If your alcohol use is interfering with your life and you struggle to stop drinking on your own, you may be experiencing symptoms of alcohol use disorder.

Have you found yourself wondering, “Am I an alcoholic?” By the time you’re asking yourself that question, there may be significant cause for concern. If your alcohol use is interfering with your life and you struggle to stop drinking on your own, you may be experiencing symptoms of alcohol use disorder

Each year, over 173 million adults4 drink at least one alcoholic beverage in the United States, and more than 14 million1 will meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Learning the difference between alcohol use and alcoholism can help you determine whether to seek treatment.

What Is an “Alcoholic?”

The term alcoholic refers to a person who has become addicted to drinking alcohol. They may struggle to stop drinking, drink more than intended, or experience serious consequences as a result of their drinking. 

Alcoholism is a colloquial term, but it is not an official diagnostic term. The American Psychiatric Association7 uses the term alcohol use disorder (AUD) to refer to an alcohol addiction. To receive a diagnosis of AUD, a person needs to meet several criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

  1. Drinking more than intended or for longer than intended
  2. Attempting to stop or cut down without success
  3. Spending a lot of time drinking, obtaining alcohol, or recovering from drinking
  4. Alcohol cravings, or intense urges to drink
  5. Drinking has gotten in the way of fulfilling obligations at school, work, or home
  6. Continued drinking despite alcohol causing interpersonal conflict
  7. Loss of interest in activities outside of alcohol use
  8. Drinking when it is dangerous to do so, such as while driving or operating machinery
  9. Continued alcohol use despite worsening physical or mental health symptoms due to alcohol
  10. Tolerance, meaning a person needs to drink more to achieve the desired effect
  11. Withdrawal symptoms when a person suddenly stops drinking

Like many other mental health conditions, AUD has a spectrum of severity. People who identify with two to three of the above symptoms are diagnosed as having a mild AUD. Four to five symptoms meet the moderate level, and the existence of six or more symptoms is considered severe.

I Drink Every Night, Does that Make Me an Alcoholic?

Drinking frequency does not imply alcoholism. It is possible for somebody to drink every night and never develop an AUD, provided that they never develop other symptoms of an alcohol addiction. Instead, the focus of an AUD diagnosis is on the physical and psychological consequences of drinking rather than the act of drinking itself.

Of course, the frequency at which a person drinks does play a significant factor in whether they will develop AUD. Drinking daily, particularly if you are having several drinks, can put you in the category of “high-risk drinking,” which increases the likelihood that you will experience alcohol-related problems.

Heavy Drinking vs. Alcoholism

Heavy drinking is one of the key categories of high-risk drinking. It is distinct from alcoholism and depends more on quantity and frequency than a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy drinking2 for men as drinking more than four drinks per drinking occasion or more than 14 drinks per week. For women, drinking more than three drinks per occasion  or seven drinks per week is considered heavy drinking. Critical to this definition is the quantity of alcohol consumed; one “drink” is considered 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of liquor. 

While heavy drinking is not the same as AUD, it does increase the likelihood of developing alcoholism. Furthermore, heavy drinking can have serious negative effects on your physical health, even if it doesn’t become an addiction. 

5 Types of Alcoholics

In 2007, alcohol researchers discovered five main subtypes3 of alcoholics that have distinct characteristics. These groups vary in age of onset of AUD and level of treatment-seeking. Below, we’ve outlined the five types of alcoholics and their key characteristics.

Young Adult Subtype

The young adult subtype of alcoholics is the largest group, accounting for 31.5% of all people with alcohol use disorders. These alcoholics have a low age of AUD onset at about 20 years old and a lower probability of having AUD run in the family. Members of this subtype have a lower risk of co-occurring mental health disorders, and they generally drink less than other subtypes.

Functional Subtype

The functional subtype describes a class of people who are older in age and develop alcohol problems later in life. The average age of this group is 41 years old, and most developed an alcohol use disorder at age 37. This group makes up 19.4% of people with alcohol use disorder. Most people in this subtype work full time, nearly half are married, and they have the highest average income of any group.

Intermediate Familial Subtype

People in the intermediate familial subtype have an average age of 38 and onset of alcohol use disorder at 32. This group has a 47% probability of having alcohol problems run in their families, and many will experience co-occurring mental health disorders.

Young Antisocial Subtype

This subtype makes up 21.1% of alcoholics. The young antisocial subtype has a high level of antisocial personality disorder at 54%. Members of this group are, on average, 26 years old and are likely to have AUD run in their families. More than any other group, this subtype is likely to struggle with several types of drug use, including opioid use disorder, amphetamine use disorder, and cocaine use disorder.

Chronic Severe Subtype

The last of the alcoholic subtypes, the chronic severe group, is the least prevalent at 9.2%. Rates of antisocial personality disorder are high at 47%, and the highest rate of AUD in the family is 77%. This group has the lowest rates of employment and endorses more criteria for AUD than any other group. This group is the most likely of all subtypes to seek treatment.

Warning Signs of Alcoholism

There are a few warning signs to look out for if you think you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism. The most significant warning signs are:

  • Once they start drinking, they cannot stop
  • They promise to cut down or quit but fail to do so
  • They hide their alcohol use from others
  • When not drinking, they experience shaking, sweating, or other withdrawal symptoms
  • They become increasingly isolated from friends and family members

All of these signs should indicate that alcohol may have become a problem and that they need professional addiction treatment in order to stop.

Effects of Alcoholism

An alcohol use disorder can be devastating to both the mind and body, in addition to impacting your social relationships.

Short-term effects of alcoholism include:

  • A greater risk of injuries in everyday activities
  • Extreme cravings
  • Inability to fulfill social or work-based obligations
  • Difficulty limiting the amount imbibed
  • Increased tolerance or needing a greater total amount of alcohol to achieve the desired effects

Long-term consequences of alcoholism can include8:

  • Problems with digestion
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Learning and memory problems
  • A weaker immune system
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social problems at work or with family members
  • Alcohol dependence

The only way to stop the negative effects of alcoholism is to stop drinking. Yet this is often easier said than done — the very nature of alcohol use disorder makes it extremely difficult for people to stop on their own.

Treatment for Alcoholism

For people struggling with alcohol use disorder, targeted addiction treatment can help them break through the difficult first stages of sobriety and achieve lasting recovery. Decades of research have provided several effective treatments for alcohol use disorder and can make it much easier to stop drinking for good. Treatments for alcoholism include:

If you’re ready to take the first steps towards recovering from alcohol use disorder, reach out to the professionals at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper. Our multidisciplinary team offers compassionate, evidence-based treatment to help people recover from alcoholism and can give you the support you need to start a life in sobriety.

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Sources

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” March 2022. Accessd July 8, 2022.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Drinking Levels Defined”. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  3. Moss, Howard B., et al. “Subtypes of Alcohol Dependence in a N[…]sentative Sample.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, December 2007. Accessed June 24, 2002.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Section 2 PE Tables – Results from the[…]lth: Detailed Tables”. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Section 5 PE Tables – Results from the[…] Detailed Tables”. February 17, 2022. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  6. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome”. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  7. American Psychological Association. “Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.” September 2018. Accessed June 24, 2022.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” April 14, 2022. Accessed June 24, 2022.
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.