Alcoholism is a devastating condition that can lead to many physical and mental health problems for the individual. It is not only the alcoholic who suffers from such substance abuse, but also friends, families and colleagues of the alcoholic. Sadly, the prognosis for an alcoholic is poor unless the individual is willing to enter recovery and remain abstinent thereafter. Those who do make the transition to sobriety can enjoy a long, full and rewarding life. However, once the individual is physically dependent on alcohol, the only long-term treatment is complete abstinence from alcohol.
An alcoholic is a person who suffers from alcohol dependency. Alcohol dependency can be defined as a physical and/or mental dependency on alcohol that has specified symptoms including a high level of tolerance to the effects of alcohol and the potential for withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol dependence is considered a chronic disease, as its symptoms are progressive and can be fatal. It is characterized by cravings and an increased tolerance to alcohol despite severe medical implications and an inability, physically and mentally, to stop drinking.
The World Health Organization estimates that up to 4 percent of all deaths worldwide are alcohol-related. This accounts for 2.5 million deaths, with over 300,000 between the ages of 15 and 29. Alcohol is a factor in up to 60 different diseases and injuries which include cirrhosis, poisonings, violence, cancer and heart disease. It is reportedly the world’s third-largest risk factor for disease burden. It is also associated with a number of social and developmental issues such as neglect and abuse.
Alcoholism is a disease that can affect anybody from anywhere. Mothers, fathers, sons, children, sisters and grandparents are all at risk of developing this terrible disease and suffering the consequences of alcohol dependency. Alcohol is a known risk factor for injury and harm for both the consumer and those around them. Alcohol causes a loss of inhibitions, behavioral changes and risk-taking. It harms the health and wellbeing of people in the wider community. An intoxicated person may cause an automobile accident or be involved in assaults, rapes or domestic violence. These issues cause big problems for society-at-large and can contribute to poor emotional health of others. Alcohol also contributes to infectious diseases including HIV, Hepatitis and sexually transmitted disease. It affects a person’s immune system, placing them and others around them at risk of contracting a disease or infection.
There are a large number of serious consequences to alcoholism that may contribute to the drinkers’ death. An alcoholic may die from the result of health problems such as liver disease, cancer, hepatitis, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, suicide or from being involved in an accident or assault.
Damage to the liver is a well-known problem for alcoholics. Most alcoholics will develop come liver complications as a result of their chronic and heavy drinking, and the damage can be fatal. Damage to the liver occurs in three stages: alcoholic liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. Not all people who develop alcoholic liver disease or hepatitis will have these turn into cirrhosis.
Alcoholic liver disease is considered the first stage of damage to the liver. It is the abnormal retention of lipids within the liver cells, which causes the liver to become fatty and thicken. If too much fat is found within the liver, the fat begins to replace healthy liver tissue and it will enlarge. Inflammation is common, as well as discomfort, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. If a person continues to abuse alcohol, they run the risk of this developing into alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. By abstaining from alcohol the body is able to recover, and the liver can heal.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition in which the liver is inflamed. It can cause liver disease, significant cell and organ destruction and can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, severe pain in the abdomen and swelling of the abdomen. Jaundice may also occur in some people. Alcoholic hepatitis can be fatal, but it will usually resolve with appropriate treatment.
Cirrhosis is the end result of chronic liver damage due to chronic alcoholism. It is considered the final, and fatal scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis is not able to be reversed, but treatments can delay further progression. Because the liver has been severely damaged by poor health and constant presence of alcohol, the body is unable to repair itself, and the liver becomes unable to facilitate the flow of blood. When this occurs, the body may develop a condition called ascites, which is an accumulation of liquid in the abdominal cavity leading to abdominal swelling. A person suffering from ascites will have difficulty breathing, suffer from severe pain and discomfort, experience kidney failure and eventually die from complications.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, or alcoholic wet brain, is a type of dementia that affects individuals in end-stage alcoholism. It is common amongst chronic-severe alcoholics and is caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency. Alcoholics are particularly at risk of developing this syndrome as a result of their poor nutrition and malnourishment. If a person is lacking vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, the body will have difficulty in metabolizing glucose, leading to atrophy in the brain. If untreated, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can lead to death. This is because brain cells in the body have been damaged beyond repair, and the brain tissue deteriorates.
Alcohol abuse is considered a key factor in suicide. Those who abuse alcohol are more likely to kill themselves than the general population. Many who suffer from depressive symptoms often self medicate using alcohol, and this exacerbates their symptoms. Additionally, alcohol can contribute to a person developing depression and experiencing suicidal thoughts. Alcohol can contribute to negative social problems which can further increase the risk of suicide. This is because people who use alcohol or may be more likely to be exposed to situations or events that can have significant traumatic affect on mental health. Examples of these traumatic situations include exposure to violence, prostitution, drug overdoses, assaults, injuries and illnesses.
Evidence suggests that that a high proportion of people who commit suicide are intoxicated at the time of their death. One report into youth suicide in Australia revealed that nearly half of male suicides and a third of female suicides had blood alcohol readings above the legal limit for driving a vehicle (0.05% Blood Alcohol Concentration). A person may become more depressed when drunk, feel that there is no escape from their problems and decide to end their life. Additionally, alcohol often leads to impulsive, spur-of-the-moment actions because of its dis-inhibiting properties.
Alcohol dependence can cause many problems for both the person with the addiction and those around them. Family problems, violence, money issues and health problems are just some of the issues that alcoholism can cause. These issues are also significant risk factors for suicide.
Alcohol is a major cause of accidental injury and deaths on the road. The presence of alcohol in the body has been shown to increase the severity of injuries from accidents. In the US, up to 40 percent of all youth road traffic fatalities are directly linked to alcohol. In the UK, experience shows that 20 percent of all fatal accidents involve a driver who was over the limit for alcohol.
Alcohol has a range of effects that increase accident risk on reaction times, cognitive processing, coordination, vigilance, vision and hearing. Alcohol is a depressant and has been shown to slow brain function. This causes people to have problems responding quickly enough to situations, make decisions or react to dangers. It can also make people sleepy and fatigued. Research has shown that people who have consumed alcohol have a reduced ability to judge how fast they are moving or gauge the distance between themselves and other objects or people. This is especially dangerous when driving, as these skills are essential for knowing how to make safe decisions on the road.
When anybody is facing death, they go through the stages of guilt and will feel anger, regret, guilt and finally acceptance about their death. For an alcoholic, these emotions can be particularly strong, as they are faced with the fatal consequences of their continued dependence on alcohol. They may feel regret and guilt for the actions they have committed, for the pain they have caused others and for the time and money wasted on alcohol. Anger at their own inability to overcome alcoholism will also be expressed and can be directed at themselves or others. Sadly, when the complications become so severe that death is inevitable, acceptance of their fate is the only way for them to peacefully die.
The family members and close friends who are left after the alcoholic dies will also go through significant emotional upheaval. It may be hard for some people to grieve for a person who has abused their body with a toxic substance for many years. Finding feelings of sorrow can also be hard when the alcoholic has abused them, treated themselves and others poorly, suffered financial ruin and been unable or unwilling to overcome their disease. Working through the emotions and finding strength can take time, but it will come.