Information for the public
Harmful drinking (high-risk drinking) and alcohol dependence
Many people in the UK drink in a way that is harmful and a smaller number are dependent on alcohol. Alcohol problems are becoming more common in young people and even children.
Drinking is considered harmful when it leads to physical or mental health problems such as alcohol-related injury, inflammation of the liver or pancreas, or depression. In the longer term the person may develop high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, some types of cancer or brain damage because of their drinking. Heavy drinking can also lead to relationship problems, problems at work, college or school, or violence.
Alcohol dependence involves a range of symptoms that do not all necessarily happen at the same time. A person who is dependent on alcohol may feel a strong desire to drink and may have difficulty in controlling how much they drink. They may keep drinking despite knowing about or experiencing harmful effects (as described above). The body may become more tolerant to the effects of alcohol over time, which can lead to a person needing to drink more to feel an effect. If a person becomes dependent on alcohol, they can develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop or reduce their drinking suddenly.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary from mild problems, such as sleeping badly and feeling shaky and anxious, to much more serious problems, which can be life-threatening. Serious problems can include fits (sometimes called seizures) where a person may temporarily lose consciousness, and delirium tremens (sometimes called the DTs). Planned withdrawal from alcohol (also known as detoxification, or 'detox' for short) can help people to stop drinking safely and can reduce withdrawal symptoms (see treatments for moderate and severe alcohol dependence).
Alcohol dependence can become more severe over time. The type of help and support needed will depend on how severe it is.
The terms mild, moderate and severe alcohol dependence are used in this information. The level of dependence is determined by a number of factors, such as how much alcohol a person drinks, and how severe their symptoms are.