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Alcohol & Health
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Helping Alcoholics
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Updated on July 31, 2023
8 min read

Breaking Down Alcoholism: Am I an Alcoholic?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), more commonly known as alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disease. It develops with continued alcohol abuse or dependency on alcohol.2 

If you’re struggling to stop or control your alcohol intake, you may be an alcoholic or have a drinking problem. This is because alcohol overloads your brain’s reward center, leading to intense cravings and alcohol withdrawal.

You may be at a higher risk of developing alcohol addiction if you have:2

  • A history of alcoholism or substance abuse in your family
  • Early exposure to alcohol
  • Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
  • Environmental factors such as poverty and easy access to alcohol

Do I Have A Drinking Problem?

If you’re wondering if you’re an alcoholic, this self-assessment questionnaire may be helpful for you.1

  1. Have I wanted to cut back on drinking or quit but cannot?
  2. Have I been drinking more or more often than I’d planned to drink?
  3. Do I keep drinking more and more to feel the effects of alcohol?
  4. Do I find that drinking interferes with aspects of my life, such as my job, family, or self-care?
  5. Do I spend a lot of time drinking alone?
  6. Do I spend a lot of time seeking out opportunities to drink or recovering from drinking, including blackouts?
  7. Am I experiencing alcohol-induced health complications?
  8. Do I continue drinking despite health, social, financial, or legal issues?
  9. Do I have severe cravings for alcohol?
  10. Do I experience withdrawal symptoms when I’m not drinking alcohol, such as nausea, irritability, or tremors?

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

The 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists 11 criteria that can be used to determine if you have an AUD. The list includes:4

  1. Drinking more alcohol than intended over an extended period
  2. Attempted to stop or limit alcohol use but failed
  3. Spending a lot of time obtaining, drinking, or recovering from alcohol
  4. Experiencing intense cravings for alcohol
  5. Experiencing problems at home, school, or work due to recurring alcohol use
  6. Continuing to drink despite social or interpersonal issues caused by alcohol
  7. Neglecting social, work, or recreational activities due to alcohol use
  8. Drinking alcohol in situations that can cause physical harm
  9. Continuing to drink despite the social, physical, and mental health consequences
  10. Developing a high tolerance for alcohol
  11. Experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking

The severity of your condition depends on the number of symptoms you have:4

  • 2 to 3 symptoms are considered mild
  • 4 to 5 symptoms are considered moderate
  • 6 or more symptoms are considered severe

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol addiction changes the way your mind and body work. A physical dependence causes you to experience withdrawal when you stop drinking.3

Mild and moderate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically show up six to eight hours after your last drink. However, they may spike 24 to 72 hours after your last drink.3

Symptoms include:

  • Anxiety and nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Shakiness
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Nightmares
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremors
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Binge Drinking vs. Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism

An estimated 15 million people cope with alcoholism in the United States. It’s essential to understand the difference between binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism.3

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking refers to a pattern of drinking that elevates your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08%. This involves drinking five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in 2 hours.5

Your BAC level differs depending on various factors, such as:

  • Food
  • Weight
  • Medication
  • Age
  • Gender

Although binge drinking does not necessarily mean you have an alcohol use disorder, it can indicate a drinking problem. Excessive drinking can lead to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Alcohol Abuse

Nearly one-third of American adults are deemed excessive drinkers, but only 10 percent of them are considered alcoholics.  Alcohol abusers continue to drink alcohol despite: 

  • Recurrent, alcohol-induced health problems
  • Social consequences
  • Occupational consequences
  • Legal consequences 

Those who abuse alcohol may have an easier time breaking their heavy drinking habits. On the other hand, alcoholics will likely experience dependency-induced consequences.

Alcoholism

Alcoholism is defined as an addiction to alcohol. Alcoholics experience withdrawal, making it harder for them to quit.

An alcohol addiction changes your brain chemistry and drives you to drink more often. Initially, you may continue to drink for pleasure, but after excessive alcohol use, you’ll drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Types of Alcoholics

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) divides alcoholics into five different subtypes:10

Young Adult Alcoholics

  • 32 percent of all alcoholics fall in this category
  • The average age in this group is 24 years old
  • Less than 22 percent have a family history of alcoholism
  • Low incidence of mental health disorders
  • Only 9 percent seek help for alcohol use disorder (most often from 12-step groups)

Young Antisocial Alcoholics

  • 21 percent of alcoholics
  • The average age of 26 years old
  • Characterized by an antisocial personality disorder
  • 37 percent suffer from major depression, 14 percent from social phobias, 33 percent from bipolar disorder, and 19 percent from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • On average, this group drinks 201 days a year and usually consumes five or more drinks at a time
  • About 53 percent have multiple generations of alcohol dependency
  • High occurrence of smoking and drug abuse; 66 percent abuse cannabis, 8 percent abuse amphetamines, 29 percent have a high probability for cocaine abuse, and 22 percent abuse opioids.
  • Approximately one-third of young antisocial alcoholics seek treatment for their alcohol dependence from self-help groups, specialty treatment programs, detox programs, and private health care providers.

Intermediate Familial Alcoholics

  • 19 percent of all alcoholics
  • The average age of 38 years old
  • Genetics is a big factor in this subtype
  • Drinking usually begins around the age 17
  • 47 percent have a family member with an alcohol dependency
  • 47 percent suffer from major depression, 22 percent from bipolar disorder, 19 percent from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 15 percent from a generalized anxiety disorder
  • 27 percent seek help for their drinking, usually via self-help groups, specialty treatment programs, detox programs, and private healthcare providers

Functional Alcoholics

  • 19.4 percent of all alcoholics
  • Functional alcoholics can balance their drinking with their personal and professional life
  • Many people do not expect functional alcoholics to have a problem
  • People in this subtype tend to be in their early 40s
  • On average, this group drinks every other day, averaging 181 days a year 
  • Almost 50 percent are married, 62 percent work full-time, and 26 percent have a college degree or higher
  • 31 percent have a family member with alcohol dependence
  • 24 percent have major depression
  • 17 percent in this group seek help for their drinking from 12-step programs or private health care professionals

Chronic Severe Alcoholics

  • 9 percent of alcoholics
  • Most at-risk groups of alcoholics
  • Heavy drinking is a near-daily recurrence, averaging 247 days out of the year
  • 77 percent have a family member with alcohol dependency
  • Higher probabilities for other substance abuse, including cigarettes, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids
  • Lowest education levels and rate of employment of any other subtype
  • 66 percent seek treatment and have the highest attendance in self-help groups, specialty treatment programs, detox programs, and inpatient programs
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Risks of Alcoholism

Alcoholism can lead to different risks, both short-term and long-term.

Short-term risks of alcoholism include:

  • Injuries
  • Poor decision-making skills, such as drunk driving or engaging in risky sexual behavior
  • Memory loss or lapses
  • Violence
  • Pregnancy complications

Long-term risks of alcoholism include:

  • Increased risk for heart diseases
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer of the breast, colon, throat, mouth, and rectum
  • Stroke
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders
  • Unemployment and financial problems
  • Strained relationships with friends and family

It’s best to seek help to avoid these alcoholism-related problems. 

Are the Effects of Alcoholism Reversible?

Excessive alcohol consumption can heighten the risk of health issues. Despite the harm linked with alcohol consumption, the effects are reversible in most cases.

Identifying and understanding problematic drinking early and receiving treatment can reverse many mental, emotional, and physical side effects of drinking. However, the damage from heavy alcohol use may be too severe at a certain point.

For example, liver failure and cirrhosis are permanent complications of excessive alcohol use. Permanent health damage shouldn’t stop a person from seeking treatment, as it can still significantly improve an individual’s quality of life.

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Treatment & Support Groups for Alcoholism

There are different addiction treatment options for those facing alcohol problems. Medical treatment for alcohol use disorder is typically used in conjunction with a medical detox.

Here are some options to get you started:

Summary

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disease. You can develop an AUD after frequent long-term alcohol use.

If you’re asking yourself, “Am I an alcoholic?” there are ways to find out. The DSM-5 has 11 criteria to determine if you have an AUD as well as its severity. There is also a self-assessment questionnaire that might help you know if you have a problem.

Alcoholism is a serious condition that requires immediate attention. It can lead to different physical, social, and mental problems. If you suspect that you or someone else has alcoholism, seek help immediately. 

Updated on July 31, 2023
10 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. “Alcohol Questions and Answers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.
  2. “Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).”  MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.
  3. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  4. “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  5. “Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020.
  6. “Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019.
  7. “Family History of Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?” Department of Mental Health. 
  8. “Preventing Chronic Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  9. “Alcohol Abuse.” Publishing, Harvard Health. 
  10. “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institutes of Health, 2007.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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