What is Considered an Alcoholic?

An alcoholic is an individual who has a mental and physical dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious psychological illness, preventing those experiencing it from quitting drinking, despite adverse alcohol affects.
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What is Classified as an Alcoholic?

Someone who drinks frequently or has problems due to alcohol may wonder if they are an alcoholic or have a drinking problem.

Anyone who experiences concerns, troubles, or issues due to alcohol use likely has a drinking problem. However, a problem with alcohol does not necessarily make someone an alcoholic.

alcoholic

People with alcohol use disorders (AUD) come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds. Often, when looking at your drinking behaviors, it can be difficult to understand whether or not you classify as an alcoholic. It can be challenging to know what constitutes as ‘safe’ or moderate drinking or whether you have passed into more problematic or dangerous alcohol use levels.

While it’s difficult to define what classifies as an alcoholic objectively, some behaviors and warning signs can suggest alcohol addiction.

Excessive Drinking & Binge Drinking

Excessive drinking may suggest a problem with alcohol. Excessive drinking includes binge drinking, 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 two hours.

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 and alcohol use 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. 

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?

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.

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.

For pregnant and breastfeeding women, there’s no safe level of alcohol use. Alcohol use during pregnancy increases the danger of miscarriage, congenital disabilities, and cognitive and developmental issues.

People with medical conditions 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. 

Alcohol can also negatively interact with over-the-counter prescription and herbal medications. These medicines can include antidepressants, antibiotics, and opioids.

Underage drinking, especially heavy and binge drinking, is also associated with adverse consequences. Current and recovering alcoholics should also abstain from drinking. They should avoid their triggers for alcohol abuse.

How Do I Know if I Have a Drinking Problem? 

There are several behaviors and warning signs that are indicators of a problematic drinking problem. Per the DSM-5, to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD), individuals must meet at least two of the below criteria within twelve months:

  • 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

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

What is the official definition of 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.

What is considered a heavy drinker?

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 everyday 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.


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Resources

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), MedlinePlus, 2020, https://medlineplus.gov/alcoholusedisorderaud.html

What is a standard drink?, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/practitioner/PocketGuide/pocket_guide2.htm

Alcohol use disorder, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA),  https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

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, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307043/

Alcohol Use and Your Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

Drinking levels defined, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

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Updated on: October 5, 2020
Author
Ellie Swain
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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