What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a generic term for many different chemical compounds, each with its own distinct properties.The type of alcohol consumed by humans is ethyl alcohol or ethanol. It is produced by a chemical reaction of fermentation in which yeast feeds on sugar or starch in certain plants, such as barley or grapes, and produces alcohol along with carbon dioxide. Ethanol can have different colours, tastes, potencies and flavours depending on the fruits or vegetables used in its manufacture, the process of manufacture and the additives used.

What is harmful use of alcohol and alcohol abuse?
Traditionally, any alcohol use pattern which is significantly problematic has been called alcohol abuse. This term is still in common use to indicate a destructive pattern of alcohol use, leading to significant social, occupational or medical impairment. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), published by the World Health Organization, uses the term “harmful use” to indicate a pattern of alcohol use similar to alcohol abuse. Harmful use is described as “a pattern of psychoactive substance use that is causing damage to health”. The damage may
be physical (e.g. liver damage) or mental (e.g. episodes of depression).

“Harmful use” may not necessarily be a result of daily consumption of alcohol. Harm from alcohol could also be due to “binge drinking”, i.e. drinking large quantities of alcohol at a single time. This could result in road traffic accidents, domestic violence, perpetuation of poverty etc. Other patterns of consumption, such as consumption of alcohol by pregnant women, would also qualify under the term “harmful use” in a broad sense.

Alcohol dependence
ICD-10 describes alcohol dependence as “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”. Thus, the central feature of alcohol dependence is the overpowering desire to consume alcohol. If a person has reached this stage of dependence, medical care is needed.