Alcohol

Women and Problem Drinking

If you think you or a loved one might have a problem with alcohol, the experts from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcoholism Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health, share some information that could save lives:

Fewer women than men drink. However, among the heaviest drinkers, women equal or surpass men in the number of problems that result from their drinking. For example, female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than those of male alcoholics, including deaths from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease and stroke, and liver cirrhosis.

A woman’s genetic makeup shapes how quickly she feels the effects of alcohol, how pleasant drinking is for her, and how drinking alcohol over the long term will affect her health, even the chances that she could have problems with alcohol. A family history of alcohol problems, a woman’s risk of illnesses like heart disease and breast cancer, medications she is taking, and age are among the factors for each woman to weigh in deciding when, how much, and how often to drink.

What Are Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that is harmful to the drinker or others. The following situations, occurring repeatedly in a 12-month period, would be indicators of alcohol abuse:

Missing work or skipping child care responsibilities because of drinking

Drinking in situations that are dangerous, such as before or while driving

Being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for hurting someone while drunk

Continuing to drink even though there are ongoing alcohol-related tensions with friends and family

Alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a disease. It is chronic, or lifelong, and it can be both progressive and life threatening. Alcoholism is based in the brain. Alcohol’s short-term effects on the brain are what cause someone to feel high, relaxed, or sleepy after drinking. In some people, alcohol’s long-term effects can change the way the brain reacts to alcohol, so that the urge to drink can be as compelling as the hunger for food. Both a person’s genetic makeup and his or her environment contribute to the risk for alcoholism. The following are some of the typical characteristics of alcoholism:

Craving: a strong need, or compulsion, to drink

Loss of control: the inability to stop drinking once a person has begun

Physical dependence: withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking

Tolerance: the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to get “high.”

Know the Risks

Research suggests that a woman is more likely to drink excessively if she has any of the following:

Parents and siblings (or other blood relatives) with alcohol problems

A partner who drinks heavily

The ability to “hold her liquor” more than others

A history of depression

A history of childhood physical or sexual abuse

How Do You Know if You Have a Problem?

Answering the following four questions can help you find out if you or someone close to you has a drinking problem.

Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

One “yes” answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. If you responded “yes” to more than one question, it is very likely that you have a problem with alcohol. In either case, it is important that you see your health care provider right away to discuss your responses to these questions.

Even if you answered “no” to all of the above questions, if you are having drinking-related problems with your job, relationships, health, or with the law, you should still seek help.

Treatment for Alcohol Problems

Treatment for an alcohol problem depends on its severity. Women who have alcohol problems but who are not yet alcohol dependent may be able to stop or reduce their drinking with minimal help. Routine doctor visits are an ideal time to discuss alcohol use and its potential problems. Health care providers can help a woman take a good hard look at what effect alcohol is having on her life and can give advice on ways to stop drinking or to cut down.

Help and More Information

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) World Services; www.aa.org; Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, for family members of alcoholics; www.al-anon.alateen.org.

Reprinted courtesy of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA); for more information, visit www.niaaa.nih.gov.