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Are you worried that you may have a drinking problem? You aren't alone. Whether you're misusing alcohol or exhibiting signs of alcohol use disorder (AUD), having an alcohol problem is actually more common than you think.
Nearly one-third of American adults are considered excessive drinkers, and 10 percent of them are considered alcoholics. This means that an estimated 15 million people cope with alcoholism across the country.
Being around friends or family members with drinking problems, or spending time with people who struggle with addictive substance use, increases your risk of developing an alcohol problem. Similarly, if you or your family have a history of mental health disorders, you have a higher chance of AUD.1
Many factors that lead to alcohol use disorders.2 Although generally, it starts with a drinking problem. Unless a person stops misusing alcohol, it will eventually lead to dependence and alcohol addiction.
It’s important to understand the difference between problem drinking, like binge drinking and heavy drinking, versus suffering from alcoholism. The sooner you can recognize your drinking problem, the earlier you can take steps to quit alcohol. This gives you better chances for a successful recovery.
What is the Difference Between a Drinking Problem & Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a type of drinking problem, but not all drinking problems are alcoholism.
Here's the difference between the two:
Drinking problems refer to unhealthy drinking patterns. Think of them as bad habits which you picked up due to various influences.
If you regularly consume excessive amounts of alcohol, or if you find yourself drinking more frequently than usual, it’s likely that you have an alcohol problem. Some concrete examples of problematic drinking include heavy drinking and binging on alcohol.
- Binge drinking is clinically defined as a pattern of drinking that raises your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dL. This can happen if you consume excessive amounts of alcohol in a single occasion.
- Heavy drinking or heavy alcohol use is the frequent consumption of large amounts of alcohol. Men who have more than 4 drinks per day or 14 drinks per week, and women who have more than 3 drinks per day or 7 drinks per week, are considered heavy drinkers.
Generally, it takes women and men about four to five drinks to reach a 0.08 g/dL BAC level.
According to the 2019 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 25.8% of Americans aged 18 and above said they engaged in binge drinking. As much as 6.3% engaged in heavy drinking in the past month.3
While binge drinking is certainly not safe, drinking heavily once in a while doesn’t mean you have an alcohol problem. It only becomes a problem if you make a habit out of it, such as drinking several times a week.
Consequently, you can consume moderate amounts of alcohol and still be a “problem drinker” if you drink frequently enough.
A drinking problem can be easily be overcome on your own or with the support of family and friends. It doesn’t require treatment, unlike alcoholism.
Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder is an actual medical condition that affects your brain. It develops gradually as a consequence of unhealthy drinking.
People with alcoholism have a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. The resulting alcohol addiction causes an alcoholic to experience withdrawal symptoms when they’re not drinking.
Alcohol withdrawal is characterized by intense cravings and other unpleasant symptoms. Sometimes, it can even be dangerous. This makes it difficult to quit, even if they’re ready and willing to stop drinking.
People who struggle with alcoholism continue to drink despite negative consequences, such as:
- Chronic health problems
- Relationship problems
- Occupational issues
- Legal complications
While the support of family and friends is shown to be helpful, alcoholism isn’t something you can overcome alone.4 It requires addiction treatment and additional therapies. An alcoholic can also benefit from support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
To summarize, alcohol abusers will find it easier to break their unhealthy drinking habits, whereas alcoholics have to seek treatment for their condition.
Stages of Alcoholism
Alcohol addiction doesn’t just happen overnight. There are stages of alcoholism that turn a problem drinker into a full-blown alcoholic with alcohol dependence.
Stage 1: Pre-Alcoholism
The average person drinks occasionally in social gatherings. But a pre-alcoholic will drink for various reasons.
These may include:
- Reducing stress
- Feeling better
- Easing anxiety
- Forgetting bad memories
- Dulling emotional pain
- Escaping reality
As this stage progresses, a person will start to drink more frequently until they develop a tolerance to alcohol.
Alcohol tolerance enables a pre-alcoholic to function despite their heavy drinking. Unfortunately, as they start to feel less of the alcohol’s perceived benefits, they also tend to increase their consumption.
Stage 2: Early Alcoholism
During this stage, a person will start to experience alcohol-induced blackouts. A blackout is a temporary loss of consciousness that results from drinking.
This is not the same as being unconscious. People who blackout may continue to drink and engage socially, but not be able to recall these events the following day.
The early alcoholic will also start to become increasingly obsessed with alcohol, drinking more and more. They will try to hide their drinking habits or lie about them. Family or friends usually can’t tell they have a drinking problem.
Stage 3: Middle Alcoholism
A middle alcoholic will start to experience the consequences of their unhealthy drinking. These negative effects are accompanied by outward signs, which family or friends will notice.
- Drinking at inappropriate times (e.g., while driving or caring for kids)
- Being late or missing work or school
- Failure to meet obligations (e.g., unable to pay bills on time)
- Physical changes (e.g., weight gain and bloated stomach)
- Irritability and mood swings (e.g., becoming more argumentative)
- Legal problems (e.g., getting arrested)
Middle alcoholics usually know they have a drinking problem. They might attempt to cut back on their alcohol consumption. But they'll also have difficulty controlling the urge to drink.
At this stage, an alcoholic can benefit from joining abstinence-based support groups that will teach them practical ways to control their alcohol cravings. However, seeking medical treatment while in the early stages of alcohol abuse will also drastically improve their chances for recovery.
Stage 4: Late Alcoholism
The late alcoholic will make drinking a priority over everything else. They'll also start to suffer from deteriorating health, failing relationships, and declining finances.
When someone enters this stage, it is commonly known as “hitting rock bottom”.
Here are signs that you have hit rock bottom:
- Losing a job due to substance abuse
- Being kicked out of your house or homelessness
- Serious financial troubles
- Dropping out of school
- Getting divorced because of alcohol abuse
- Violent outbursts towards loved ones
Even though they are clearly struggling in life, a late alcoholic will continue with their unhealthy drinking patterns. Any attempts to stop drinking typically result in unpleasant and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
However, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to recover. Studies show that alcoholics who hit “rock bottom” see it as a turning point to start recovery.5
People at this stage require professional healthcare services such as addiction treatment. Friends and family members may want to plan an intervention during this time.
Stage 5: Recovery
A recovering alcoholic is anyone that has started taking steps towards sobriety. A few of these steps include alcohol detox, addiction treatment, entering sober living, and joining peer support groups.
The goal of recovery is to maintain sobriety and prevent relapse. But this is a lifelong process that alcoholics must actively undertake.
While some may relapse, this shouldn’t be seen as a sign of failure.Relapse can occur at every stage alcohol treatment. But it can be prevented if you know which signs to look out for.6
Consequences of Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Excessive alcohol consumption can take a toll on your physical, mental, and social well-being. It can also significantly impact your finances.
Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Excessive alcohol consumption can have physical consequences that include, but aren’t limited to:
- Unhealthy weight gain or loss
- Sleep disturbances
- Liver damage
- Heart complications
- Low blood sugar
- Low libido
- Central nervous system issues
- Weakened immune system
- Some cancers
- Accidents due to impaired judgment
Mental Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Drinking excessively can also lead to mental health problems and related psychological disturbances, such as:
- Memory loss
- Lack of motivation
- Personality changes
- Mood swings
- Compulsive behaviors
Social Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Unhealthy drinking patterns have social consequences, like:
- Detachment from family and friends
- Skipping school or work
- Dropping once-enjoyable activities
- Getting into legal troubles
Financial Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
You may experience several of these consequences as a result of excessive drinking:
- Loss of home
- Being in debt
- Getting fired
Do You Have a Drinking Problem?
If you have signs of a drinking problem, consider cutting back on your alcohol use. It’s unlikely that you will experience withdrawal symptoms, which should make it easier to quit drinking.
Having the support of family and friends is critical during this stage. But if this isn’t possible, you can always seek help from support groups that are dedicated to abstinence and sobriety.
If you, a loved one, or someone else you know has a drinking problem, reach out for professional help or call Addiction Group for more information on top rehabilitation and treatment resources.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction
Here are some of the best treatment options for alcohol use disorder:
Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days. However, they can be longer in some instances.
Partial hospitalization programs are also called intensive outpatient programs or IOPs. They're like inpatient programs, but you return home after each session.
Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They're best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety.
Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detox, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions.
MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan.
Many of them follow the 12-step approach. However, there are also secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach.