What is it?
Alcohol is most people's favourite drug, generally being used for enjoyment. For some, drinking can become a serious problem causing much more harm than illegal drugs like heroin and cannabis. Alcohol is a tranquilliser, is addictive and is the cause of many hospital admissions for physical illnesses and accidents.
Problems with alcohol: many are caused by having too much to drink at the wrong time or place. Alcohol affects a person's judgment, so they do things they wouldn't normally contemplate. It makes them less aware of risks and so more vulnerable. Those with alcohol problems are more likely to have fights, arguments, money troubles, family upsets or spur-of-the-moment casual sex. Alcohol helps to cause accidents at home, on the roads, in the water and on playing fields.
Problems with alcohol - physical health: being drunk can lead to severe hangovers, stomach pains (gastritis), vomiting blood, unconsciousness and even death. Drinking too much over a long period of time can cause liver disease and increase the risk of cancers. It can reduce the risk of heart disease for men over 40 and women of menopausal age - but only if their drinking is moderate.
Problems with alcohol - mental health: although alcohol is generally seen as something that makes people feel good, heavy drinking can bring on depression. Many people who kill themselves have had drinking problems. Alcohol can stop a person's memory from working properly and can cause brain damage. Some people who drink heavily hear noises and voices - an unpleasant experience which can be hard to get rid of.
Some people use alcohol to handle stress and worries but a psychiatrist or a psychologist may be able to help find ways of dealing with these that do not involve relying on alcohol.
Most people dealing with their drink problems do not need to go into hospital. Some will need to get away from the places where they drink and the people they drink with. For them, a short time in an alcohol treatment unit may be necessary. Others who have withdrawal symptoms may need some medication to help them 'dry out' although it is important to avoid relying on tranquillisers as an alternative to alcohol.
How much alcohol is too much? Some drinks are stronger than others. The easiest way to work out how someone is drinking is to count 'units' of alcohol. One unit is the amount of a standard pub measure of spirits, a half pint of normal strength beer or lager or a small glass of wine.
If a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman will have a much higher amount in her bodily organs than the man. Unfair as it may seem, the safe limit is lower for women (14 units per week) than for men (21 units per week).
In any one day, a man should drink no more than four units and a woman no more than three. Drinking over eight units in a day for men or six units for women is known as 'binge drinking'.
How do we know it's happening?
Alcohol is addictive. For individuals, warning signs include:
- Not feeling right without a drink or needing a drink to start the day
- Getting shaky, sweaty and anxious/tense a few hours after their last drink
- Drinking a lot without becoming drunk
- Needing to drink more and more to get the same effect
- Not being able to stop drinking, despite trying to do so
- Carrying on drinking even though they can see it is interfering with their work, family and relationships
- Getting 'memory blanks' where they can't remember what happened for a period of hours or days.
Everyone finds it hard to change a habit, particularly one that can play such a large part in our lives. Three steps to dealing with the problem are:
- Realising and accepting that there is a problem
- Getting help to break the habit
- Keeping going once you have begun to make changes.
What we offer
If worried about the amount of alcohol someone is drinking, tell them so they can try to change their habits as soon as possible. It is much easier to cut back before drinking problems reach the level where they damage their health than when they get beyond this stage and out of hand.
If changing drinking habits is hard then get the person to talk to their GP or seek advice from a local alcohol organisation If they cannot stop because they get too shaky or restless and jumpy when they try to cut down; their doctor can often help with some short term medication. If this doesn't work, specialist help may be needed.
Groups where people with similar problems meet can often be very helpful. There are self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or those run by professionals at an alcohol treatment unit.
We have a range of specialists who can give advice on safe approaches to regaining control over drinking and we usually work closely with other agencies.