Alcohol Abuse & Dependence: Signs & Symptoms

It is estimated that South Africans drink in excess of 5 billion litres of alcohol per annum; this equates to 9 – 10 litres of alcohol per person. 

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Alcohol use among the youth of South Africa is rife and increases with age for both males and females. The reasons for alcohol use and abuse range from a desire to fit in, peer pressure, boredom, poor home environment, the relative cheapness of alcohol, as well as it’s ease of access.

Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Dependence

A distinction is made between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence (or alcoholism). Alcohol abusers are thought to have some semblance of control over their alcohol intake and as such are able to set limits for themselves; this does not, however, mean that their drinking cannot or will not progress to more dangerous or dependent habits.

Alcohol dependence or alcoholism can develop gradually over time as a person’s alcohol tolerance increases. The risk of developing alcoholism is greater for those who partake in binge (a period of excessive or uncontrolled indulgence) drinking or who consume alcohol on a daily basis. Alternatively, alcohol dependence can develop relatively suddenly due to a genetic predisposition or family history of alcoholism, or stressful life events.

Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse 

Alcohol abuse refers to drinking habits that impact negatively on a person’s personal, interpersonal and work/school relationships and environments.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Drinking as a stress reliever – For many the use of alcohol to de-stress is the beginning of a downward spiral; the reason for this being that alcohol is a sedative, meaning that over time a person needs to consume more of it in order for it to have the same effect it initially had. 
  • Repeated neglect of responsibilities – Either because of drinking or the effects of drinking (i.e. suffering from a hang over) responsibilities at home, school or work are neglected e.g. poor work performance, poor or failing grades, absenteeism etc.
  • Alcohol use and poor judgement – Alcohol use impairs a person’s judgement and physical responses resulting in poor and dangerous decision making such as drinking and driving, drinking and having sex, mixing alcohol with medication, drinking in unsafe areas or neighbourhoods.
  • Drinking despite relationship problems – Continuing to drink despite the fact that your alcohol consumption is resulting in relationship problems at home, with friends and at work / school.
  • Legal problems due to drinking – Drinking patterns resulting in repeated legal problems such as: getting arrested for drunken driving, getting involved in drunken fights, domestic violence, drunk and disorderly conduct. 

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 Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Dependence

In addition to the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse, alcoholism includes three additional aspects: tolerance, physical dependence and withdrawal.

  • Tolerance – refers to the need for increased amounts of alcohol in order for it to have the same effect. Signs of increased tolerance include: consuming more alcohol than other people without show signs of intoxication; drinking more than you used to.
  • Lack of control – drinking more than you intended and / or for longer than you intended despite telling yourself or others that you wouldn’t.
  • Inability to stop – you have the desire to cut down or stop drinking alcohol but all efforts either to stop or to stay sober fail.
  • Pre-occupation with drinking – you spend increasing less time doing things that used to interest you as a result of your drinking; you spend an increasing amount of time drinking, thinking about drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking. 
  • Withdrawal – you experience withdrawal symptoms as the alcohol wears off and you sober up, e.g. shakiness, anxiety, sweating, trembling, vomiting, nausea, insomnia, irritability, depression, loss of appetite and headaches. Drinking in order to relieve or avoid these symptoms is a sign of alcohol dependence.


References:

Ideo. (2009). Laboratory Posters for Eli Lilly and Company: Inspiring scientists to be more patient-sensitive. Retrieved from: http://www.ideo.com/work/laboratory-posters [Accessed on: 22 April 2015].

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (2015). Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved from: https://ncadd.org/learn-about-alcohol/signs-and-symptoms [Accessed on: 22 April 2015].

NYC Department of Healthy and Mental Hygiene. (2011). New Health Department Subway Poster Campaign Illustrates Dangers of Excessive Drinking. Retrieved from: http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/pr2011/pr032-11.shtml  [Accessed on: 22 April 2015].

Seggie, J. (2012). Alcohol and South Africa’s Youth. South African Medical Journal, 102(7), 587

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