Alcohol consumption is common in most parts of the world and most people consume alcohol sparingly or in moderation. In some people, however, alcohol consumption can become a chronic disease, or long-term illness, that has serious medical consequences. It is uncertain what causes this to happen in some people but not in others.

An estimated 17.6 million Americans have a problem with the overuse of alcohol. About half of them are alcoholics—or alcohol dependent in medical terms. Many people feel that not being able to stop drinking is a personal weakness. It isn’t; alcoholism is a chronic disease. Individuals with alcoholism suffer from an addiction, typically becoming preoccupied with drinking and not able to control how much or how often they indulge. Though they might be aware of the risks involved in consuming too much alcohol, they are often unable to resist, despite the known dangers.

Alcoholism becomes worse over time if drinking continues, and can lead to death or other serious medical problems. Like diabetes or depression, alcohol dependence can be treated.

An individual with alcoholism might not immediately recognize that he or she is affected by a disease that can be successfully treated with psychosocial support and medication. If you believe you or someone you know might have a problem with alcohol dependence, you should learn all you can about the disease and its symptoms.