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Progression of Alcoholism

According to experts in the field, the development of alcohol dependence can occur over a lengthy period of time ranging from five to twenty years. Initially, the alcoholic displays a tolerance for alcohol; that is, it is necessary for the drinker to consume larger amounts of alcohol, as the usual amount ingested no longer produces the desired effect. With the increased dosages of alcohol, the likelihood is greater that complications will occur. Unfortunately, the alcoholic may not be aware of the effect that alcohol is having on the body.

The alcoholic may engage in periods of abstinence from drinking. This "holiday" from drinking is often unsuccessful, and the drinker may begin to drink again while attempting to exhibit some element of control over drinking behavior. Lack of control is paramount in the alcoholic who cannot control consumption. As time passes, some alcoholics develop a reverse tolerance to alcohol, which means that they require less alcohol before experiencing psychoactive effects. In this situation, even though a smaller amount of alcohol may produce feelings of intoxication, the alcoholic continues to drink in escalating amounts.

Alcoholics may experience physical withdrawal symptoms if alcohol is withheld. These symptoms may include:

  • elevated blood pressure
  • fine hand tremors, often called "shakes"
  • increased rate of respiration or breathing
  • elevated heart rate
  • anxiety and restlessness
  • nausea sometimes accompanied by vomiting
  • decreased appetite
  • insomnia
  • sweating
  • confusion

In severe withdrawal, the following symptoms may be observed:

  • hallucinations
  • seizures
  • delirium tremens (DT's) - visual and auditory hallucinations accompanied by seizures and profound disorientation and confusion. Anyone experiencing DT's should be medically managed by a health professional.

It is estimated that seven percent of adults in the United States are alcoholics. Men are more often at risk, but the number of female alcoholics is growing. It is also assumed that women may be better able to hide their drinking from family members.