What is the Definition of an Alcoholic?

Society glamorizes the drinking culture in America. Social media jokes about parents needing a glass of wine to care for their children. Television shows normalize college students shot-gunning beers before a football game. Even corporate jobs encourage employees to bond with cocktails during happy hour.

When done in moderation, drinking can be a fun way to socialize with friends. However, excessive alcohol use can lead to severe mental, emotional, and physical health problems such as alcohol use disorder.

What is an Alcoholic?

An alcoholic describes someone who suffers from alcohol use disorder (AUD). The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines AUD as a chronic medical condition affecting the brain and making you unable to control your alcohol use despite negative consequences on your health, work, or social life.1

A stigma surrounds those suffering from AUD, but dangerous alcohol use may not be as uncommon as you think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 66.3% of adults consumed alcohol in 2018, with:2

  • The majority drinking lightly: Fewer than 3 drinks a week
  • About 15% drinking moderately: 4 to 14 drinks a week for men and 4 to 7 drinks a week for women
  • 1% drinking heavily: More than 14 drinks a week for men and 7 drinks a week for women

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Alcohol negatively impacts every organ in the body. An occasional drink won’t have long-term effects, but you could develop brain, heart, liver, pancreas, or immune system issues if you exhibit moderate to excessive drinking behavior.3,4

  • Brain: Alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication with the rest of your body. This disruption can cause behavior and mood changes such as depression and anxiety. Alcohol also disrupts the brain’s ability to make memories, leading to a blackout or an inability to remember what happened while you were drinking.
  • Heart: Light to moderate drinking can temporarily increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause a stroke or an irregular heartbeat.
  • Liver: Your liver is responsible for filtering what you consume and detoxing your body of harmful substances, such as alcohol, through urine and stool. When you regularly put toxic substances into your body, the liver has a hard time flushing them. Over time, those toxins can build up and cause inflammation and scarring of the liver.
  • Pancreas: Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxins and is the leading cause of inflammation of the pancreas, also known as pancreatitis.
  • Immune system: Your immune system weakens as you drink. Even one night of excessive drinking can weaken the immune system for up to 24 hours, making you more susceptible to contract an infection or disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Identifying whether you or someone you love suffers from AUD isn’t only about how many drinks you consume. Medical professionals use a set of criteria to evaluate symptoms and determine if your alcohol use is mild, moderate, or severe.5 If you believe you or someone you know suffers from AUD, these questions can help you decide whether it’s time to get help.

Answering “yes” to 6 or more questions is considered severe and should be addressed with a medical professional.

  • Have you ever tried to stop drinking without success?
  • Have you ever wanted a drink so badly you were unable to think about anything else?
  • Has drinking interfered with the amount of time you spend on activities you once considered important?
  • Has drinking strained your relationships with family or friends?
  • Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, trouble sleeping, or a racing heart?
  • Have you had a memory blackout as a result of drinking?
  • Does drinking cause you depression or anxiety?
  • Do you find yourself drinking more than you once did to feel the effects you desire from drinking?

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Not everyone who suffers from AUD exhibits apparent symptoms. The stereotype of someone suffering from AUD resembles a person who struggles to participate in their daily lives, but that’s not always the case. You can suffer from AUD but be consider high-functioning, meaning your alcohol use doesn’t appear to be interfering with your health, social life, or work. From an outside perspective, it seems you’re continuing to live a healthy life, but you suffer symptoms of AUD in reality.

High-functioning alcoholics often hide their symptoms, making them difficult to identify. However, those suffering may:6

  • Become defensive if you ask them about their drinking
  • Have a DUI or DWI
  • Binge drink before or during social events
  • Drink alone
  • Experience trouble sleeping, nausea, or restlessness
  • Use alcohol to cope with their emotions
  • Suffer from PTSD, depression, or anxiety

Risk of Developing Alcohol Use Disorder

Anyone who drinks alcohol is at risk for developing AUD. For some, AUD can develop as a young adult as soon as you begin drinking. For others, AUD develops over time. You may spend your early adulthood with light to moderate drinking behaviors, then slowly reach excessive drinking later in life.

Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use are the two most significant risk factors for developing AUD. Binge drinking is when you consume large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time. The NIAAA defines binge drinking to be 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women in 2 hours.

Heavy alcohol use means consuming large amounts of alcohol in one day. The NIAAA considers heavy alcohol use to be 4 drinks for men and 3 drinks for women a day. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also consider heavy alcohol use to be anyone who binge drinks 5 or more times in a month.7 While binge drinking and heavy alcohol use can be dangerous, they alone do not mean someone suffers from AUD.

You’re also more likely to develop AUD if you:

  • Struggle with high levels of stress, depression, or have low self-esteem
  • Have a family history of AUD
  • Started drinking before the legal drinking age

Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or someone you love struggles with AUD, inpatient or outpatient treatment options are available. Treatment may include:

  • Medications: The FDA approved several non-addictive medications to help reduce the urge to drink. These medications include naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram. You can use them alone but are often prescribed with other types of treatment.
  • Group Therapy: Sometimes, it’s helpful to connect and learn from others going through similar challenges. Licensed therapists run group therapy sessions to help you feel less alone on your journey to sobriety.
  • Behavioral Treatment: Behavioral treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), address the behaviors leading to drinking. They take place as 1-on-1 therapy sessions and help you develop tools to understand and modify your drinking behavior.

No matter the severity of AUD, treatment options are available. When considering treatment options, it’s important to remember everyone responds to treatment differently. No one treatment option works for everyone, and it’s okay to test multiple treatment options before finding what’s right for you.

If you or a loved one suffers from AUD, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak with a treatment specialist about your options.

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. Retreived 2021.
  2. Boersma, P., Villarroel, M.A., & Vahratian, A. (2020). Heavy Drinking Among U..S. Adults, 2018. NCHS Data Brief, no 374. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. Retrieved 2020.
  4. Pietrangelo, A. (2018). Effects of Alcohol on Your Body. Retrieved 2021.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved 2021.
  6. Arzt, N. (2020). Why It’s So Difficult To Identify High-Functioning Alcoholics. Retrieved 2021.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved 2021.

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