Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse in Women

Women’s bodies process alcohol differently from men’s. Basically, a woman’s blood alcohol level will be higher than a man’s after drinking the same amount. As a result, she will feel the effects of alcohol faster and is more vulnerable to its long-term health effects. Pregnant women are strongly encouraged to avoid any amount of alcohol throughout pregnancy. Women who drink alcohol put their babies at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, which involves mental impairment and birth defects. Drinking among pregnant women also raises the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

How Is Alcohol Dependence Treated?

If you think you might be dependent on alcohol or that you don’t have control over your drinking, it’s time to talk to your doctor. Your first step may be to visit your family doctor, or you may wish to talk with a mental health provider or attend a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA (www.aa.org).

Be aware that denial is common among people with alcoholism and alcohol abuse. So, even if you don’t believe you have a problem, but other people are concerned about your drinking habits, consider treatment.

Treatment of alcoholism will be different for each individual. Factors that may affect the course that you and your healthcare providers choose include your personal preferences, other health concerns, and various characteristics of your dependence (your doctor will likely ask you detailed questions to determine what these are). Some of the phases of treatment may include:

  • Detoxification and withdrawal. If your body has become dependent on alcohol, your treatment will begin with several days of detoxification, commonly called “detox.” The detox process can cause shaking, confusion, and hallucinations, which can all be managed with medication. Most people stay at a hospital or inpatient treatment center during detox.
  • Creating a treatment plan. An alcohol abuse specialist can help you plan your treatment. He or she will work with you to establish goals, learn coping skills, change behaviors associated with drinking, and help you find resources like self-help manuals, counseling, and treatment centers. Depending on the severity of the alcohol problem, some people undergo treatment at residential facilities, whereas others are treated on an outpatient basis.
  • Psychological counseling. Alcoholism may impact your emotional well-being and your relationships. Individual, couples, or family counseling can help you work through these issues.
  • Medications. There are several oral medications available to help people with alcoholism quit drinking. Antabuse® (disulfiram) causes a bad reaction to alcohol (nausea and vomiting), ReVia® (naltrexone) blocks the good feeling that alcohol can produce and thus reduces the urge to drink; and Campral® (acamprosate) can help reduce cravings for alcohol. Naltrexone (ReVia in pill form) can also be received by injection under the name Vivitrol®.
  • Medical treatment for other conditions. Alcoholism is often related to medical problems including high blood pressure, increased blood sugar, and liver and heart disease. If you’re being treated for alcoholism, it’s also important that you’re screened and, if needed, treated for other conditions.
  • Ongoing support. Recovery from alcoholism can be a long and complex process. Challenges may include lifestyle changes, relapses, and psychological issues. These challenges are best met with ongoing support. Look to programs and support groups such as AA.

Professional help is vital to successful recovery from alcoholism, but there are also measures you can personally take to support your recovery. Changes to your lifestyle, habits, and social life can help you quit drinking and avoid a relapse. Make sure your friends and family know that you are not drinking; if you find that some people aren’t supportive of your recovery, you may need to avoid them as well as situations where it’s hard not to drink. Find ways to make your lifestyle healthier: exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Find new hobbies and interests to replace activities that involve drinking—you’ll likely discover some things that you really enjoy!

Resources

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

SOURCES

Alcohol Alert. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa46.htm. (Accessed November 2010).

Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue. Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.htm. (Accessed November 2010).

Alcohol and Public Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/index.htm. (Accessed November 2010).

Alcoholism. The Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alcoholism/ds00340. (Accessed November 2010).