What is alcoholism?

The holidays have recently passed, and with them many rounds of parties and entertaining. Undoubtedly, alcohol was consumed, as it is at most festive occasions. However, for some families, these situations are troubling if a loved one has trouble with alcohol.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a chronic disease that can affect people of all ages and social strata. The signs include someone having trouble controlling their drinking, being obsessed with alcohol, continuing to drink even when it makes them ill, and having to increase the amount they drink to get the same effect. An alcoholic also has trouble staying away from drinking, and experiences physical withdrawal when he or she tries to stop.

What are the treatments for alcoholism?

Currently, the most popular treatments include detoxification and withdrawal, followed by learning new behavioral skills and psychological counseling. Detoxification and withdrawal is usually done at a treatment center or hospital where medication can be administered to control withdrawal side effects. Behavioral treatment programs are administered by alcohol treatment specialists and typically include goal setting, techniques for changing behavior, self-help manuals, and support visits with counselors. Counseling and therapy–individually or in a group setting–can help alcoholics better understand why they have a problem with alcohol and address the psychological aspects of their addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most widely recommended program.

While these programs can be very successful, in some cases, the addiction is so strong that these efforts have little or no effect, or they may work for a short while, and then the person relapses. This cycle may repeat again and again.

Can medication help with alcoholism?

The answer is “yes,” in many cases. There is no magic cure for alcoholism. It is a complex disease and the reasons people drink are varied. Some drink due to anxiety or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, others may have a genetic predisposition toward alcohol or are coping with depression. However, over the years, researchers have studied the brains of alcoholics and have found that certain drugs, combined with therapy, can help ease patients away from their addiction.

Currently, there are three different drugs that are being used to help combat alcoholism. Two reduce the craving for alcohol, and the third causes the patient to become physically ill if he consumes alcohol.

What are the medications and how do they work?

Naltrexone and acamprosate reduce the craving to drink. Naltrexone also blocks the good feelings that alcohol causes. The third drug, Antabuse, helps prevent alcoholics from drinking because it causes a strong physical reaction–nausea, vomiting, headaches–if the patient consumes alcohol; however, it doesn’t reduce the cravings. Treatment centers, such as the Hazeldon Center, are now using naltrexone and acamprosate as a regular part of their program. These medications help alcoholics get through that critical 12 to 18 months when they are most apt to relapse. It is believed that if they can remain sober during this period, then they have a better chance of the behavioral and psychological therapies taking hold, and ultimately, making a long-term recovery.


Because alcoholism is a complex disease, any treatment program should encompass counseling and ongoing support. Alcoholism frequently has psychological issues at its core, so therapy is important. Alcoholics also often suffer from other mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder; treating these as well as the disease of alcoholism is critical. Support groups, such as AA, play a vital role in helping alcoholics continue and maintain their recovery by advising on lifestyle, behavior, and just being there when times are difficult. All of these remain essential parts of an alcoholism recovery effort, but if medication has not been tried, it is something to consider. Bullet

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