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Updated on October 8, 2021

What is Considered an Alcoholic?

Definition of an Alcoholic

If you're unsure whether you have a drinking problem or not, you're not alone.

Anyone worried about their alcohol consumption may have a drinking problem. However, a drinking problem does not necessarily make someone an alcoholic.

People with alcohol use disorders (AUD) come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds. It can be difficult to understand whether or not you classify as an alcoholic.

It's hard to know what ‘safe’ or moderate drinking levels are. And most people never learn how to identify dangerous alcohol use levels.

Here are some helpful ways to determine if you have a drinking problem.

DSM-5 Defintion of Alcohol Use Disorder

There are several behaviors and warning signs that are indicators of a drinking problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has twelve criteria that determine whether you have an alcohol use disorder.

This is one of the best ways to determine if you have a drinking problem.

If you meet at least two of the following criteria within the last twelve months, you may have an alcohol use disorder:

  • Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, using, and recovering from alcohol use
  • Being unable to reduce alcohol use despite a desire to do so
  • Cravings or a strong desire to drink alcohol
  • Needing to consume significantly large or more frequent amounts of alcohol to reach desired effects
  • Developing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when efforts are made to stop drinking
  • Drinking alcohol in higher quantities or for a more extended period than initially intended
  • Giving up previously enjoyed recreational, social, or occupational activities due to alcohol use
  • Being unable to meet major obligations at work, home, or school due to alcohol use
  • Continuing to abuse alcohol despite adverse interpersonal or social problems that develop due to alcohol use
  • Consuming alcohol in physically dangerous situations, like driving or operating machinery
  • Continuing to abuse alcohol despite the presence of physical or mental health problems that develop due to alcohol use

The severity of the AUD is defined as:

  • Mild: two to three symptoms are present
  • Moderate: four to five symptoms are present
  • Severe: six or more symptoms are present

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Excessive Drinking & Binge Drinking Definitions

Excessive drinking may suggest a problem with alcohol. Excessive drinking includes binge drinking and heavy drinking. It also includes any alcohol consumption by pregnant women or people under the age of 21.

Binge drinking is the most common type of excessive drinking. For women, binge drinking involves consuming four or more drinks in about two hours. For men, binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in the same time period.

Heavy drinking for women includes consuming eight or more drinks per week. For men, heavy drinking involves consuming more than 15 drinks per week.

For many people, their first experiences with drinking take place in their mid-teen years. Alcohol use disorders can develop in some people early in life. However, most individuals who develop alcohol-related problems do so in their late 30s.

What is a "Standard Drink?"

A standard drink is any beverage that contains around 14 grams of pure alcohol. This equals 0.6 fluid ounces or 1.2 tablespoons of alcohol. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "one standard drink" is:

Alcoholic DrinkAmountAlcohol Content
Regular beer12 ounces5%
Malt liquor8-9 ounces7%
Wine5 ounces12%
Distilled spirits1.5 ounces40%

Alcohol use should be limited to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. However, some people should avoid alcohol altogether. These groups include people with medical conditions and pregnant women.

How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

Alcohol affects each person differently. Because of this, it can be difficult to define what "too much alcohol" is for everybody.

Health professionals provide varied guidelines when it comes to the recommended alcohol consumption. Some say a maximum of three glasses a day is enough. Others suggest the 1-2-3 (1 drink a day, not more than 2 at once, not more than 3 times per week). Still, others will advise to "drink moderately."

Moderate drinking is safe for most people. However, heavy and chronic alcohol use can adversely affect your physical and mental health.

Many factors affect alcohol metabolism, and the effects of alcohol vary by person. This can make it challenging to manage alcohol limitations.

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You can overcome any struggle – including your substance abuse problem - if you have the right help from qualified professionals. Give yourself the freedom of recovery by turning things around today.

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Who Should Not Drink Alcohol?

For most people, having an occasional alcoholic drink doesn’t usually cause any harm. However, in specific situations and among certain groups, alcohol should be avoided. These include:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: There’s no safe level of alcohol use for lactating women and those who are pregnant. It increases the danger of miscarriage, congenital disabilities, and cognitive and developmental issues.
  • People with medical conditions: This group may also need to watch their drinking or abstain from it completely. Alcohol may worsen pre-existing health issues, including liver disease, diabetes, and kidney disease. 
  • People taking over-the-counter and prescription medications: Alcohol can also negatively interact with certain medications. These medicines can include antidepressants, antibiotics, and opioids.
  • People under 21 years of age: Underage drinking is also associated with adverse consequences. This is especially true when associated with heavy and binge drinking. Current and recovering alcoholics should also abstain from drinking. They should avoid their triggers for alcohol abuse.
  • People who plan to drive, operate machinery, or participate in activities that require alertness and coordination.

Risk Factors for Excessive Alcohol Use and Alcoholism

There are both short-term and long-term health risks for excessive alcohol use and alcoholism.

Short-Term Health Risks

Excessive alcohol use has immediate effects that can be dangerous and harmful to the user. They are most often the result of binge drinking. 

Short-term side effects and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Injuries, including vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns
  • Violence, including homicide, sexual assault, partner violence, and suicide
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can potentially lead to unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in pregnant women
  • Memory loss or blackouts
  • A hangover

Long-Term Health Risks

With time, excessive drinking can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious health issues. 

Long-term side effects and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Alcohol tremors
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, esophagus, liver, throat, and colon
  • A weakened immune system
  • Mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety
  • Learning and memory issues, including dementia and poor school and work performance
  • Social issues, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment

Alcoholic FAQs

What is the definition of being an alcoholic?

An alcoholic is a person who has a psychological and physical dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism is a severe mental disorder. It often prevents those experiencing it from stopping drinking, despite potential or actual negative causes.

How many drinks a day is considered an alcoholic?

Heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than four drinks in a day for men or more than three drinks in a day for women.

Does drinking every day make you an alcoholic?

Enjoying a drink or two every night doesn’t make someone an alcoholic. However, consuming a total weekly intake of more than 14 drinks gives you a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days, however they may be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of an inpatient program you will live on site in a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Many of these treatment programs will assist you with an aftercare program afterwards.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Partial hospitalization programs provide comparable services to inpatient programs. These may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that in a partial hospitalization program, you return home and sleep at your house. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. PHPs are ideal for new patients, as well as patients who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They are best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety and have responsibilities at work, home, or school. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success. They may also be a part of aftercare programs once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detoxification and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery if combined with other therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led organizations made of people dedicated to helping each other stay sober. They can be a first step towards sobriety or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.

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"Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)," MedlinePlus, 2020.

"What is a standard drink?," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

"Alcohol use disorder," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Rehm, Jürgen. "The risks associated with alcohol use and alcoholism," Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 34,2 (2011): 135-43.

"Alcohol Use and Your Health," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020.

"Drinking levels defined," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

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