A cluster of physiological, behavioural, and cognitive phenomena in which the use of alcohol takes on a much higher priority for a given individual than other behaviours that once had greater value. A central descriptive characteristic of the dependence syndrome is the desire (often strong, sometimes overpowering) to take alcohol. There may be evidence that return to alcohol use after a period of abstinence leads to a more rapid reappearance of other features of the syndrome than occurs with nondependent individuals.
A definite diagnosis of dependence should usually be made only if three or more of the following have been experienced or exhibited at some time during the previous year:
1. a strong desire or sense of compulsion to take alcohol;
2. difficulties in controlling alcohol-taking behaviour in terms of its onset, termination, or levels of use;
3. a physiological withdrawal state when alcohol use has ceased or been reduced, as evidenced by: the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol; or use of the alcohol with the intention of relieving or avoiding withdrawal symptoms;
4. evidence of tolerance, such that increased doses of alcohol are required in order to achieve effects originally produced by lower doses (clear examples of this are found in alcohol-dependent individuals who may take daily doses sufficient to incapacitate or kill nontolerant users);
5. progressive neglect of alternative pleasures or interests because of alcohol use, increased amount of time necessary to obtain or take alcohol or to recover from its effects;
6. persisting with alcohol use despite clear evidence of overtly harmful consequences, such as harm to the liver through excessive drinking; efforts should be made to determine that the user was actually, or could be expected to be, aware of the nature and extent of the harm.
Narrowing of the personal repertoire of patterns of alcohol use has also been described as a characteristic feature (e.g. a tendency to drink alcoholic drinks in the same way on weekdays and weekends, regardless of social constraints that determine appropriate drinking behaviour).
It is an essential characteristic of the dependence syndrome that either alcohol taking or a desire to take alcohol should be present; the subjective awareness of compulsion to use alcohol is most commonly seen during attempts to stop or control alcohol use.
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