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Updated on September 27, 2021

How to Tell if Someone Has a Drinking Problem (Signs & Symptoms)

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimates that about 14.1 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder in 2019.1 Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a consequence of problem drinking. 

Alcoholics have a strong, uncontrollable desire to consume alcohol. They tend to prioritize drinking over their obligations and responsibilities. As a result, their work and family often get left behind.

However, a person doesn’t become an alcoholic overnight. Rather, it occurs gradually in stages. Alcoholism starts with alcohol abuse or a pattern of misusing alcohol. One example is binge drinking or consuming too much alcohol at a party or any single occasion. The regular consumption of large amounts of alcohol (heavy drinking) is also a form of alcohol abuse. 

These drinking problems will eventually develop into more severe forms of alcohol use disorder, namely dependence and alcohol addiction. People who are dependent on alcohol will experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking.

Alcohol dependence is a sign of alcohol addiction. Once an alcoholic reaches this stage, they need addiction treatment. Otherwise, they will have difficulty quitting on their own. Studies show that with the support of family and friends:2,3

  • Alcoholics are more likely to complete alcohol rehab
  • People with alcohol use disorder have better treatment outcomes (e.g., fewer relapses and improved ability to sustain long-term sobriety)
  • Decreased alcohol consumption in people who opted for non-abstinent recovery

If your loved one or family member is struggling, and you are wondering how to help an alcoholic, keep reading for our advice.

What Qualifies Someone as an Alcoholic?

If your loved one consumes moderate amounts of alcohol, or if they don’t drink as often, there isn’t much to worry. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that men can have up to 2 drinks per day, and women can have up to 1 drink per day.4

However, if an individual increases their consumption or consistently drinks more than than the recommended amount, they may develop alcoholism:

Signs That Someone is an Alcoholic

A loved one may exhibit the following signs if they’re alcoholic:

  • Consuming more alcohol or drinking longer than planned
  • Unable to control or quit drinking
  • Spending more time drinking or being sick from its side effects, like alcohol withdrawal and hangovers
  • Intense alcohol-seeking behavior
  • Drinking is causing problems, such as losing a job, inability to fulfill familial duties, and decline in physical and health
  • Giving up other things to make time for drinking
  • The physical need to drink more alcohol in order to achieve perceived positive effects that were previously felt with lower amounts

A person who continues to engage in problem drinking in spite of the consequences is suffering from alcohol use disorder. Alcoholics simply do not know when or how to stop drinking.

This is why an alcoholic needs the support of a friend or family member. In special cases where they lack an immediate support system, they can get peer support from fellow alcoholics.

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How to Help an Alcoholic Stop Drinking

When trying to help your loved one stop drinking, the first step for family and friends is to understand what alcoholism is. 

Next, talk to them about their drinking problem. This enables you to understand the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of a loved one. 

Finally, help them explore options for addiction treatment and provide as much support as you can.

Step 1: Find Out How Alcoholism Affects Your Loved One

People have this misconception that alcoholics are unable to quit drinking because they are “morally weak” and lack willpower. However, this myth surrounding alcohol use has long been disproven.5

Studies show that alcoholism is a complex disease. It arises from multiple factors, including:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Social influences

Similar to drug addiction, long-term alcohol abuse causes physical and psychological changes in the brain. These changes not only impair their ability to make healthy decisions. Cessation also becomes difficult as they’re left to deal with alcohol withdrawal.

Before attempting addiction treatment, friends and family members must have a good grasp of what alcoholism is and how it affects their loved ones. That way, you can stop blaming them and instead focus on helping them recover.

Step 2: Plan an Intervention

When confronting an alcoholic friend or family member about their alcohol abuse, it is best to approach them in a helpful manner. 

According to a survey, alcoholics view confrontations to be “helpful” if they possess the following qualities:

  • Supervised by health professionals or experts in alcohol addiction (e.g., psychologists and sobriety counselors)
  • Offers hope and practical support
  • Involves people they trusted and respected

It will be a difficult conversation, so plan what you are going to say ahead of time. 

Wait until the individual is sober and emotionally stable, and that they’re not uncomfortable. Make sure you are feeling calm as your loved one shouldn’t feel attacked. Avoid accusatory and forceful language that doesn’t respect their personal boundaries, like ‘you better get help or else.’

During this first conversation about substance use, show how much you care about your loved one. Be honest and authentic about your concerns, including how their alcohol use affects their physical and mental health, and their family as a whole. You can also mention specific problems which resulted from their drinking. Examples include financial, work, and relationship issues.

Step 3: Offer Treatment and Support Options

If the initial conversation goes well, it may be an excellent time to help your loved one explore their treatment options. Research and collect these support options ahead of the conversation, so you can bring them up afterward.

Remember that you cannot force someone into treatment. They must make that decision themselves. The best you can do is present treatment options and offer support.

You may become increasingly focused on your loved one during the early stages of their addiction treatment. While this is completely normal, there’s a risk for codependence.

Codependence can occur if you spend most, if not, all of your time attending to the needs of your alcoholic loved one. Codependent relationships are destructive to your emotional well-being and mental health. This can be avoided by setting personal boundaries when caring for an alcoholic.

How to Help an Alcoholic Loved One in Denial

When you approach an alcoholic friend or family member about their alcohol problem, they may deny it or react angrily to your intervention. Do not take these responses personally.

Denial is a common feature of substance abuse. Research shows that people who deny their alcoholism know they have a drinking problem. The only reason they react this way is because of the stigma associated with alcohol.6

Give them time and space to think about what you have said. Listen to what your loved one has to say when they are ready. As soon as they open up, introduce them to a local support group. Being around recovering alcoholics will help them better understand their condition.

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Addiction Treatment Options for Your Loved One 

The substance use treatment options for alcohol addiction depend on the extent of the individual’s drinking.

Alcohol Detox

If your loved one has alcohol dependence, they must first manage their withdrawal symptoms through detox. Alcohol detoxification will help them get past the initial stages of withdrawal as comfortably as possible.

During detox, patients can attend support groups and receive counseling. They can also take medication for their condition, granted that it was prescribed by their doctor. How and where detoxification takes place is determined by the patient’s level of alcohol dependency:

  • In mild cases of alcohol dependence, people can detox at home without medication or medical advice. This is because the withdrawal symptoms are likely to be tolerable.
  • If the patient participates in heavy drinking (more than 20 units a day), or has previously experienced withdrawal symptoms, at-home detox is still an option. However, they may need medications to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • If the dependency is severe, the patient may have to go to a detox treatment center. Their withdrawal symptoms are likely severe and require specialized care.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

People diagnosed with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) may need prescribed medication. They are specifically designed to reduce withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse during early addiction treatment. 

Some medications that are used to treat alcohol misuse include:

  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Naltrexone
  • Nalmefene

Peer Support Groups

Alcoholics who struggle with alcohol dependency may find it helpful to join a peer-oriented support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). 

The core principle behind these alcohol support groups is to promote complete abstinence among peers. They also recognize that alcoholism is a long-term and progressive condition.

The addiction treatments promoted by Al-Anon are based on the 12-step program, which is designed to help problem drinkers overcome their addictions. These steps include admitting you are powerless over alcohol and accepting you have acted wrongly. 

Where possible, members are encouraged to make amends with anyone they have harmed as a result of drinking.

What Does Alcohol Rehab Entail?

Loved ones have the best chances of recovery if they opt for an inpatient residential detox and rehab treatment program. Alcohol rehab treats physical and psychological addiction to alcohol, which is a good foundation for long-term sobriety.

On admission, a doctor will assess your loved one and prescribe medications to reduce their alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Patients will also receive a physical exam. During which time, a doctor may issue the following:

  • Breathalyzer test - measures alcohol levels in the system
  • Urine test - checks for other types of substance abuse

The doctor will ask the patient about any prescribed medications they are taking with alcohol. While in alcohol rehabilitation, the patient’s physical and mental health, as well as their progress, will be monitored.

A key worker will be assigned to your loved one. They will collect their medical background and family history. 

Based on their findings, they will create a personalized alcohol rehabilitative care plan in which the patient and family members are fully involved. 

This plan will address their alcohol consumption and behavioral issues, along with their physical, psychological, and social needs.

During rehabilitation, treatment services will consist of education, counseling, and personal or family therapy to understand and recover from alcohol addiction. Patients learn to recognize trigger points and affective behaviors to live free from alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Many alcohol rehabilitation programs are based on the proven 12-step model and introduce a holistic approach to recovery.

Treatment for Alcoholism: Benefits & Success Rate

Rehab success rates vary depending on the individual, the type of treatment services used, and the patient's circumstances. The length of treatment plays a crucial role in success.

People who receive medication-assisted treatment for fewer than 90 days do not show significantly improved outcomes. Those who receive medication-assisted treatment for three years or longer also have lower relapse rates than those on medication-assisted treatment for less than three years.

Most people with substance abuse addictions need at least 90 days of treatment for a successful recovery. Moreover, the availability of support from friends, family, and peers helps improve the outcome of an individual.2,3,6

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Resources

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(1) “The National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2019.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

(2) “Family-Centered Treatment for Women with Substance Use Disorders: History, Key Elements and Challenges.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

(3) “Friends, Family, and Alcohol Abuse: An Examination of General and Alcohol-Specific Social Support.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.

(4) “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.” United States Government. 

(5) “Information about Alcohol.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. 

(6) “Experiences of alcohol dependence: a qualitative study.” PubMed.

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