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

Alcoholism is the most severe form of problem drinking. The drinker often has a strong, uncontrollable desire to consume alcohol. Sufferers of alcoholism typically make drinking more important than all obligations and responsibilities, including work and family.

Those experiencing alcoholism may also develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking. Alcoholism is sometimes known as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence. It is different from harmful or problem drinking, which is typically an occasional pattern of excessive drinking, which can damage your health.

An example of harmful or problem drinking is consuming too much alcohol at a party (binge drinking) and risking injury. This pattern of drinking may develop into alcoholism if it becomes a habit and occurs regularly.

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?

A person suffers from alcohol use disorder if they engage in problem drinking that becomes severe. An individual with alcohol use disorder does not know when or how to stop drinking. They may spend significant amounts of time thinking about alcohol and cannot control how much they drink. This is even if it is causing significant problems in their life.

Moderate alcohol consumption does not typically cause any psychological or physical harm. However, if an individual increases their consumption or consistently drinks more than is recommended, they may develop alcohol use disorder.

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How to Help an Alcoholic Stop Drinking

When trying to help someone stop drinking, the first step for family members and loved ones is to talk to the drinker about alcoholism. This enables you to understand your loved one’s thoughts and behavior. It can also help you stop blaming them.

Intervention

When you confront an alcoholic family member or loved one about their alcohol abuse, it is best to approach them in a non-accusatory way. It will be a difficult conversation, so plan what you are going to say ahead of time.

Wait until the individual is sober and relatively emotionally stable. Make sure you are feeling calm as your loved one mustn't feel attacked. Avoid accusatory language, like ‘you better get help or else.’

During this first conversation about substance use, it is essential to 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 the family as a whole. You can also mention specific problems resulting from drinking, like financial, work, or relationship issues.

Offer Treatment and Support Options

If the initial conversation goes well, it may be an excellent time to offer treatment and support options. Research and collect these support options ahead of the conversation, so you have them to hand.

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.

It is common to become increasingly focused on the drinker’s actions and behavior. However, if you obsessively worry about someone’s alcohol problem, you take the focus off your own life. This is known as codependency. Codependency is destructive to your emotional and mental health.

How to Help an Alcoholic in Denial

When you approach an alcoholic family member or loved one about their alcohol or drug addiction, they may be in denial. They may even react angrily to your intervention. Do not take it personally.

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.

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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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Addiction Treatment Options for Your Loved One 

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

Detox

If the individual is dependent on alcohol to function, they must seek medical advice to manage withdrawal symptoms through detox. During detox, patients can also attend support groups and receive counseling. They may also take medication for their condition.

How and where detoxification takes place is determined by the patient’s level of alcohol dependency. In mild cases, individuals can detox at home without the use of medication. This is because the withdrawal symptoms are likely to be mild.

If the patient’s typical alcohol consumption is high (more than 20 units a day) or they have previously experienced withdrawal symptoms, they may also be able to detox at home. However, they will likely need medication to ease withdrawal symptoms.

If the dependency is severe, the patient may need to go to a treatment center to detox. This is because the withdrawal symptoms are likely to be severe, and they may need specialist treatment.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Some people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may require prescribed medication to help them reach abstinence. Several medications to treat alcohol misuse include:

  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Naltrexone
  • Nalmefene

Support Groups

Many people with alcohol dependency issues find it helpful to attend self-help and support groups, such as AA. One of the primary beliefs behind peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is that alcoholism is a long-term, progressive condition and complete abstinence is the only solution.

The treatment program promoted by al-anon is based on 12-steps 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.

What Does Alcohol Rehab Entail?

An inpatient residential detox and rehab treatment program provides the best chance of long-term recovery for those suffering from alcohol dependency issues. This is because rehab treats physical and psychological addiction to alcohol.

On admission, a doctor assesses patients and prescribes suitable medication to reduce the risks and calm alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Patients also receive a physical exam. A breathalyzer test may be necessary to show the alcohol level in the system. A urine test may also be required to record any substance abuse.

The doctor will assess any prescribed medication patients may be taking. Throughout the alcohol rehabilitation process, the patient’s physical health and well-being is monitored.

Patients are allocated a key worker who collects background history and creates an alcohol rehabilitative care plan in which the patient is fully involved in. This plan addresses the patient’s alcohol consumption, behavioral issues, and 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 differ depending on the type of treatment services used and each patient's circumstances.

The length of treatment typically 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.

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Resources

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Frequently Asked Questions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), January 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm 

Alcohol Facts and Statistics, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, October 2020, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics 

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

Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHDetailedTabs2018R2/NSDUHDetTabsSect5pe2018.htm#tab5-4a 

Alcohol use disorder, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-use-disorder 

Alcohol misuse treatment, United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), August 2018,https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/treatment/ 

Gossop, M et al. “Treatment retention and 1 year outcomes for residential programmes in England.” Drug and alcohol dependence vol. 57,2 (1999): 89-98, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10617094/ 

Darke, Shane et al. “Retention, early dropout and treatment completion among therapeutic community admissions.” Drug and alcohol review vol. 31,1 (2012): 64-71, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21426420/ 

Principles of Effective Treatment, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 18 Sep. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment

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