The term “alcoholism” is typically used to describe someone who has an alcohol use disorder3. Alcohol use disorder — the diagnostic term for alcohol addiction — is a legitimate medical condition. The disorder impacts the brain and makes it difficult to stop drinking, even when alcohol use leads to serious consequences.

Although alcohol addiction creates a variety of symptoms, not everyone will experience this condition in the same way. A person only needs to show two or three of 11 symptoms to be diagnosed with a mild alcohol use disorder. 

Sometimes, people with milder alcohol addictions are referred to as “functioning alcoholics.” This is because their symptoms are not severe enough to cause significant dysfunction, but they have an alcohol addiction nonetheless.

Functioning Alcoholic Definition 

The term “functioning alcoholic” typically refers to someone who has an alcohol addiction but is able to function in daily life. This means they do not miss work or lose jobs due to alcohol abuse, and they are generally able to fulfill obligations at home, such as paying bills and caring for children. From the outside, it may seem that a functioning alcoholic isn’t struggling with addiction because they generally stay out of trouble and are able to work. 

Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic 

It may not be apparent that a functioning alcoholic is living with addiction. Still, there are some signs that indicate a person may be struggling with alcohol use. A functioning alcoholic will show some signs of an alcohol use disorder3, even though they continue to perform as expected at work and in other important settings.

Some signs of functioning alcoholism include:

  • Having a high tolerance for alcohol
  • Being able to consume large quantities of alcohol without appearing intoxicated
  • Being able to work daily but drinking what most people would consider a large quantity of alcohol after work
  • Continuing to drink, even when loved ones express concern about the level of drinking
  • Giving up other hobbies or activities in order to drink
  • Experiencing strong cravings for alcohol, or feeling that alcohol is needed in order to relax or unwind
  • Justifying alcohol abuse by arguing that they couldn’t possibly have a problem since they maintain a job and pay bills.
  • Repeated instances of intending to have only a few drinks but then drinking excessively

Living With a Functional Alcoholic

Life with a functional alcoholic can be challenging, even if the person continues to contribute to the family by working, caring for children and paying bills. Conflict is likely to arise between a functional alcoholic and their loved ones, as the alcoholic may be in denial and may dismiss the concerns of family members. A person with functional alcoholism may also begin to withdraw from the family because they are spending most of their free time drinking, which can lead to hurt feelings and additional conflict. 

A spouse or significant other who lives with a functional alcoholic may also become an enabler, meaning they cover up the alcoholic’s mistakes so there are no consequences for the alcohol abuse. In fact, a recent study1 found that helping behaviors, such as telling the alcoholic things are not their fault or taking care of their chores, actually lead to more drinking. 

How To Help a Functioning Alcoholic

If you’d like to help a functioning alcoholic, it’s important to understand that some types of support may actually be harmful. You should avoid enabling behaviors, such as covering up their mistakes or coming to the rescue if their drinking gets them into trouble. This means you shouldn’t take care of their household duties when they’ve been drinking, and you shouldn’t make excuses to others for their behavior.

Instead, you should guide your loved one toward getting treatment. You might consider having a discussion in which you express your concern, remind them that you love them and share that you’d like to see them get help. Be sure to give examples of specific behaviors that are concerning, and avoid making accusations or using derogatory language like, “You’re such a loser!” 

High-Functioning Alcoholism Is Still Alcoholism

Another thing to keep in mind is that functional alcoholism is still a legitimate medical condition. A person who functions in most areas of life can have an alcohol use disorder, even if they only meet two or three diagnostic criteria. 

Alcohol abuse can also create a variety of major health risks. Excessive alcohol use increases the risk2 of several health problems, including: 

  • Liver disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer

In addition to these risks, alcohol abuse is linked to injuries, drowning, motor vehicle accidents, violence and sexual assault. 

Treating Alcoholism

Given the risks associated with alcohol abuse, it’s important for people to seek treatment, even if they only appear to have a mild addiction. In most cases, alcohol addiction treatment begins with a professional detox program to address withdrawal symptoms. Attempting to go through withdrawal without the support of a medical detox program can be dangerous. This is because severe cases of alcohol withdrawal4 can lead to potentially life-threatening complications, including seizures and a condition called delirium tremens. After a person completes detox, it is important for them to transition to an inpatient or outpatient rehab program. 

For those seeking alcohol addiction treatment in the New Jersey area, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We provide comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment that is convenient to cities like Newark, Trenton, Jersey City and Philadelphia. 

We offer multiple levels of care, including medical detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient programming and aftercare support. Our 90-bed inpatient facility has numerous amenities, including a yoga room, a fitness center and courts for basketball and volleyball. We are accredited by the Joint Commission and employ a staff of medical professionals and licensed addiction treatment providers. If you or someone you love is ready to begin treatment for alcohol addiction, contact us today to learn more about programs that can work well for your needs.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
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  1. Calkins, Frances C.; Brock, Rebecca L. “The dark side of helping behaviors: Part[…] alcohol dependence.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, January 9, 2020. Accessed January 15, 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Excessive Alcohol Use.” November 23, 2021. Accessed January 15, 2022.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed January 15, 2022
  4. Sachdeva, Ankur; et al. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, September 2015. Accessed December 26, 2021.
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.