Understanding the Basics of Alcoholism

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The term alcoholism refers to a disease known as alcohol dependence syndrome, the most severe stage of a group of drinking problems which begins with binge drinking and alcohol abuse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Types of Alcohol Problems

Alcohol problems occur at different levels of severity, from mild and annoying to life-threatening. Although alcohol dependence (alcoholism) is the most severe stage, less severe drinking problems can also be dangerous. Learn more about the different types.

Binge Drinking

Officially, binge drinking means having five or more drinks in one session for men and four or more for women. Another informal definition for binge drinking is simply drinking to get drunk, although this usage is not clinically specific. Binge drinking is the most common drinking problem for young people under the age of 21.

Alcohol Abuse

Binge drinking turns into alcohol abuse when your drinking begins to cause problems in your daily life and the drinking continues anyway—in other words, alcohol abuse is when you continue to drink in spite of continued social, interpersonal, or legal difficulties. Alcohol abuse can result in missing time at school or work, neglecting child or household responsibilities or incurring legal problems including lawsuits from unpaid bills or criminal prosecution for public intoxication, drunk driving, or domestic violence.

Because alcohol impairs your judgment, you're more likely to do "something stupid" under the influence of alcohol than if you were stone-cold sober.

Alcohol abuse means your ratio of drunk to sober starts to tip into strongly unfavorable territory.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol abuse becomes alcohol dependence when drinkers begin to experience a craving for alcohol, a loss of control of their drinking, withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking and an increased tolerance to alcohol so that they have to drink more to achieve the same effect. Alcohol dependence is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes a strong need to drink despite repeated problems.

Is Alcoholism Inherited?

Alcoholism tends to run in families and a significant amount of scientific research suggests that genetics play a role in developing alcohol problems. But research also shows that a person's environment and peer influences also affect your risk of becoming alcohol dependent. Just having a family history of alcoholism does not doom a person into becoming an alcoholic.

Getting Help

Alcoholism is a serious condition but if you or someone you love is affected by it, seek help. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Alcohol Treatment Navigator is a great resource. Your primary care doctor or a public health nurse can help steer you in the right direction, or you can visit an open meeting of a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Article Sources
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  1. Edenberg HJ, Foroud T. Genetics and alcoholismNat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013;10(8):487-494. doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2013.86

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator.

Additional Reading
  • Gilbertson, R., Prather, R., and Nixon, S.J., 2008. The role of selected factors in the development and consequences of alcohol dependence. Alcohol Research & Health31(4), p.389.