Types of Alcohol Problems

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Different types of alcoholics require different addiction treatments. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction problem, understanding alcohol use disorder (AUD) allows you to discover the root of the problem and find the right treatment for your needs.

The designation of mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorders is the terminology used in official medical diagnoses.

The three main types of alcohol problems are commonly described as:

What Classifies as an Alcoholic?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has further defined different types of alcohol problems by categorizing five different types of alcoholics. These include:

  • The young adult alcoholic
  • The young antisocial alcoholic
  • The functional alcoholic
  • The intermediate familial alcoholic
  • The chronic severe alcoholic

The effort was made to categorize different types of alcoholics, in part, to dispel the myth that there is a typical alcoholic. Identifying the category into which a person with a drinking problem falls also makes it easier to understand the root of the problem and choose a rehab that will be the most effective.

The categories acknowledge a person’s:

  • Age
  • Background
  • Current situation
  • Medical issues
  • Family history of AUD
  • Age of onset of regular drinking and alcohol problems
  • Symptom patterns of alcohol dependence and abuse
  • Presence of additional SUD and mental health disorders

In the past, any effort made to categorize alcoholics focused primarily on hospitalized individuals or those receiving treatment. Since only about one-fourth of people with alcoholism received treatment, the previous information did not represent many other individuals struggling with alcoholism.

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Different Types of Alcoholics

A study by scientists at the NIAAA, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), analyzed 1,484 survey respondents who met certain diagnostic criteria for alcohol addiction. The study included people both in treatment and not seeking treatment.

The results revealed five different types of alcoholics, which are as follows:

The five different types of alcoholics include young adult, young antisocial, functional, intermediate familial, and chronic severe alcoholics:

1. Young Adult Alcoholics

The young adult subtype makes up about a third of the alcohol use disorders (AUD) in the United States. Twenty-four is the average age these individuals develop alcoholism. Young adult alcoholics tend to drink less frequently than older alcoholics, but they binge drink – sometimes more than a dozen drinks in one situation.

Any young person can have a drinking problem, but the majority of young adult alcoholics tend to be male and single. Many are still in school. In most cases, they have moderate rates of a co-occurring substance abuse issue and a family history of alcoholism. They also rarely seek treatment for their addiction.

Some young-adult alcoholics outgrow their problem drinking, while others develop an addiction to alcohol as they get older.

In the U.S., young adult alcoholics comprise 31.5 percent of all alcoholics.

2. Young Antisocial Alcoholics

The young antisocial subtype starts drinking around age 15 and develops an alcohol use disorder around age 18. Unlike young adult alcoholics, young antisocial alcoholics do not drink socially with peers. Instead, antisocial alcoholics drink alone and typically struggle with other issues.

Unlike regular young adult alcoholics, antisocial alcoholics tend to have a family history of alcoholism. They also typically suffer from co-occurring mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder, depression, antisocial personality disorder, or social anxiety disorder.

Many of them also abuse other substances, including cigarettes, marijuana, and opiates. On average, this type of alcoholic will consume 17 drinks at a time. Three-quarters of this group are males.

In the U.S., young antisocial alcoholics comprise 21 percent of all alcoholics.

3. Functional Alcoholics

The functional subtype accounts for about a fifth of all alcohol addictions. This means despite their addiction to alcohol, they hold steady jobs, are in relationships, have decent family incomes, and tend to have a higher level of education. Most are middle-aged (around 41) and started drinking around age 18. They consume alcohol daily or at least several times per week.

While functional alcoholics may not binge drink, they do drink more alcohol than someone without a problem would consume. This group also tends to suffer from moderate depression. Sixty percent of functional alcoholics are males.

In the U.S., functional alcoholics comprise 19.5 percent of all alcoholics.

4. Intermediate Familial Alcoholics

Intermediate familial alcoholics are similar to functional alcoholics. However, the intermediate familial subtype is more likely to be born with a genetic predisposition to alcohol. This group usually starts drinking around age 17 and develops alcoholism around age 32.

About half of the alcoholics in this group come from families where there are other people with alcohol problems. They have a high probability of suffering from an antisocial personality disorder, depressing, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and bipolar disorder. They also have high rates of cigarette, marijuana, and cocaine addiction.

In the U.S., intermediate familial alcoholics comprise 19 percent of all alcoholics.

5. Chronic Severe Alcoholics

The chronic severe subtype accounts for the fewest number of alcoholics. It is one of the most devastating types of alcoholism and includes people struggling with the highest percentage of antisocial personality disorder of any group, divorce, co-occurring mental illness, and other substance abuse issues. This group experiences the highest rate of alcohol-related emergency room visits, problems at work, social issues, and withdrawal experiences.

The majority of people in this group are men in their late 20s, around 29, who started drinking around age 15. The good news is people in this group seek treatment at a higher rate than other groups. They are also the most likely to participate in detox programs at inpatient treatment centers and other rehabilitation programs.

In the U.S., chronic severe alcoholics comprise 9 percent of all alcoholics.

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Resources +

“Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institutes of Health (NIH), 29 Sept. 2015, www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.

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