The Disease Model of Alcoholism

Girl with alcohol problem sitting in grass
September 27, 2017
|   Updated:
April 17, 2024

The disease model of Alcoholism can be controversial because of the perception and stigma attached to the word “disease.” The fact remains that alcoholism is a lifelong condition that must be monitored and managed. There are, like most diseases, behavioral, environmental, and genetic factors that contribute to alcoholism.

Alcoholics have a physical and psychological need for alcohol throughout their addiction, and many even report being addicted immediately after their first drink. Alcoholism is a progressive and degenerative disease that most people need help to fight against.

What is Alcoholism?

The word alcoholism is actually a colloquial term for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction are also often used synonymously.

AUD is considered a chronic medical condition and is described as an inability to control or cease one’s drinking. Though the societal stigma associated with alcohol addiction is extremely negative, it is crucial to understand that it is, in fact, a disease, meaning it is not just a choice someone makes, and it needs to be treated like one.

Disease Model of Alcoholism

Amongst professionals, AUD has been coined as both a disease and a condition.

The Mayo Clinic website states that “Alcoholism is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, and continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) describes it as a “chronic brain condition” ranging from mild to severe.

Societal and cultural views on alcohol abuse make it difficult at times to view AUD as a disease or condition as many believe it is a choice. However, research proves just the opposite.

Like other diseases, pre-existing factors make one more prone to becoming addicted to alcohol. For example, for people with heart disease in their family history, doctors ask them to watch their diet and exercise to avoid the same disease as past family members.

Similarly, for those who have a family history of alcoholism or other possible risks (which we will get to in the next section,) it is important to manage and monitor your alcohol intake to avoid the disease to the best of your ability.

Disease Model of Alcoholism - Soberlink

Who is at Risk for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Anyone can be at risk for AUD; however, a few pre-existing circumstances may make one more prone to this disease.

If any of the following apply to you, it is important to monitor your alcohol intake to avoid becoming dependent on the substance.

Alcoholism and Genes

Undeniable commonalities between alcoholism and other chronic conditions further reinforce the disease model. Alcoholism has a genetic component and has been shown to run in families.

Studies at the National Institutes of Health claim alcoholism is 50% genetic. The same can be said for a condition like heart disease; some people are genetically predisposed to factors that increase their risk.

However, just because one has a family history of alcohol addiction does not mean they will become an addict, just that the possibility is much higher than for someone who does not have a similar history.

Past Trauma and/or Environmental Factors

Though genetics is a contributing factor to alcoholism, past trauma, mental illness, or other emotional and psychological disorders may also put an individual at risk for AUD. Some examples include physical or sexual abuse in childhood or adulthood, extreme poverty, depression and anxiety, peer pressure, and a desire to feel seen or included in social environments.

Many of these factors are extremely difficult to manage, so oftentimes people lean on alcohol as a coping mechanism to get through them. What starts as a way to numb the pain can become a very serious medical disorder and dependency on alcohol.

Alcohol and Adolescence 

You are more at risk for AUD if you begin drinking in adolescence or before the legal drinking age. According to the NIAA, those who began drinking in their early teens are five times more likely to abuse alcohol than those who wait until the legal age of 21 (in the United States).

Though this cannot be monitored or changed later in life, this is something to consider if you or someone you know are beginning to experience the early signs of AUD.

Excessive Consumption

One last factor that may put you at a higher risk of alcoholism is participating in excessive amounts of drinking, otherwise known as binge drinking. Binge drinking is considered consuming enough alcohol to put you over the legal limit of 0.08 percent, and your inhibitions become compromised (binge drinking also often leads to alcohol-induced blackouts).

Though not everyone who binge drinks develops an AUD or needs recovery treatment, indulging in this habit puts yourself at risk for becoming dependent on alcohol. Additionally, binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning, or physical or emotional injury.

Avoiding Alcohol Use Disorder

If any of the previous risks resonate with you, you may want to be careful about how much alcohol you consume. Though not one risk will cause AUD, the more of the behaviors you fall into, the more predisposed you may become.

What are the Signs of Alcoholism?

What are the Signs of Alcoholism?

There are both physical and behavioral signs of alcoholism or AUD. They are as follows (but not limited to:)

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

Some physical signs to be aware of if you fear you or a loved one is suffering from alcoholism are:

  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Discoloration or bloating in the face
  • Quick and extreme weight fluctuation (gaining or losing)
  • Little to no energy
  • Glazed, dazed, or red-colored eyes
  • Unexplainable bruises, marks, or injuries
  • Withdrawal symptoms like excessive shaking, nausea, vomiting, or headaches/migraines.

Behavioral Signs of Alcoholism

Some behavioral signs to be aware of if you fear you or a loved one is suffering from alcoholism are:

  • Drinking alone often or daily
  • Evading friends, family, and other social circles
  • Missing or performing noticeably poorly at work, school, or other responsibilities.
  • Using alcohol to cope with bad days or bad news.
  • Drinking in unsafe environments or situations, such as driving or work.
  • Becoming uncharacteristically irritable, sneaky, and/or defensive
  • Drinking at non-acceptable times, like first thing in the morning or at work. 

Is There a Cure for Alcoholism?

Unfortunately, those suffering from AUD must treat the disorder for the remainder of their lives. This approach also supports the disease model of alcoholism: because it is a chronic illness, it requires lifelong treatment and maintenance.

If you have alcoholism or suspect you may be an alcoholic, recognize that you are struggling with a chronic illness and choose to treat the problem by taking control of your health. Do not allow the negative consequences of alcoholism to ruin your life or the lives of those around you. Seek treatment and develop a continued-care plan that continuously treats your disease. You can live a fulfilling life outside the bounds of alcoholism with alcohol recovery.

So, while there is no “cure,” you can take steps to manage the disease and remain in recovery.

How to Manage Alcoholism

How to Manage Alcoholism

Though it is a lifelong illness, there are ways to stay sober and recover from alcoholism. A wide array of resources are available; however, each case of AUD is unique and, therefore, its treatment should be.

While many people find recovery by doing similar things, to be successful in managing this disease, you must understand yourself and your individual case to ensure the resources you utilize will benefit you.

Rehabilitation or Detoxification

If you are suffering from severe AUD, rehabilitation or detoxification may be your necessary first step.

These programs range in length and approach and offer a more intense and hands-on methodology when learning to manage your addiction. They offer immediate care and equip you with the knowledge and resources needed to remain sober once you have left the program.

However, rehabilitation and/or detoxification is not a fix or “cure,” it is just a first step. As AUD is a disease, treatment and management will be required for the remainder of your life, even after a successful program.

Accountability and Recovery

The number one tool that is non-negotiable when managing AUD is accountability. Without it, recovery is nearly impossible.

There are two types of accountability regarding treatment and recovery: self and group. While there are benefits to both, those who utilize multiple avenues of accountability find more success in recovery than those who cherry-pick one or two methods.


Self-accountability is the act of setting a standard for yourself and sticking to it. When in recovery, doing this may at first feel impossible. Alcoholism often makes people dislike or distrust themselves, so relying on their own willpower to push through may be a struggle or uncomfortable feeling.

However, getting through that uncomfortable feeling helps build your confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, and ultimately encourages you to continue in your recovery.

If you need a place to start:

Use Habit Trackers or Reward Systems

A habit tracker is a tool or system used to record the completion of a task. There are phone apps and ready-made notebooks to habit track,, but pen and paper suffice.

Habit trackers work as a physical way to showcase your progress. For example, if you are trying to save money or train for a marathon, you can use a system like this to track your short- and long-term progress.

This system can also work if you are trying to stop drinking. Though it takes a lot of self-willpower, it is a low-commitment way to record your own progress and to physically see how well (or maybe not so well) you have been doing.

These types of systems allow for self-reward and celebration but also self-evaluation. By utilizing a system like this, one can self-motivate by watching the physical transformation happen as you slowly start seeing each day completed on whichever tracking method you use. And if you slip up, it also provides insight into why. Was there pressure from that specific day? Were there triggers? Having a place to track your process allows for this type of contemplation.

Utilizing this system encourages momentum and motivation in your recovery.

Enroll in Therapy 

Finding an addiction-focused therapist is an excellent way to hold yourself accountable for sobriety.

This works two-fold. First, it helps you practice accountability as setting weekly therapy appointments gives you a responsibility you are required to fulfill. Continuing to show up will slowly help rebuild your trust in yourself. 

Additionally, specialized therapists can give you individualized tools to utilize in your everyday life to help manage AUD that may be hard to find elsewhere. Working with someone intimately like this allows for a plan unique to you.

Therapy also can help you work through not just the addiction but the root of the addiction and how to live with past trauma without alcohol dependence.

Utilize Alcohol Monitoring

If you are looking for a tool that holds a little more responsibility than a habit tracker, Soberlink’s Remote Breathalyzer may be a beneficial self-accountability tool.

The alcohol monitoring device allows you to physically monitor your alcohol intake on a schedule, so you are never surprised by a test. This comprehensive system allows real-time results sent directly to your phone that can then be shared with your Recovery Circle. Doing so helps build “structure and accountability” when in recovery.

Group Accountability

Group Accountability

Group accountability and support from loved ones are just as important for those in recovery as self-accountability. When surrounded by people who love and support you, your drive and desire to stay in recovery are typically much more inherent. 

There are a few ways to practice group accountability:

Utilize Alcohol Monitoring

Soberlink’s alcohol monitoring system helps with both self and group accountability. As previously mentioned, the system allows scheduled tests and can share results with people close to you, like your friends, family, recovery coaches, etc.

With an easy-to-read, color-coded system, sharing this data with others helps hold you accountable. Typically, the possibility of a positive test being shared with others often encourages its users to abstain from drinking altogether.

Already trusted by treatment professionals, Soberlink’s device is an excellent tool to practice accountability and rebuild trust in past relationships, resulting in improved outcomes and a higher chance of recovery.

Enroll in Group or Family Therapy

If you have relationships in your life that need rebuilding due to your addiction, group or family therapy may help keep you accountable to your sobriety and strengthen your connections with your loved ones.

Often, AUD affects more than just the individual and is often referred to as a “family illness.” Utilizing a resource like group therapy offers the chance to heal past transgressions while pushing forward to recovery. 

Attend Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings

Alcoholics Anonymous is a free support group for those struggling with alcohol abuse or AUD through a 12-step program. They pride themselves on fellowship, camaraderie, and anonymity for its participants.

When in AA, you receive a sponsor who’s been through the program to help guide and support you through your recovery journey. This, as well as weekly meetings, helps remind you you are not alone during this difficult time of your life.

AA creates support and a safe place to discuss your current and past struggles with addiction and allows members to join meetings both online and in person, making AA an extremely accessible resource.

What Happens if I Don’t Manage My Addiction?

What Happens if I Don’t Manage My Addiction?

There are both physical and environmental risks if you choose not to treat your alcohol addiction. Understanding the risks may help you realize how important sobriety can be to your life:

Physical Risks

Alcoholism results in physical and chemical changes in the brain. Prolonged alcohol abuse and a lack of continued care may lead to serious health complications and an increased risk for certain cancers. Because alcohol is a toxin, high consumption can deteriorate different parts of your body. The longer you drink, the higher the possibility of the following risks:

  • Physical injuries (broken bones, bruising, major accidents, etc.)
  • Heart disease and heart-related medical issues
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver and/or kidney issues/failure
  • Weak immune system
  • Digestion issues
  • Mental illness (anxiety and depression)
  • Breast, mouth, throat, liver, or colon cancer
  • Sexually transmitted diseases or infections due to risky behavior while drunk

Environmental Risks

Though your body and physical health are at risk when you have AUD, it is not the only part of your life that may be affected. Some non-medical risks that may come from addiction:

  • Loss or complication of relationships
  • Money issues as a result of your addiction
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Trouble with the law (DUIs, arrest for reckless behavior, fighting, etc.)
  • Failing or underperforming at school or work
  • Loss of memory due to alcohol-induced blackouts
  • Suffering from low self-esteem and self-worth

Disease Model of Alcoholism Revisited

Disease Model of Alcoholism Revisited

The general rule of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous is that dependence on alcohol cannot be cured, but recovery can be maintained through abstinence and symptom management. Chronic diseases require constant vigilance and proactive maintenance.

While alcoholism is widely recognized as a chronic disease, recovering people mustn’t live in a “disease frame of mind”. The attitude of an afflicted person is key during their recovery journey. The condition is a disease, but this doesn’t mean that you continue abusing alcohol and claim your behavior is out of your control. You wouldn’t stop treating your diabetes, so don’t stop treating your alcoholism.

If I Want to Change, Where Do I Start?

With all of these resources available, it may be tempting to pick one and focus on that to help manage your AUD. However, as it is a disease, you will most likely need many resources to remain in recovery.

It is important to understand that these tools and resources are just that. They are meant to assist, not cure, and it may take some time to find the proper “dosage” for you, just like every individual with diabetes has to figure out what foods spike or drop their sugar, how much insulin they need, etc.; what works for one person may not work for another.

AUD is difficult to live with, but not impossible, and with the right resources, you can live the sober life you desire.

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