Alcoholism may take many forms, and stereotypes don’t always hold true. Find out how to tell the difference between casual use, alcohol abuse and addiction.

You don’t fit the stereotype. Maybe you’ve never been homeless, stolen money to buy alcohol or gotten a DUI. Maybe you have a job and a family — you can’t actually be addicted to alcohol, right?

Alcoholism and alcohol use disorder take many forms, and the stereotype doesn’t always hold true. So when do a few drinks with friends become a full-blown alcohol addiction? How do you know if you are an alcoholic?

Article at a Glance:

Screening tests are available to help you assess your drinking habits and relationship with alcohol.

There are two types of excessive drinking: heavy drinking and binge drinking.

There are various types of alcoholics, and not everyone with an alcohol problem fits a stereotype.

Symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal may take a few hours or days to show and get worse over time.

Treatment programs and online alcohol rehab are available if you are facing an alcohol problem.

Am I An Alcoholic Quiz

These three screening tests are confidential and available for free to help you better understand your drinking habits:

CAGE Alcohol Assessment Quiz

This test is an extremely short self-assessment. In spite of only being 4 questions long, it’s been shown to identify…

MAST Alcohol Assessment Quiz

There are multiple variations available. Ours consists of 22 yes/no questions that you can complete in a few minutes.

AUDIT Alcohol Assessment Quiz

This assessment was created by the World Health Organization and consists of 10 multiple-choice questions.

What Is An Alcoholic?

An alcoholic is known as someone who drinks alcohol beyond his or her ability to control it and is unable to stop consuming alcohol voluntarily. Most often this is coupled with being habitually intoxicated, daily drinking, and drinking larger quantities of alcohol than most. In general, an alcoholic is someone who suffers from alcoholism.

Alcoholics Anonymous defines this as “a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession to consume alcohol,”in which cravings for alcohol are always catered to, even at times when they should not be.

What Causes Alcoholism?

A clear cause of alcoholism has not yet been identified. Alcohol use disorder has been identified as something that happens when a person drinks so much or so often that it changes the chemical makeup of their brain.

Alcoholism is classified as an addiction and with that, there is no single cause.

When consuming alcohol, dopamine levels are raised just as high as they would with other drugs. The brain categorizes this activity in the same way that a gratifying reward would be.

Over time, this is something people begin to crave and, therefore, depending on many factors, such as genes, environmental factors, psychological factors or stress levels, a person can be more susceptible to becoming an alcoholic.

What’s the Difference Between Casual Drinking and Alcohol Abuse?

Let’s start with casual drinking. Unless you have religious or personal restrictions, a few drinks with friends or a glass of wine with dinner is usually not an issue. The problem starts, though, when you begin abusing the substance.

Many people use the terms “alcohol abuse” and “alcoholism” interchangeably. However, alcoholism refers to alcohol addiction or dependence, where the individual has a physical or psychological compulsion to drink alcohol. Alcohol abuse refers to a pattern of behavior where a person drinks excessively in spite of the negative consequences.

Related Topic: What happens when you drink alcohol everyday

Negative Impact of Alcohol Abuse (2021 Poll Data)

Alcohol misuse can impact every aspect of your life in ways you may not expect. After surveying over one thousand people who had chosen to stop using alcohol, a 2021 poll by The Recovery Village found physical health (61%), mental health (52%) and relationships (47%) to be the most common negative impacts.

Drinking also impacted people’s careers, parental abilities, finances, hygiene, and legal status. When asked to rank these impacts, it didn’t matter if you drank heavily or not, or tried to stop using alcohol or not: physical health, mental health and relationships still took the biggest hit in respondents’ lives.

Among more than two thousand respondents reporting health complications directly related to their alcohol use:

  • More than 1 in 3 reported depression (38%)
  • Nearly 1 in 3 reported high blood pressure (31%)
  • 1 in 6 reported liver disease (17%)
  • 1 in 10 reported cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) (12%)
  • 1 in 10 reported cardiovascular disease (11%)
  • 1 in 7 reported a weakened immune system (15%)
  • 1 in 10 reported nerve damage (11%)
  • 1 in 12 reported pancreatitis (8.4%)
  • 1 in 11 reported seizures (9%)
  • 1 in 13 reported cancer (7.8%)

But what is excessive drinking? There are two types:

  1. Heavy Drinking: For men under age 65, heavy drinking means having two drinks a day, or more than 14 drinks in a week. For women and men over age 65, heavy drinking is more than one drink a day, or more than seven drinks in a week.
  2. Binge Drinking: Binge drinking refers to consuming a large amount of alcohol at one time. For men, it’s defined as five or more drinks within 2 hours. For women, it’s four or more drinks in that same time frame.

10 Warning Signs You’re an Alcoholic

The following are ten warning signs of alcoholism that might help you answer the question, “Am I an alcoholic?”

  1. Drinking alone and in secrecy.
  2. Losing interest in other activities you once found enjoyable.
  3. Alcohol cravings.
  4. Making drinking a priority over responsibilities.
  5. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
  6. Extreme mood swings and irritability.
  7. Feelings of guilt associated with drinking.
  8. Having a drink first thing in the morning.
  9. Continuing to drink despite health, financial and family problems.
  10. An inability to stop or control the amount of alcohol consumed.

Whether you’re the loved one of someone struggling with alcohol addiction, or you yourself are struggling, it’s important to be aware of these signs and to know that you’re not alone. Thousands of people from all walks of life battle alcoholism every day, and thousands make the decision to seek help.

When the Stereotype Doesn’t Fit: Types of Alcoholics

When most people imagine an alcoholic, they picture a stereotype that seems nothing like themselves. In reality, there are different types of people who are addicted to alcohol. Individuals struggling with alcohol addiction come from all backgrounds and all age groups. Do you recognize yourself in any of these?

Young Adult Subtype

Individuals in the young adult subtype make up 31% of people addicted to alcohol in the U.S. They drink less frequently than the other subtypes, but when they do drink, they’re likely to overdo it and binge. They typically come from families with low rates of alcoholism.

Young Antisocial Subtype

Roughly 54% of this subtype have a psychiatric diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a condition that’s characterized by at least three of the following:

  • Recurring criminal activities
  • Regular fights of assaults
  • Lack of regard for the safety of others
  • Lack of remorse
  • Impulsiveness
  • Deceitfulness
  • Irresponsibility

Many of this type also have other substance addictions, anxiety problems, bipolar disorder and major depression.

Functional Subtype

The high-functioning alcoholic is perhaps the furthest from the alcoholic stereotype, leading many to be in denial about their addiction. They’re often successful, with families and stable jobs. About 62% of functional alcoholics work full time, and 26% possess a college degree or higher. This subtype makes up 19.5% of people addicted to alcohol in the U.S.

Intermediate Familial Subtype

Individuals in the intermediate familial subtype are, on average, age 38 and are usually employed. About 50% of these individuals are from families with multigenerational alcoholism, and almost all have experienced clinical depression.

Chronic Severe Subtype

This is the rarest subtype, making up only 9% of people addicted to alcohol in the United States. Most individuals in this subtype are middle-aged and started drinking early. Of the five subtypes, they rate highest for other psychiatric disorders and abuse of other substances. Roughly 80% are from families that struggle with multigenerational alcoholism.

Signs of Alcoholism & Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcoholism is the physical or mental dependence on alcohol. If you find yourself regularly thinking about your next drink, or if you’ve tried to cut back on drinking and never quite succeeded, you may have an alcohol addiction.

Alcoholism begins with dependence. Alcohol is a drug, and as you drink more, the body adjusts to its effects and learns to compensate. Eventually, as dependence develops, stopping alcohol can lead to withdrawal symptoms including:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Not thinking clearly

It may take a few hours or days for these symptoms to show, and they may get worse in the days following.

In some cases, the individual may experience delirium tremens — the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. This can cause agitation, fever, hallucinations, confusion and seizures. For this reason, people who drink heavily and are looking to end their addiction should seek medical assistance.

Are the Effects of Alcoholism Reversible?

Alcoholism is a disease that can affect both children and adults, but it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. For some people, just one drink can result in intoxication, while for others, many more drinks are necessary to create the same effect. A “drink” is classified as 12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In terms of the effects on the body and brain, excessive alcohol consumption can increase the risk of various health issues for any user.

Despite the harm associated with alcohol consumption, the effects are reversible most of the time. Identifying problematic drinking early and getting into treatment can reverse many of the mental, emotional and physical side effects of heavy drinking. However, at a certain point, the damage is too severe. For example, liver failure and cirrhosis are complications of heavy drinking that are permanent. Permanent health damage should not deter a person from seeking treatment since SUD treatment can still improve a person’s quality of life.

Getting Help For Alcoholism

Discovering you aren’t just a casual drinker and are facing an alcohol problem can be shocking. But we’re here for you. Get the facts about alcohol addiction here. And when you’re ready, learn about alcohol detox or other treatment programs or get started with online rehab.

Insurance May Cover The Cost of Alcohol Addiction Treatment

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    Can I Detox From Alcohol At Home?

    Alcohol detox isn’t easy and not everyone can do it on their own. That is why alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal treatment is administered by medical professionals.

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    What Are the Effects of Daily Drinking?

    Daily drinking can have serious consequences for a person’s health, both in the short- and long-term. Many of the effects of drinking every day can be reversed through early intervention.

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    Repairing Liver Damage From Alcohol Use

    While cirrhosis scars from excessive drinking are irreversible, quitting alcohol and leading a healthier lifestyle can help your liver heal from alcohol-related liver disease.

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    Foods to Eat When Detoxing From Alcohol

    When detoxing, hydration is key. However, certain food groups also have benefits when it comes to helping with the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms and detoxification.

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    How Long Does Alcohol Detox & Withdrawal Take?

    Detox from alcohol can begin within hours. Typically, alcohol withdrawal symptoms happen for heavier drinkers. Alcohol withdrawal can begin within hours of ending a drinking session.

    a man sitting at a table with a glass of beer.
    What is Alcohol Intolerance?

    Alcohol intolerance is a real condition. If you have a pattern of suddenly feeling very sick after consuming alcohol, you may have developed sudden onset alcohol intolerance.

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    Editor – Jonathan Strum
    Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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    Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
    Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

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    MedlinePlus. “Alcohol Withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Medlineplus.Gov, 10 Jan. 2019. Accessed October 20, 2019.

    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” Aug. 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.

    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Accessed October 20, 2019.

    National Institute of Health. “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institutes of Health (NIH), 28 June 2007. Accessed October 20, 2019.

    National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2018. “Results from the 2018 National Survey on[…]th: Detailed Tables.” Samhsa.Gov, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.

    World Health Organization. “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018.” Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2019.

    Medical Disclaimer

    The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.