How do I know if I have a problem with alcohol?

Nzinga Harrison, MD
January 19, 2020

Alcohol is a part of many cultures across the world and has been used as a way to celebrate, relax, or socialize for hundreds of years. Even though alcohol use is commonplace, it’s not always easy to tell if someone has a problem with alcohol. Not everyone stays at a bar all-day or struggles to keep their life together. Some people appear “high-functioning” but privately, they may face constant struggles with their alcohol use.

In reality, alcohol use disorder, commonly called alcoholism, is a medical condition that varies from person-to-person. This is why doctors and mental health professionals use a list of 11 criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (or DSM-5) to make a diagnosis. Learning more about the criteria might help you understand if you have a problem with alcohol.

What are the symptoms of alcoholism?

It’s not always easy to determine if someone has an alcohol use disorder. Some people may seem perfectly healthy and functional in their daily lives but they keep their alcohol use a secret from loved ones. Common symptoms can include:

  1. Drinking alcohol in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than you had originally meant
  2. Wanting or trying to cut back or control your alcohol use but struggle to do so successfully
  3. Spending much of your time spent on activities related to alcohol–both the drinking itself and recovering from hangovers and the physical side-effects of drinking
  4. Craving alcohol so badly that it consumes all of your thoughts
  5. Dealing with alcohol or hangovers that interfere with work, family, or other responsibilities
  6. Continuing to drink alcohol even though it causes problems with your family or friends
  7. Giving up on important activities or interesting hobbies that you once liked in order to drink alcohol instead
  8. Getting into unsafe or risky situations while or after drinking, such as walking in a dangerous area, fighting, swimming, driving, or having unsafe sex
  9. Drinking even though it makes you feel depressed or anxious, causes memory loss from blackouts or contributes to any other health problems
  10. Drinking much more to get the effect you want or noticing that your usual number of drinks has less of an effect than usual
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, like insomnia, irritable mood, upset stomach, or even a seizure, after the alcohol wears off

Alcohol Use Disorder can range in severity, depending on how many criteria are applicable.

  • Mild AUD: two to three symptoms
  • Moderate AUD: four to five symptoms
  • Severe AUD: six or more symptoms

However, mild AUD can progress over time and become more difficult to manage. This is why it’s so important to engage in treatment as soon as possible.

It can be difficult to admit to potential problems with your own behavior but recognizing the signs early on is a crucial first step towards a successful, long-term recovery. No matter what your challenges are with alcohol, addiction treatment can help you regain control over alcohol and rebuild your confidence throughout the recovery journey.

Are you worried you or a loved one may need help to manage alcohol use? Find out more by taking this quiz about alcohol use.

Frequently Asked Questions: Alcoholism

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism, which is often referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder in which a person has a physical and emotional dependence on alcohol and experiences a pattern of excessive or uncontrollable alcohol use.

This means that it’s hard for a person to stop thinking about alcohol and change how much they consume, even if it has a harmful impact on their life. Even if they try to stop drinking, they may experience difficult or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol addiction can lead to serious health complications, such as:

  • depression
  • high blood pressure
  • liver damage
  • heart failure
  • certain types of cancers

Is binge drinking the same thing as alcohol addiction?

Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, binge drinking refers to drinking a large amount of alcohol at one time. For men, it’s drinking five or more drinks within two hours. For women, it is four or more drinks within two hours. Drinking excessively from time to time does not mean someone has an alcoholism but it does put them at a higher risk for developing it over time.

Can alcohol addiction be cured?

There is no magic cure for alcoholism but it is treatable and manageable. With a treatment plan that meets a person’s specific needs, the brain and body can recover from the effects of alcohol while a person learns coping skills to control cravings and sustain long-term recovery.

Some common components of an alcohol addiction treatment plan include:

  • Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT): Prescription drugs like Naltrexone and Vivitrol can help physically reduce the desire to drink.
  • Counseling and therapy: Individual or group therapy sessions, or a combination of both, help manage emotions and learn coping skills to overcome challenges.
  • Peer support groups: Groups bring together people with Alcohol Use Disorder in a shared, private forum to learn from each other’s experiences and act as a support system through the recovery journey.
  • Treatment for other medical conditions: Health care services can treat and manage any of the short and long-term health effects associated with Alcohol Use Disorder.
  • Treatment for mental or behavioral health needs: Psychiatric medications, used in combination with therapy, can help treat co-occurring disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that occur at the same time as alcohol addiction.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington.

Get Started Today

Nzinga Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Eleanor Health with more than 15 years experience practicing medicine. She is a double-board certified physician with specialties in general adult psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Harrison has spent her career as a physician treating individuals from marginalized communities with substance use and other psychiatric disorders. As a physician executive, she has served as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer roles committed to creating and improving systems-based delivery of psychiatric and substance abuse care. She is a vocal advocate for stigma reduction, and is passionate about the necessity for whole-person care as individuals and communities seek to recover from and prevent substance use disorders.

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