Definition of Alcoholism

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : December 12, 
| 4 Sources

definition of alcoholism

Pinning down a definitive alcoholism definition is difficult as there is little consensus.

The reason for such a variety of definitions is the different opinions each authority holds regarding alcoholism, and the year the definition took place.

We'll see that in common and historical usage, the definition of alcoholism typically described any condition that results in the continued consumption of alcoholic beverages, despite negative personal and social consequences.

The more up-to-date medical definitions describe alcoholism as a disease, influenced by genetic, psychological, and social factors.

The term "alcoholism" is commonly used but poorly defined.

The World Health Organization defines alcoholism as:

"a term of long-standing use and variable meaning".

Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

1. continued excessive or compulsive use of alcoholic drinks
2. a) poisoning by alcohol b) a chronic disorder marked by excessive and usually compulsive drinking of alcohol leading to psychological and physical dependence or addiction

Journal of the American Medical Association:

To establish a more precise use of the term alcoholism, a 23-member multidisciplinary committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine conducted a 2-year study of the definition of alcoholism in the light of current concepts.

definition of alcoholismThe goals of the committee were to create by consensus a revised definition that is:

  • Scientifically valid
  • Clinically useful
  • Understandable by the general public.

The result:
"Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations.

The disease is usually progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic."

Wikipedia's Definition of Alcoholism :

"Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a disabling addictive disorder. It is characterized by compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcohol despite its negative effects on the drinker's health and social standing.

Similar to other drug addictions, alcoholism is medically defined as a treatable disease. The term 'alcoholism' is a widely used term, first coined in 1849 by Magnus Huss, but in medicine was replaced by 'alcohol abuse' and 'alcohol dependence' in the 1980s..."

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV):

"A maladaptive pattern of alcohol use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress."

That maladaptive pattern is manifested, according to the DSM-IV, by the following behaviors occurring any time within one 12-month period:

  • Tolerance for alcohol
  • Withdrawal from alcohol
  • Alcohol taken in larger amounts and over a longer period of time than was intended
  • Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use
  • Much time spent in activities necessary to obtaining alcohol
  • Various important activities, for example, in socializing or at work, are given up or reduced because of alcohol use
  • Alcohol use continued regardless of the pattern of physical or psychological problems that it causes or worsens

World Health Organization (WHO):

Alcoholism "A term of long-standing use and variable meaning, generally taken to refer to chronic continual drinking or periodic consumption of alcohol which is characterized by impaired control over drinking,alcohol or alcoholism frequent episodes of intoxication, and preoccupation with alcohol and the use of alcohol despite adverse consequences. It is a disease exhibited by losing control over drinking, triggered by a pre-existing biological irregularity, and having a predictable developing course.

Alcoholism, disease concept of: The belief that alcoholism is a condition of primary biological causation and predictable natural history, conforming to accepted definitions of a disease.

The perspective of Alcoholics Anonymous (1939) - that alcoholism, characterized by the individual’s loss of control over drinking and thus over his or her life, was a "sickness" - was carried into the scholarly literature in the 1950s in the form of the disease concept of alcoholism.

Bill W. co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA):

In 1960, Bill W. said:
"We have never called alcoholism a disease because, technically speaking, it is not a disease entity.

For example, there is no such thing as heart disease. Instead there are many separate heart ailments, or combinations of them. It is something like that with alcoholism. Therefore we did not wish to get in wrong with the medical profession by pronouncing alcoholism a disease entity.

Therefore we always called it an illness, or a malady -- a far safer term for us to use."

The term "alcoholism" was first used by a Swedish professor of medicine, Magnus Huss (1807-90), in 1849, to mean poisoning by alcohol.

Huss distinguished between two types of alcoholism:

Acute alcoholism was a result of the temporary effects of alcohol taken within a short period of time — drunkenness and intoxication.

Chronic alcoholism was a pathological condition caused by the habitual use of alcoholic beverages in poisonous amounts over a long period of time, which may eventually have extensive and far–reaching effects on the alcoholic’s brain.

Since 1849, the definition of alcoholism has changed endlessly. Today the medical world describes alcoholism as a progressive disease, influenced by several risk factors. It is when excessive drinking starts causing symptoms that affect a person’s body, behavior, and thoughts.

If you found this page helpful, then the following may be of interest to you:

Alcoholism Doesn’t Have to Stay

If you are ready to quit alcohol and turn over a new leaf, there are treatment facilities that can provide you with the assistance you need on your journey to sobriety.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN. October 2004.

World Health Organization. Alcohol.

JAMA Network. The Definition of Alcoholism. August 26, 1992.

Harvard Health Publishing. Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism). April 2019.

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