Alcoholism: Equal Opportunity Disease

Nearly 100,000 Americans die each year as a result of alcohol abuse. Alcohol is a factor in more than half of the na­tion's homicides, suicides and traffic ac­cidents

Alcoholism can destroy lives in any profession.

Has a friend ever suggested that you drink too much? Is it difficult to stop drinking after you have had one or two drinks? Do you ever feel bad about how much you drink?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may have a se­rious alcohol problem.

Nearly 100,000 Americans die each year as a result of alcohol abuse. Alcohol is a factor in more than half of the na­tion's homicides, suicides and traffic ac­cidents. It also plays a significant role in many domestic and social problems. The exact cause of alcohol abuse or depen­dence is not fully understood, but a fam­ily history of alcohol addiction places an individual at a higher risk.

What Happens When You Drink

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It acts like a sedative or tran­quilizer, slowing down your motor coor­dination and reaction time, as well as im­pairing judgment, memory, reasoning and self-control.

The effects of alcohol begin soon after it enters the bloodstream. Within min­utes, alcohol enters the brain, numbing nerve cells and slowing their messages to the body. In the heart, cardiac muscles strain to cope with alcohol's depressive action and the pulse quickens.

If drinking continues, alcohol builds in the bloodstream, and the nerve centers in the brain governing speech, vision, balance and judgment go haywire. As even more alcohol is ingested, the drinker may loose consciousness. With extremely high levels of alcohol on the blood, the intoxicated person is in danger of dying from respiratory failure.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Early symptoms of abuse include drink­ing more than planned, frequent attempts to cut down consumption or quit drinking altogether, and continuing to drink alcohol despite the concerns of friends and family members. As the alcohol abuse progress­es, the individual develops a tolerance to alcohol, and must consume more to get the desired effect or to get intoxicated.

As the alcohol abuse worsens, the per­son becomes preoccupied with alcohol and can lose control. Blackouts may occur. These are episodes in which a per­son completely forgets what has occurred while intoxicated even though he or she was conscious at the time.

Finally, personality changes occur along with withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, anxiety, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Personality changes include, but are not limited to, increased aggres­sion and deteriorating ability to maintain relationships with friends and family. Heavy drinkers may experience tremor, panic attacks, hallucinations and seizures.

Alcoholics often drink alone and claim they use alcohol to help them deal with stress. They may also engage in risky sexual behavior, drive when they should not and are at a higher risk for de­pendency on other dugs.

Effects on the Body

Consequences of heavy alcohol use include irritation and inflammation of the stomach, pancreas and liver; bleed­ing in the stomach and esophagus; per­manent nerve and brain damage; impo­tence; loss of short-term memory; and loss of coordination. Long-term use of alcohol can increase the risk and severity of pneumonia and tuberculosis, and can permanently damage the heart and liver, leading up to death.

Due to its high calorie content, alco­hol, ingested in large quantities, makes the body feel full. Alcoholics are very often deficient in important vitamins and minerals.


Alcohol abuse and alcohol depen­dence are serious, progressive medical diseases. However, they are treatable through the many alcohol rehabilitation centers and programs, which offer fami­ly counseling. The important part of these programs is to make the drinker take responsibility and help family members offer the right kind of support. Maintaining sobriety is a long-term pro­cess and ongoing counseling and treat­ment with medication can also be help­ful if prescribed by a doctor.

Dr. Heiskell, a member of the POLICE Advisory Board, is a reserve police officer with the Palm Springs (Calif.) Police Department and the SWAT Team physician for that agency.

Page 1 of 2324
Next Page