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How to Help an Alcoholic

Signs Your Loved One Has a Drinking Problem

If you have a loved one with a drinking problem, you aren't alone. An estimated 15 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol in some way.15 Roughly 64 million grew up with an alcoholic family member.14

The clinical term for alcoholism is alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is characterized by uncontrollable drinking and a preoccupation with alcohol. 

Not everyone with a drinking problem has an AUD, but it can lead to one.

Here are some signs that your loved one has a drinking problem:

Excessive Drinking

There are 2 different types of excessive drinking:

  1. Binge drinking: Intentionally drinking to get drunk (legally defined as a BAC of at least 0.08%). It is defined as consuming 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more standard drinks for men in about 2 hours.
  2. Heavy drinking: 5 or more instances of binge drinking in a month. This is 15 or more drinks per week for men and 8 or more weekly for women.

Not everyone who binge drinks or drinks heavily is an alcoholic. But they're both drinking problems that can lead to alcoholism.

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Physical Health Issues

Drinking alcohol in excess can cause serious health issues such as cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes.

It can also raise your risk for certain kinds of cancer, including:

  • Breast cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Alcohol abuse can lead to various sleep issues such as insomnia. It also weakens the immune system, leading those that abuse it to get sick more often.

Mental Health Issues

Substance abuse and mental health issues are highly correlated and can feed into each other.

Many people with depression or anxiety drink alcohol in order to self-medicate, falsely believing it will alleviate their symptoms.

Binge drinking can actually cause depression and anxiety in someone who's otherwise neurotypical. For example, a study in JAMA Psychiatry found a link between alcohol and depression not due to self-medication.12

Alcohol withdrawal can also lead to mental health issues such as hallucinations and nightmares, which makes it difficult to quit alcohol.

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Alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Someone who displays these withdrawal symptoms may have a drinking problem:

  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Fever

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Hangover symptoms

Things to look out for here include:

  • Fatigue
  • Thirst
  • Headache
  • Vertigo
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Sweating

Other signs of a drinking problem include:

  • Drinking alone
  • Inability to limit or stop drinking
  • Missing work, social, and familial obligations to drink
  • Giving up on other activities or hobbies to drink
  • Legal consequences related to alcohol abuse (car crashes, fights, etc)
  • Becoming violent or angry when asked about their drinking problems
  • Not eating or eating poorly
  • Neglecting personal hygiene

People who abuse alcohol may have an easier time breaking their habits than those who are actually addicted. However, as stated previously, a drinking problem can easily lead to an AUD.

If your loved one has a drinking problem or alcohol addiction, there are ways you can help.

How to Help an Alcoholic Family Member

If you're a close family member, you may not want to push this person away. Instead, you may try to avoid confrontation in order to keep the peace.

Don't enable them. It’s important not to financially support your family member’s bad habits, make excuses for them, and or deny the problem.

While you may not want to believe that they have an alcohol problem either, the quicker they can get professional help, the easier their recovery process will be.

Family therapy is a great option to find out what may be triggering your loved one to drink. Also known as family counseling, this views a person's problems within the context of their wider family. The aim is to get better communication between family members.

If you can't get your loved one to attend family therapy. However, staging an intervention with your other family members is an option.

During an intervention, participants let the person know they aren't going to tolerate their drinking problem but want to support their recovery.

How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse

What about getting an alcoholic help if you’re married to one?

Helping your spouse is like helping any other family member. While you may feel a responsibility for your spouse, it's their responsibility to take accountability for their own actions.

As before, don't enable them. While you may support your spouse financially, giving them money without questioning what they’re going to spend it on permits bad behavior.

Likewise, drinking or keeping alcohol in the house can make it harder for them to quit.

While a drinking problem can take a toll on a marriage, traditional talk therapy for couples can help. If your spouse is willing to seek treatment, it’s also important to reach out to health professionals for help.

How to Help an Alcoholic Friend

If you have a friend who is struggling with alcoholism, you can help them by supporting them in quitting drinking.

Stage an intervention to let them know that you are concerned is one positive first step. Avoid drinking in front of them. Engage in other social activities together that don't involve alcohol.

Help your friend seek treatment. You can help them research local rehab centers, and you may even be able to go with them to group therapy sessions if they want your company.

How to Help an Alcoholic in Denial

An alcoholic in denial needs to admit their problem and acknowledge that they need help before they’re willing to accept it. This can take time.

Follow the steps above to support the person with alcoholism. If you don’t enable this person and hold them accountable for their actions, they may come around and agree to receive professional help.

Addiction Treatment Options for Your Loved One 

Fortunately, there are different treatment options available for those with an AUD. These include support groups, traditional therapies, medical treatments, and more. 

Here are some options to get you started:

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a global, community-driven program that involves regular accountability meetings and group discussions surrounding addiction. It’s “nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere.”

The 12-step approach is used to overcome alcohol addiction. This includes admitting to addiction, making conscious choices to change, and using prayer and meditation.

Addiction Rehab Options

There are both inpatient and outpatient treatment options for those seeking a rehabilitation program.

Rehab centers offer medical supervision from trusted healthcare professionals during alcohol withdrawal and addiction recovery.

Sober living houses are more involved treatment facilities than outpatient centers.

Counseling

Traditional talk therapy can help someone with an alcohol addiction discover any mental illness or emotional baggage that may trigger their addiction. Identifying the causes can help them to overcome their addiction in a healthy way.

Group and family therapy are great options for people who want to go through it with peer support and/or their loved ones. Other options include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET).

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication for alcoholism is usually used in combination with other methods of treatment to help someone detox from alcohol.

A medical professional will assess them to prescribe the best medication, given their health history and needs. 

These medications might include:

  • Naltrexone to reduce alcohol cravings by blocking the euphoric effects of alcohol
  • Acamprosate to help those in recovery who no longer drink alcohol and want to avoid drinking
  • Disulfiram to trigger a negative physical reaction to alcohol to prevent relapse
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Updated on March 25, 2022
15 sources cited
  1. Alcohol Questions and Answers.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Jan. 2020
  2. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Apr. 2020.
  3. Alcohol Use Disorder.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4 June 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, 13 Mar. 2020.
  5. Drinking Levels Defined.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2020.
  6. Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Dec. 2019.
  7. Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized.Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.
  8. Family History of Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?Department of Mental Health.
  9. Preventing Chronic Disease.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  10. Skerrett, Patrick J. “Heavy Drinkers Aren't Necessarily Alcoholics, but May Be ‘Almost Alcoholics.’” Harvard Health Blog, 17 June 2020.
  11. What Is AA?Aa.org.
  12. Fergusson, David M. “Tests of Causal Links between Alcohol Abuse or Dependence and Major Depression.” Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 66, no. 3, 2009, p. 260.
  13. Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2002.
  14. AACAP. "Alcohol Use in Families."2019.
  15. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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