Am I an Alcoholic? Signs, Risk Factors & Treatment
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Last Updated - 6/17/2022View our editorial policy
If you’re figuring out whether you may be showing signs of alcohol addiction, there are some symptoms and risk factors to consider.
Are you an alcoholic? Many people face alcohol addiction, and if you drink frequently, it can be natural to wonder whether you meet the criteria of being an “alcoholic.” Only a licensed medical professional can definitively give you a diagnosis; however, there are some signs that you may have an alcohol use disorder.
Am I an Alcoholic?
The only people who can tell you whether you’re an alcoholic are licensed healthcare professionals. The medical community doesn’t call people “alcoholics” because the term labels them and ties their identity with the disease. Rather, they say that someone has an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Having an AUD doesn’t mean that you drink alcohol heavily or even that you’re dependent on alcohol. The key thing that makes someone an “alcoholic” or indicates they have an AUD is that they have an addiction to alcohol. This means that they cannot stop using alcohol, even though it is causing them harm or even though they would like to stop.
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Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder
Someone with an alcohol use disorder will typically exhibit several different signs. Some of these signs are used to diagnose alcohol use disorder, while others may just be indicators. Some of the signs of alcohol use disorder may also be connected with addiction in general, not addiction to alcohol specifically.
Behavioral Symptoms of Alcoholism
Most of the signs used to diagnose an alcohol use disorder primarily relate to people’s behaviors and thoughts about alcohol. Many potential behavioral signs can indicate addiction in general or alcohol addiction specifically. These signs include:
- Struggling to stop using alcohol
- Continuing to use alcohol even though it is causing problems
- Having legal problems relating to alcohol use
- Having financial problems relating to alcohol use
- Decreased performance in school or at work
- Being deceptive or secretive about your drinking habits
Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism
Alcoholism doesn’t cause specific physical symptoms that can be used to identify it; however, it can lead to many different physical symptoms that can indicate an alcohol use disorder is present. Physical symptoms of alcoholism can include:
- Experiencing alcohol poisoning
- Requiring hospitalization due to drinking
- Memory blanks after drinking
- Liver problems caused by alcohol use
- Persistent confusion, even while sober
- Health problems relating to frequent alcohol use
- Withdrawal symptoms when stopping alcohol use
It is important to keep in mind that not everyone with these problems has an alcohol use disorder and that people with an alcohol use disorder may not have any of these symptoms. They can, however, be an indicator that a problem may be present.
Withdrawal Symptoms of Alcoholism
Those with an alcohol use disorder are more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms when stopping alcohol. Not all people who experience withdrawal when stopping alcohol are alcoholics; however, most people with alcoholism will have alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they stop alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Clammy, sweaty skin
- Confusion or hallucinations
Alcohol withdrawal is the most dangerous type of substance withdrawal there is. Anyone having symptoms of withdrawal should make sure that they see a medical professional. Serious withdrawal symptoms will require hospitalization, and anyone having them should seek emergency medical care. Medical detox is ideal for anyone who may be likely to have alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Understanding Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the medical term for alcoholism. This condition can have devastating consequences on physical health, mental health and personal relationships. It reduces your life expectancy while simultaneously decreasing your quality of life. Understanding what this condition is and whether you have it is very important to your long-term well-being.
Definition of Alcoholism
Alcoholism is often defined as a chronic disease characterized by uncontrolled substance abuse, even though alcohol use is causing negative consequences. The technical definition of alcoholism used to diagnose alcohol use disorder is outlined in a medical publication called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth edition. It is often referred to as the DSM-V.
Differences Between Heavy Drinking and Alcoholism
There is a difference between heavy drinking and alcoholism. Someone can drink heavily but still be able to control their drinking, stopping at will or if negative consequences develop. Someone with alcoholism will not be able to control their drinking, finding it very difficult or even almost impossible to stop using alcohol.
Complicating this difference, however, is the fact that many people with alcoholism believe they are just heavy drinkers and could stop if they wanted to. They are not, in reality, actually in control of their behaviors like they think they are. An alcoholic will not be able to stop drinking at will even though they believe they can. While there is a difference between the two, many heavy drinkers actually have alcoholism.
Causes and Risk Factors of Alcoholism
The biggest risk factor for developing alcoholism is using alcohol consistently and frequently. There are, however, many other risk factors that can cause alcoholism to be more likely. These include:
- Genetic risk factors
- Growing up in an environment where alcohol use was common
- Exposure to alcohol at a young age
- Growing up with someone who had an alcohol use disorder
- Being part of a culture where alcohol plays a central role
- Mental health disorders like depression
- A history of trauma
Someone who has these risk factors should be especially careful when using alcohol, being sure not to drink heavily or frequently. Someone with a high degree of risk might even benefit from considering complete sobriety to avoid the potential of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Diagnosis and Complications of Alcoholism
Only a healthcare provider can diagnose AUD. They will do this by using the DSM-V and evaluating whether you meet the criteria for AUD. While there are other medical tests that can be used to evaluate the effects of alcohol on your body, using the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V is the only way that AUD is actually diagnosed in medicine.
Tests for Alcohol Use Disorder
To test for AUD, your doctor will evaluate whether you meet any of the 11 different criteria in the DSM-V. If you meet two to three of these criteria, you will likely be diagnosed with mild AUD. If you meet four to five of them, you will likely be diagnosed with moderate AUD. Meeting six or more of the criteria indicates you likely have severe AUD. These 11 criteria will ask if, in the past year, you have ever:
- “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?”
Only a doctor can accurately determine which criteria you meet; however, knowing the criteria used to determine AUD may help you see signs in your own behavior.
Health Complications of Alcoholism
There are numerous health complications that alcoholism can create. These can be due to the physical effects alcohol has on your body, the effects caused by being inebriated or mental health problems. Health complications of alcoholism can include:
- Liver disease
- Several types of cancer
- Kidney disease
- Heart problems
- Decreased sensation
- Decreased enjoyment of life
- Suicidal thoughts
- Pancreatic disease
- Nutritional deficits
- Withdrawal symptoms when stopping alcohol
This list of complications is not exhaustive. Someone who potentially has alcoholism should consult with a doctor to better understand the risks specific to their situation.
Treatment Options for Alcoholism
Like most chronic diseases, alcoholism can be treated. The treatment for alcoholism typically involves three key steps:
- Detox: Detox involves stopping alcohol and getting through the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. This is the most dangerous part of treatment. Medical detox can help make detox safer, more comfortable and more successful than detoxing by yourself.
- Rehab: Once you have successfully detoxed, rehab helps you stay sober. During rehab, you will learn how to overcome alcohol cravings and how to adjust to life without alcohol.
- Maintenance: Once you have completed detox, maintaining a life free from alcohol becomes the goal. This involves implementing the strategies you learned in rehab to avoid drinking again.
Inpatient Rehab for Alcohol Addiction
Rehab is an essential component of treatment. While it might not seem necessary after just having successfully detoxed, it will ultimately help you maintain your new sobriety. Without rehab, people often end up drinking again, falling into a cycle of detoxing over and over again. Detoxing is dangerous and quite unpleasant. By completing rehab and staying sober, you will be making it much easier on yourself and avoid having to go through detox more times than you have to.
Inpatient rehab offers many advantages as a more supportive form of rehab. With inpatient rehab, you will actually stay at the rehab facility. This provides you with uninterrupted time to focus on your recovery in a supportive environment surrounded by people who want to see you succeed. Inpatient rehab programs can vary in length depending on your needs, lasting from weeks to months. While inpatient rehab can be extraordinarily beneficial, it is vital to choose a reputable rehab center committed to helping you recover as quickly and completely as possible.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How can I assess my own drinking habits to determine if I have an alcohol problem?
There is no foolproof way to determine whether you have an alcohol problem by yourself. You can, however, look at the DSM-V diagnostic criteria that doctors use to diagnose AUD. Being as honest with yourself as possible, if you answer yes to two or more of the questions in this list of criteria, you likely have an alcohol problem and should seriously consider seeking medical help.
Are there any resources or support groups available for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction?
There are many resources and support groups available for people with alcohol addiction. It is important to note, however, that many of these groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are designed to support you during recovery, not to replace professional recovery. Professional treatment at a reputable addiction treatment facility is often necessary to begin recovery. Your treatment team can then recommend resources and support groups to promote your long-term success.
What are the risks and consequences of untreated alcoholism?
Unfortunately, there are many negative consequences of untreated alcoholism. Those with an untreated alcohol use disorder will die 24–28 years sooner than those who do not drink. Not only will your life expectancy be much shorter, but your quality of life before you die prematurely is likely to be much lower than someone who doesn’t drink. If you have alcoholism, it is vital that you seek professional help as soon as possible.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed June 27, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2023. Accessed June 27, 2023.
Dugdale, David C. “Alcohol withdrawal.” MedlinePlus, January 17, 2021. Accessed June 27, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5.” April 2021. Accessed June 27, 2023.
Rand Corporation. “Diagnostic Criteria Checklist.” June 2021. Accessed June 27, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol and Cancer.” March 13, 2023. Accessed June 27, 2023.
Westman, J., et al. “Mortality and life expectancy of people with alcohol use disorder in Denmark, Finland and Sweden.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, April 2015. Accessed June 27, 2023.