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When Is Alcohol Use a Problem?

When Is Alcohol Use a Problem?

The use of alcohol certainly isn’t new. The use of wine and alcohol dates back to the Ancient Greeks and then the Ancient Romans, and probably further back than that. Around seven in 10 Americans drank alcohol in the past year, and almost three in five drank in the last month. 

With it being so common and prevalent, many people don’t necessarily realize they have a problem with alcohol until maybe it’s too late, and there are serious consequences. Understanding how to recognize an alcohol problem is important for anyone who drinks alcohol or who has loved ones who do.

In the United States from 2006 to 2010, alcohol-related deaths made up 10% of total deaths in the U.S. 

The following provides an overview of when drinking becomes a problem and how alcohol use problems and disorders are defined. 

What Is an Alcohol Problem?

An alcohol problem doesn’t necessarily mean you are addicted to alcohol, but it does mean that you may need to take steps to remedy the problem.

In the United States, around 6.6% of the adult population reports heavy alcohol use, and one in four people say they’ve had at least one episode of binge drinking, according to Harvard Health. Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks in one day if you’re a woman and five or more drinks in a single day if you’re a man.  

Binge drinking can be unhealthy or even deadly, but again, having episodes of binge drinking in your life doesn’t mean you are an alcoholic. If you do engage in binge drinking, even infrequently, though, it can be considered an alcohol problem. 

Binge drinking is most common among young people between the ages of 18 and 21, and especially on college campuses. 

People who engage in binge drinking are more likely to have problems with the law, experience hangovers and also become injured. Binge drinking on college campuses is also linked to more physical and sexual assaults. 

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

One term that you will often hear when the topic of alcohol abuse or problem drinking is discussed is a high-functioning alcoholic. 

When we think of the stereotypical alcoholic, it’s usually someone who drinks too much and experiences their life crumbling around them as a result. Not every person who is addicted or dependent on alcohol will look the same in their life, however. 

It’s certainly possible to be an alcoholic and still have a seemingly great, together life. This is called high-functioning alcoholism. 

Functional alcoholics may be productive and even high-achievers, but they still drink heavily. Eventually, that heavy drinking may catch up with them, even if it hasn’t yet. 

Signs of high-functioning alcoholism include:

  • If you drink more than 14 drinks a week as a man or more than seven a week as a woman, it could be a sign of a problem.
  • High-functioning alcoholics will often make jokes about alcoholism. 
  • You could start having problems in relationships because of drinking, but you continue anyway. 
  • You may use alcohol as a way to relax and unwind or as a treat to yourself at the end of the day.
  • Legal problems such as DUI may start to occur. 
  • You may try to hide or deny your drinking or get mad when someone confronts you about it. 
  • Your loved ones may express concerns about your drinking or try to make excuses about it. 

When you’re a high-functioning alcoholic, you may convince yourself you have everything under control, but you are still putting your mental and physical health at risk. 

Alcoholism vs. Dependence

Two terms that are often used interchangeably when describing problematic alcohol use are alcoholism and dependence. They are two separate things, however. 

Alcoholism is a psychological dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism is something that forms in your brain, and when you are an alcoholic, you continue to drink despite negative outcomes that stem from it. 

Dependence is a physiological condition in which your body and central nervous system have adjusted their functionality to the presence of alcohol after repeated exposure.

If you’re dependent on alcohol, stopping suddenly can mean you experience symptoms of withdrawal. 

If you are dependent on alcohol, you will experience cravings when you aren’t drinking, and you will have a tolerance to the effects, so you need more and more alcohol to feel the same things. 

Alcoholism is a progressive disease, and dependence can be as well. 

The longer your alcoholism goes untreated, the worse the complications are, and the more difficult it becomes to treat. That’s why recognizing a problem and early intervention are so critical. 

Doctors diagnose alcohol use disorders as mild, moderate, or severe and the diagnosis is based on how many symptoms from a set of criteria you may display. Some of the criteria used to diagnose an alcohol use disorder include:

  • You have periods where you drink more or for longer than you intended to.
  • You’ve tried to stop drinking or cut down on drinking and found that you weren’t able to.
  • You’ve been in dangerous, risky situations as the result of drinking. 
  • You’ve continued to drink in spite of health problems, physically or mentally. 
  • A lot of your time is dedicated to drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking. 
  • You’ve found that drinking interferes with your daily responsibilities, such as taking care of your family or your job. 
  • You’ve stopped doing other things that you used to like to instead drink.
  • You’ve experienced symptoms of alcohol withdrawal like sleep disturbances, shakiness, nausea, or sweating if you didn’t drink.

Alcohol problems are serious and can impact your life in very detrimental ways. By understanding the red flags and the risks, you are in a better position to get help for yourself before it’s too late, or perhaps help a loved one do the same.

There are treatments, including medication and behavioral therapy, if you’re ready to take that step and make a positive change in your life. 


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