve months. 

  • Increased alcohol tolerance; however, a metabolic problem such as liver damage might prevent increased alcohol tolerance.
  • Continuing to consume alcohol despite being aware of and experiencing negative consequences
  • Spending an excessive amount of time thinking of, consuming, or trying to acquire alcohol
  • When not drinking, experiencing symptoms such as nausea, anxiety, insomnia, or jitters
  • Being unable to quit alcohol despite having a desire to stop
  • Consuming alcohol for more extended periods than they intend, for instance, not realizing that they have consumed alcohol every day at the end of a week
  • Withdrawing from social activities and interactions you once participated in and enjoyed

Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder 

Alcohol use disorder can develop as a result of varying reasons. Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a long period is most likely to result in alcohol use disorder. However, the time it takes for the condition to develop is highly individual.

While the condition might not develop for several years in some people, it might take only a few months for others. People in the latter category are often genetically predisposed to alcohol use disorder.

Certain factors put some people at a higher risk of developing the condition than others. They include: 

  • Stress: Many people report feeling an increased urge to drink when they have high-stress levels. However, drinking to alleviate stress can easily cause an alcohol dependency and lead to alcohol use disorder. 
  • Mental health conditions: Certain mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can cause an increased desire for alcohol consumption. Alcohol causes dopamine levels in your brain to rise, which can appeal to a person who feels sad or depressed. However, this is only short-term, and alcohol misuse has been shown to worsen symptoms of depression.
  • Genes: Genetics is linked with alcohol use disorder, although it's not clear what exact genes are responsible for the condition. If you have a family history of alcohol use disorder, it's advisable to avoid alcohol use altogether. People with a family history of the condition are more susceptible to also developing the condition and diseases related to the condition.  
  • Metabolism: People with high metabolism need to consume larger than usual amounts of alcohol to feel its effects. Drinking alcohol in large quantities is likely to lead to a dependency. 
  • Age: Starting alcohol use at an early age has been linked to alcohol-related conditions. A 2007 study showed that people who began drinking at the age of fourteen or younger were more likely to develop problems with alcohol consumption. 

Types of Alcohol Use Disorder 

The NIAAA has identified five subtypes that can help you better understand alcohol use disorder and how it affects different individuals.

They include: 

  • Young antisocial: People with antisocial personalities who develop the disorder fit this category. They often begin drinking at an early age to cope with their personality differences. 
  • Young adult: This category includes young adults who have developed the condition due to binge drinking. 
  • Functional: This category comprises middle-aged people who are typically educated and employed. 
  • Chronic severe: People in this category exhibit severe symptoms of alcohol use disorder. They typically have mental health conditions or other emotional, social, or financial problems. 
  • Intermediate familial: People who have close family members who also have the condition fit into this subtype. 

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

Treatment for alcohol use disorder varies depending on the severity of your symptoms and how long the condition has persisted. The most common treatment options for people with the condition include the following listed below.

Psychotherapy 

Alcohol use disorder is often linked to other mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. Talking to a qualified therapist can help you get to the root of your condition and devise a means to kick it.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which equips you with the tools to turn negative habits into positive ones, is often used. 

Medication 

You might be prescribed medication to help with your condition in severe cases.

Reviva, Vivitrol Campral, are relatively new drugs that help reduce alcohol cravings, and can also help reduce some people's desire to consume alcohol. Vivitrol and Revia can help people drink less alcohol even if they don't want to stop drinking entirely. Many times people find these medications help them to quit drinking for good.

Disulfiram is an older drug that works by causing an adverse reaction to alcohol whenever you drink it. You'll experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and flushing whenever you drink alcohol when on the medication.

It's important to note that this drug doesn't cure AUD. It only helps deter some people with the condition from drinking. 

Rehabilitation Programs 

Rehabilitation programs are an excellent treatment option for people with severe symptoms of the condition. They remove you from your triggers and focus on helping you heal for the period you are in them. You are likely to engage in several forms of therapy, from individual to group therapy.

A Word From Verywell 

Alcohol use disorder is a common condition. If you have it, you should know that you are not alone and you are living with a chronic medical condition that needs proper management and treatment. Some research shows that up to 6.2% of the American population lives with this condition. Recognizing that you need help is the first step in your treatment journey. If you or someone you know is showing traits of alcohol use disorder, contact your healthcare provider. 

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

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  6. McHugh R. Alcohol use disorder and depressive disorders. ARCR. 2019;40(1):arcr.v40.1.01.

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  9. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Researchers identify alcoholism subtypes.

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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.