Monday, December 31, 2007

Tips for identifying the symptoms of alcoholism

As we approach the New Year, it is important to step back and assess our holiday celebrations. New Year's Eve celebrations include parties with great food and alcohol. The New Year should not be escorted in with tragedies, so it is essential to monitor alcohol intake -- especially if someone is driving. Let's revisit some issues with ongoing abuse of alcohol.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is the inability to control alcohol intake. A person might suffer constant preoccupation with drinking, which can lead to personal, medical, professional and financial problems. Impairment can range from intermittent loss of control to substantial physical and mental impairment or death.

About 18 million people suffer from alcoholism, and about 100,000 people die from alcohol-related medical problems each year in the United States. Half of all traffic deaths are related to alcohol.

Not a shift passes in the emergency department without me treating a patient for alcohol-related complaints. The most difficult situations for me to deal with are alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

What are the symptoms?

Routinely drinking alone, consuming alcohol at all times of the day, becoming angry when drinking habits are questioned and persistent drinking leading to loss of memory or blackouts can be signs of a problem. As alcoholism progresses, a person can lose interest in family, friends and hobbies; eventual problems with employment might occur. Altered personality, shaking, irritability, sweating and seizures are all signs of withdrawal.

What are the causes?

Research shows alcohol addiction is a physical problem. Genetics play a strong role. Drinking at an early age also places one at risk for becoming an alcoholic, as does gender: Men have a greater risk of alcoholism than women.

What is the treatment?

Identifying the problem can be difficult because patients with alcohol problems tend to deny their intake. In some cases, withdrawal only becomes evident when alcohol is unavailable, such as hospitalization.

Outpatient counseling and abstinence might work for people without underlying medical problems. Support groups are quite effective in maintaining sobriety.

Patients with other medical problems might need to be hospitalized. Doctors can treat potentially life-threatening withdrawal with medications; once medically stabilized, a patient may choose to pursue an inpatient detoxification program; the length might vary depending on the problem's severity.

A recent study indicated the anti-seizure medication gabapentin might help with alcohol abstinence. Other medications also work to help severe alcoholics who relapse.

As you celebrate the new year, please drink sensibly. And, as always, never drink and drive because the consequences may be with you for a lifetime.

source: Dr. Randal F. Wojciehoski (also known as Dr. Wojo) is a Stevens Point native and an emergency medicine department physician at Saint Michael's Hospital.


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