Environmental factors and genetics are two components that are associated with alcoholism, with about half the risk attributed to each. A person with a parent or sibling with alcoholism is three to four times more likely to become an alcoholic themselves. Environmental factors include social, cultural and behavioral influences. High stress levels and anxiety, as well as alcohol's inexpensive cost and easy accessibility, increase the risk. People may continue to drink partly to prevent or improve symptoms of withdrawal. After a person stops drinking alcohol, they may experience a low level of withdrawal lasting for months. Medically, alcoholism is considered both a physical and mental illness. Questionnaires and certain blood tests may both detect people with possible alcoholism. Further information is then collected to confirm the diagnosis.
Prevention of alcoholism may be attempted by regulating and limiting the sale of alcohol, taxing alcohol to increase its cost, and providing inexpensive treatment. Treatment may take several steps. Due to medical problems that can occur during withdrawal, alcohol detoxification should be carefully controlled. One common method involves the use of benzodiazepine medications, such as diazepam. These can be either given while admitted to a health care institution or occasionally while a person remains in the community with close supervision. Mental illness or other addictions may complicate treatment. After detoxification, support such as group therapy or support groups are used to help keep a person from returning to drinking. One commonly used form of support is the group Alcoholics Anonymous. The medications acamprosate, disulfiram or naltrexone may also be used to help prevent further drinking.
The World Health Organization estimates that as of 2010 there were 208 million people with alcoholism worldwide (4.1% of the population over 15 years of age). In the United States, about 17 million (7%) of adults and 0.7 million (2.8%) of those age 12 to 17 years of age are affected. It is more common among males and young adults, becoming less common in middle and old age. It is the least common in Africa, at 1.1%, and has the highest rates in Eastern Europe, at 11%. Alcoholism directly resulted in 139,000 deaths in 2013, up from 112,000 deaths in 1990. A total of 3.3 million deaths (5.9% of all deaths) are believed to be due to alcohol. It often reduces a person's life expectancy by around ten years. In the United States, it resulted in economic costs of $224 billion USD in 2006. Many terms, some insulting and others informal, have been used to refer to people affected by alcoholism; the expressions include tippler, drunkard, dipsomaniac and souse. In 1979, the World Health Organization discouraged the use of "alcoholism" due to its inexact meaning, preferring "alcohol dependence syndrome".
The risk of alcohol dependence begins at low levels of drinking and increases directly with both the volume of alcohol consumed and a pattern of drinking larger amounts on an occasion, to the point of intoxication, which is sometimes called "binge drinking". Young adults are particularly at risk of engaging in binge drinking.
Alcoholism is characterised by an increased tolerance to alcohol–which means that an individual can consume more alcohol–and physical dependence on alcohol, which makes it hard for an individual to control their consumption. The physical dependency caused by alcohol can lead to an affected individual having a very strong urge to drink alcohol. These characteristics play a role decreasing an alcoholic's ability to stop drinking. Alcoholism can have adverse effects on mental health, causing psychiatric disorders and increasing the risk of suicide. A depressed mood is a common symptom of heavy alcohol drinkers.
Warning signs of alcoholism include the consumption of increasing amounts of alcohol and frequent intoxication, preoccupation with drinking to the exclusion of other activities, promises to quit drinking and failure to keep those promises, the inability to remember what was said or done while drinking (colloquially known as "blackouts"), personality changes associated with drinking, denial or the making of excuses for drinking, the refusal to admit excessive drinking, dysfunction or other problems at work or school, the loss of interest in personal appearance or hygiene, marital and economic problems, and the complaint of poor health, with loss of appetite, respiratory infections, or increased anxiety.
Drinking enough to cause a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.03–0.12% typically causes an overall improvement in mood and possible euphoria (a "happy" feeling), increased self-confidence and sociability, decreased anxiety, a flushed, red appearance in the face and impaired judgment and fine muscle coordination. A BAC of 0.09% to 0.25% causes lethargy, sedation, balance problems and blurred vision. A BAC of 0.18% to 0.30% causes profound confusion, impaired speech (e.g. slurred speech), staggering, dizziness and vomiting. A BAC from 0.25% to 0.40% causes stupor, unconsciousness, anterograde amnesia, vomiting (death may occur due to inhalation of vomit (pulmonary aspiration) while unconscious and respiratory depression (potentially life-threatening). A BAC from 0.35% to 0.80% causes a coma (unconsciousness), life-threatening respiratory depression and possibly fatal alcohol poisoning. With all alcoholic beverages, drinking while driving, operating an aircraft or heavy machinery increases the risk of an accident; many countries have penalties for drunk driving.