When Does Drinking Become a Problem?
It can be difficult to tell when your alcohol use is becoming a problem. Fortunately, following guidelines on alcohol consumption can help reduce your risks of addiction.
People drink alcohol for many different reasons. For example, a person may use it to unwind after a difficult day, socialize with others or party with their friends. However, alcohol use can easily shift from a relaxing, enjoyable activity to a potentially addictive health risk.
Many people aren’t sure of the differences between moderate and heavy alcohol use, and some may wonder how they can know when their drinking is becoming a problem. While the answer is different for everyone, there are some ways that you can tell if you are drinking too much.
What Is a Standard Drink?
When evaluating how much alcohol you are using, it is important to remember that the actual amount of alcohol in a drink varies based on the type of drink. A sip of beer and a sip of vodka, for example, both contain very different amounts of alcohol.
To help people understand how much alcohol they are drinking, doctors have developed the idea of a “standard drink.” A standard drink contains about 14 grams of alcohol and is approximately:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 9 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
Each alcoholic beverage will vary somewhat, and you should check the alcohol content of your drink to be certain of how much you are consuming.
What Is Moderate Drinking?
Because men and women metabolize alcohol at different speeds, the same amount of alcohol will affect men and women differently. This means that the definitions for different types of drinking will depend on gender.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is defined as two standard drinks or less per day for men and two standard drinks or less per day for women. Many sources use these numbers and consider them as an average daily amount. Most sources also consider moderate drinking to mean that binge drinking is avoided.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking refers to drinking a large amount of alcohol in a very short period of time. This can occur at parties or when someone is drinking to avoid a strong negative emotion. Binge drinking is typically defined as drinking five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women within a two-hour period.
What Is Heavy Drinking?
Heavy drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and also divided by gender:
- Men: more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week
- Women: more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week
Drinking heavily on a regular basis often leads to alcoholism.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
Some medical professionals will tell you that drinking any amount of alcohol is too much, as it has few to no health benefits and can create health risks. However, the actual definition of what is considered excessive depends on the individual’s situation.
Any amount of alcohol is considered to be unhealthy for people who are underaged or pregnant. For everyone else, heavy drinking and binge drinking are generally considered excessive, while light to moderate drinking is not considered to be too much.
When Does Drinking Become a Problem?
No one wants to become an alcoholic, but the line between someone who drinks alcohol and an alcoholic is very fuzzy. In some cases, it can become difficult to tell which side of this line you are on. Once it becomes difficult to tell, it should be a warning flag that you are at least at risk for your alcohol use becoming a problem.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a term that is often used to describe alcohol use disorder (AUD). Someone with AUD finds it almost impossible to stop using alcohol, and they drink even when they know that it may cause problems. Often, people with AUD do not realize they have it until they try to cut back on their alcohol use for the first time.
How Many Drinks a Day Is Considered Alcoholism?
Many people wonder how many drinks someone has to have each day to be considered an alcoholic. However, alcoholism is not determined by how much you drink. Rather, it occurs when someone has difficulty controlling their behaviors with alcohol. Most people with AUD are considered heavy drinkers or binge drinkers, but these behaviors are not necessary for someone to have AUD.
Signs of Alcoholism
Alcoholism may be subtle at first, especially if you are looking for it in yourself, but it will become increasingly obvious over time. Ultimately, AUD is diagnosed by using a specific set of questions that evaluate alcohol’s effects on a person’s life. However, there are many signs that can indicate the possibility of alcoholism.
Physical Signs of Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
If you are looking for physical signs that someone is misusing alcohol, most of these signs will involve symptoms of intoxication. A single episode of being intoxicated does not necessarily mean that someone is abusing alcohol, but repeated or severe episodes may.
Physical signs of alcohol abuse can include:
- Slurred speech
- Bloodshot eyes
- Problems walking
- Decreased coordination
- Loud speech
Additionally, someone misusing alcohol may experience withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped for a prolonged period. These symptoms include tremors, sweatiness, headaches and nausea.
Behavioral Signs of Alcohol Abuse
The actual physical signs of alcohol abuse can be difficult to detect. It is more likely that people will notice the behavioral signs of alcohol abuse that occur as alcoholism begins to affect someone’s life. These signs include:
- Becoming more withdrawn or secretive
- Decreased performance at work or school
- Changes in social circles
- Trouble with previously solid relationships
- New legal problems
- New financial problems
Alongside physical signs, these behavioral signs may be a good indicator that an addiction of some kind is present.
Symptoms of Alcoholism
Alcoholism is diagnosed using a medical resource called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 uses 11 questions to assess if someone has AUD. A person can be diagnosed with AUD if they answer yes to two or more questions. These questions ask, “In the last year, have you:”
- Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
- Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
- Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area or having unsafe sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?
While these are the questions used to diagnose AUD, only a trained physician should actually make this diagnosis. You should not try to use the questions to diagnose yourself or someone else.
Effects of Alcoholism
Alcohol addiction can have a profound effect on someone’s health and well-being. According to the CDC, someone misusing alcohol is at a higher risk of:
- Car accidents
- Domestic violence
- Sexual assault
- Alcohol poisoning
- Risky sexual behavior
- Pregnancy complications
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Digestive problems
- Learning and memory problems
- Social problems
The effects of alcoholism are more likely to occur the longer and more frequently that you use alcohol. Stopping alcohol use can immediately begin to reduce the risks of some of these effects.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) will usually not just go away on its own, and it will often require professional help to successfully recover from. Treatment for AUD typically involves two main components: a detox period in which withdrawal symptoms occur and a rehab period in which strategies for staying sober are learned. AUD treatment can be cyclical, with a few relapses occurring between the initial attempt to stop alcohol use and long-term sobriety.
The first step in treating AUD is detox. During this step, the focus is on getting through the initial symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and allowing the brain and body to adjust to alcohol’s absence. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, so medical monitoring is essential. Detox takes one to two weeks and can be an unpleasant experience, especially if done without assistance.
During detox, other aspects of addiction rehab will typically be postponed, as withdrawal symptoms will interfere and distract from therapy activities. Detox focuses on the physical symptoms, with safety being the first priority. Detox in a professional facility ensures that high-quality help is always available.
Inpatient rehab involves staying in a treatment facility during the period of rehab. This allows for more intensive treatment and also removes you from environments that could be tempting and cause you to relapse. These two benefits make inpatient rehab more likely to lead to successful outcomes than other options.
Inpatient rehab is also beneficial because it allows you to spend time around others who are facing similar struggles. This allows you to build new friendships and provides social support as you recover from your alcohol addiction. Rehab aims to provide you with the most assistance possible during the initial period of sobriety, which is when it can be most difficult to stay sober.
Outpatient rehab is similar to inpatient rehab, but it is not as intensive. Instead of staying inside a rehab facility, outpatient rehab allows you to stay at home and visit the rehab center for treatments. Outpatient rehab allows you more freedom and flexibility during the rehab period but provides less support.
Outpatient rehab may be used for someone who has a less severe alcohol addiction or needs less help and support during the recovery period. Outpatient rehab can also be used following an inpatient rehab program to provide additional support and facilitate a smoother transition out of inpatient care.
In the context of addiction recovery, therapy typically refers to treatments that help you to stay sober. Therapy may involve working with a group of people or just a trained therapist in a one-on-one session.
The most commonly used therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In this form of therapy, a trained professional helps you to understand the thought processes that drive behavior. Often, these thought processes are unconscious. CBT helps you to recognize these unconscious thoughts and bring them into your conscious, where you can then change them. This ultimately helps you to change your behaviors.
Support groups may be used as a part of therapy, but they can also be used as a long-term strategy once rehab is over. Some support groups may be led by a moderator or therapist who helps to direct the conversation to cover a certain topic. The groups may also be group-led, with different members of the group directing a more fluid conversation.
Support groups can be a very helpful tool, as they include a group of people who have been through the same struggles and face the same obstacles. The shared experiences of the group can provide useful, relatable resources. People in the same situation can also provide support and encouragement in a way that is more helpful and relatable than support from people who have never been through the difficulty of alcoholism recovery.
Trust The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper for Addiction Treatment in New Jersey
The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is one of the premier addiction recovery facilities in New Jersey. Our modern facilities and expert staff are dedicated to supporting your recovery from alcoholism, keeping you as safe and comfortable as possible while providing you with the resources you need to be successful. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you start on your journey to lasting sobriety.
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- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What Is A Standard Drink?” Accessed May 19, 2022.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “Current Dietary Guidelines.” December 2020. Accessed May 19, 2022.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Binge Drinking.” December 2021. Accessed May 19, 2022.
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- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.” January 2019. Accessed May 19, 2022.
- American Psychological Association. “What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?” July 2017. Accessed May 19, 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.