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Alcoholism is a condition resulting from excessive drinking of beverages that contain alcohol. Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a disease that includes the following four symptoms:

  • Physical dependence - withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety after stopping drinking
  • Tolerance - the need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get ‘high’
  • Craving - a strong need, or urge, to drink
  • Loss of control - not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun

Heavy drinking is widespread. According to the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 21 per cent of recent drinkers aged 14 or older put themselves or others at risk of harm while under the influence of alcohol in the previous 12 months. Overall, around 26 per cent of persons aged 14 years and over have put themselves at risk of alcohol-related harm in the short term on at least one drinking occasion during the last 12 months and 18.2 per cent of men and women over the age of 14 years consumed alcohol in a way considered risky or a high risk to health in the long term, placing themselves at increased risk of future health and social problems. Although the number of persons consuming alcohol daily, declined between 2010 (7.2%) and 2013 (6.5%) and the proportion of pregnant women abstaining during pregnancy increased slightly from 49 per cent to 53 per cent.

The major health risks of alcoholism include trauma, liver disease, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, pancreatitis and nervous system disorders (mental illness). These conditions often develop gradually and may only become evident after long-term heavy drinking. Women also tend to develop health problems before men. The liver is particularly vulnerable to diseases related to heavy drinking, most commonly alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation) or cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).

Experts have defined a second problem, called alcohol abuse, as something different from alcoholism. The difference is that those who abuse alcohol do not have an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control over drinking, or physical dependence. People who abuse alcohol also can develop the physical symptoms related to alcoholism. Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that results in particular situations, such as failure to fulfil work, school or home duties, or having recurring alcohol-related legal problems, such as arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Last Review Date: March 6, 2017

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