The signs of alcoholism include lying about drinking, a higher tolerance for alcohol, continuing to drink despite negative effects in various areas of life, drinking in situations where it is unsafe to do so, and withdrawal symptoms when alcohol begins to process out of the body.
Alcohol consumption has long been quite common in the U.S. Many social events involve drinking — whether it’s a wedding, cookout, or meeting friends at a bar. People from all different age groups consider drinking part of their lifestyle. This might include having a few beers after work, sharing a bottle of wine with a friend, or indulging in a craft cocktail at home.
For some, however, these drinking habits can evolve into a serious and even life-threatening problem: alcoholism. Alcoholism is a severe but treatable disease also known as alcohol use disorder.
It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between regular alcohol consumption and alcoholism, especially in a culture that normalizes — and even glamorizes —- drinking. Alcoholism is a progressive disease, so its effects only get worse with time. Recognizing signs of alcoholism and seeking treatment as early as possible may be the difference between life and death.
Because each person’s relationship with alcohol is unique, it’s difficult to define “normal” drinking versus problematic drinking. For example, one individual may be able to have a drink or two every day and never feel the urge to have more. Another may have a drink or two every day for a while and then begin to feel the need to have three; they even might start drinking more and more.
There are many factors that can cause someone to be more prone to alcohol addiction. These include genetics, past trauma, mental health problems, and stressful life conditions.
While “normal” and problematic drinking habits will vary depending on the individual, government agencies and professionals have released some guidelines that are helpful in identifying what kinds of drinking may relate to a more severe problem, like alcoholism.
Heavy alcohol use is binge drinking five or more days within the past month.
Because individuals may face different factors that make them more susceptible to alcohol addiction and many people may not be completely honest with loved ones or even themselves about how much they are actually drinking, only looking at the amount or frequency of drinking may not be the best way to detect a problem with alcohol.
When researching alcoholism, you will encounter the term alcohol use disorder (AUD). This is a clinical term used by the medical community to diagnose drinking problems.
To be diagnosed with AUD, an individual must match the criteria outlined in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). If they meet the criteria, the severity of their AUD is based on how many criteria they match. A mild AUD diagnosis would be matching two to three criteria points; a moderate diagnosis would be matching four to five criteria points, and a severe diagnosis would exhibit six or more of the symptoms outlined in the DSM.
Alcoholism is a more general term, often used in the nonmedical community and Alcoholics Anonymous and other treatment groups.
A doctor or medical professional will diagnose AUD on two or more of the following 11 criteria, from the latest version of the DSM. They will ask the following questions:
Because alcoholism is a progressive disease, its physical signs and effects will get worse over time. Short-term physical signs and effects of alcoholism and alcohol abuse include:
Poor hygiene, as an individual becomes unable to keep up with daily hygiene routines due to continuous alcohol use.
In addition to the symptoms identified in the DSM, an individual with a drinking problem or alcoholism may exhibit other symptoms that include:
Alcoholism is used in some circles to describe any drinking problem, including binge drinking. When used in more specific or clinical terms, it is usually meant to describe a severe alcohol use disorder.
Binge drinking, while dangerous, does not necessarily indicate that someone has a severe AUD or is dependent on alcohol. Someone may binge drink on a few occasions over a few months, for example, without having an AUD that would be diagnosed as severe or in the “dependency” stages.
Although not all binge drinking would be diagnosed as a severe AUD, someone who has a severe AUD is likely to binge drink.
Any degree of binge drinking is certainly a warning sign that someone may have a problem with alcohol that could get worse if left untreated.”
For those with alcoholism or any form of an AUD, social drinking can quickly spiral out of control into a dangerous and serious disease that will have a negative impact on their health, well-being, and relationships. As a progressive disease, the effects will only get worse with time, and the addiction will only grow stronger.
Alcoholism and all forms of drinking problems are treatable. Identify warning signs and proactively seek treatment to mitigate long-term damage in all areas of life.
(August 2018) Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
(June 2018) Understanding the Basics of Alcoholism. Buddy T. Verywell Mind. from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-alcoholism-66518
(April 2014) Why Do Some People Become Alcoholics But Not Others? Blame the Brain. from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/lateral-habenula-responsible-for-alcholism-040814#1
Drinking Levels Defined. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
(December 2015) Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2015-2020 Eighth Edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Binge Drinking. Retrieved from (https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
(April 2018) What Causes Broken Blood Vessels on the Face? Jon Johnson. Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321387.php
(February 2017) 10 Major Signs of an Alcohol Problem. Psychology Today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/philosophy-stirred-not-shaken/201702/10-major-signs-alcohol-problem
(November 2014) Most Binge Drinkers are Not Actually Alcoholics. CBS News. from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/most-binge-drinkers-are-not-actually-alcoholics/
(May 2018) What is Alcohol Abuse Disorder, and What is the Treatment? Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/157163.php
(June 2014) People Severely Underestimate – Or Lie About – How Much They Drink. Keith Humphreys. The Cut, New York Magazine. from https://www.thecut.com/2014/06/people-underestimate-how-much-they-drink.html
(July 2016) Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM-IV and DSM-5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/dsmfactsheet/dsmfact.htm
(January 2019) Physical Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism. Verywell Mind. from https://www.verywellmind.com/signs-and-symptoms-of-alcoholism-66520