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Updated on November 12, 2021

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

About 14.1 million Americans had a drinking problem 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. It occurs gradually, as part of a larger 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 lead to AUD. People with AUD experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.

Once someone 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 with AUD, read on to learn more about how to help.

How to Tell if Someone Has a Drinking Problem

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that men can have up to 2 drinks per day, and women can have up to 1 drink per day.4

Someone who consistently drinks more than that may be at risk for AUD..

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
  • Experiencing anxiety or depression when not drinking
  • Often hungover
  • Drinking at the expense of their job, family obligations, and health
  • Giving up other things to make time for drinking

A person who continues to drink in spite of the consequences is suffering from AUD.

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

Some wrongly believe alcoholics are unable to quit drinking because they are “morally weak” and lack willpower. However, this myth has long been disproven.5

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

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Social influences

Long-term alcohol abuse causes physical and psychological changes in the brain. These changes not only impair their ability to make healthy decisions. Withdrawal symptoms can make stopping difficult.

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

It is best to approach an alcoholic in a helpful manner regarding their problem.

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

  • Supervised by 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, emotionally stable, and not uncomfortable. Make sure you are feeling calm as your loved one shouldn’t feel attacked.

Avoid aggressive language that doesn’t respect their personal boundaries, like ‘you better get help or else.’

During this first conversation, show how much you care. Be honest about your concerns, including how their alcohol use affects themselves and their loved ones.

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 treatment options. Research these in advance, so you can bring them up when the time is right.

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 normal, there’s a risk for codependency. This is when the needs of the addicted person overtake those of their loved one.

Codependent relationships are destructive to your emotional well-being and mental health. The way to avoid them is by setting personal boundaries.

How to Help an Alcoholic Loved One in Denial

When you approach an alcoholic about their problem, they may react with anger or denial. This is common and should not be taken personally.

Research shows that people who deny their alcoholism know they have a drinking problem. The 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 AUD, they must first manage their withdrawal symptoms through detox. This will help them get past the initial stages of withdrawal.

During detox, patients can attend support groups and receive counseling. There are also prescription medications to manage withdrawal symptoms.

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.
  • For heavy drinkers or those who have previously experienced withdrawal symptoms, at-home detox is still an option. They may need the help of medication.
  • Severe cases may require the person to go to a detox treatment center.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

People diagnosed with AUD may need prescribed medication. These are drugs designed to reduce withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse. This is called medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Some medications that are used for MAT for alcoholism include:

  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Naltrexone
  • Nalmefene

Peer Support Groups

Alcoholics may find it helpful to join a mutual support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The core principle behind these groups is to promote complete abstinence. They also recognize that AUD is a life-long condition.

AA is 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?

Chances of recovery are best with an inpatient residential detox and rehab treatment program. Alcohol rehab treats the mental and behavioral issues underlying alcoholism.

On admission, a doctor will assess your loved one and prescribe medications to reduce their withdrawal symptoms.

A physical exam will be performed. During this time, a doctor may administer 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 rehab, the person's health and recovery 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 care plan. The person and their loved ones will be fully involved.

This plan will address their condition, as well as their physical, psychological, and social needs.

Treatment will consist of education, counseling, and personal or family therapy. During therapy, people learn to recognize trigger points and affective behaviors to live free from AUD.

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

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Treatment for Alcoholism: Benefits & Success Rate

Success rates vary depending on the person and type of treatment. The length of treatment plays a crucial role in success.

People who receive MAT for at least 90 days show significantly improved outcomes. These outcomes improve with time.

Most people with substance abuse addictions need at least 90 days of treatment for a successful recovery. The availability of support from loved ones also helps improve the outcome.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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