Alcoholism: What it is and how to treat it

Hard alcohol in a glass

When alcohol consumption becomes an addiction, the University of Chicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial can help.

Sharon Armwood, RN, a charge nurse for the Addiction Recovery Center at Ingalls Behavioral Health Department, defines alcoholism as an addiction to the consumption of alcohol, along with the behaviors that result from alcohol dependency.

“Alcoholism is considered a disease because the brain has become dependent on the alcohol to function,” Armwood said. “Once the brain gets used to the alcohol and this new impairment or dysfunction, it becomes chemically altered.”

According to Armwood, while there are different types of alcoholics, like functioning alcoholics and binge drinkers, what they have in common is the inability to limit alcohol consumption like a healthy person can.

“Functioning alcoholics can go to work just like they normally do – they’re drinking, driving and attending to family responsibilities,” Armwood said. “A binge drinker will often drink alone, hiding a bottle under the bed, in the closet or in the trunk of the car.”

Working in the Ingalls Memorial Behavioral Health Department, Armwood said that she has seen people of all ages and walks of life affected by alcohol addictions.

“People come in because their marriage has been strained, they’re spending or stealing money, they went to work with alcohol on their breath, they have gotten DUIs, they aren’t paying bills or have been evicted. Sometimes they’ve experienced life stressors like a death in the family or other trauma,” she said.

Alcoholism's long-term effects on the body

Alcoholism can be closely related to other mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

Emergency medicine physician Saif Nazir, MD, sees alcohol-related cases in the emergency room every day. “People present after alcohol consumption in so many different ways,” Nazir said. “Most people who come in inebriated are usually belligerent, unsteady in their gait and not aware of their surroundings.”

Nazir said that a high percentage of trauma victims are usually intoxicated. When people drink excessively, they tend to take risks they normally wouldn’t when sober, like driving at high speeds, he added.

Prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption can lead to liver disease and failure. Nazir said that 95 percent of alcohol is metabolized in the liver. Alcohol can affect all major organs and cause brain damage and confusion, kidney failure, high blood pressure, cancers, seizures, blackouts, tremors, and more.

When people drink, they may feel numb to anxieties or physical pain. “I’ve seen people after they’ve gone through withdrawals say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I had a tooth ache.’ Once they take the numbness away, they feel all of those nerves. Their body feels alive again and you start to see the real person,” Armwood said.

Patients undergoing alcohol detoxification at Ingalls Memorial receive 24-hour nursing care and medications for two to five days, depending on the severity of symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, tremors, shakes, sweating, anxiety, pacing, agitation, irritability, hallucinations, headaches and confusion.

After an inpatient stay, recovering patients often attend individual and group therapy sessions while continuing to meet with a doctor for regular care. Family programs and relapse prevention groups can also be incorporated into a recovery plan.

“I enjoy seeing a patient from start to finish – from the full throngs of withdrawal to understanding and learning about their disease. As patients learn more, they begin to regain themselves,” Armwood said. “It’s like a new human being is born in a short time.

The UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Behavioral Health Department offers no-cost, 24-hour behavioral health assessments. Call 708-915-6411 for more information.

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