According to statistics, alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: 17.6 million people or one in every 12 adults are diagnosed with alcoholism and millions of more individuals engage in risky behaviors such as binge drinking that can potentially lead to alcohol abuse disorder. Unfortunately, the individual who is abusing alcohol is not the only person negatively affected by this behavior. This behavior burdens family, friends, and even children. The mainstream media often does not shed light on the gravity of alcohol abuse and instead publicizes it as acceptable social behavior which can skew the definition of alcoholism. Although there is a fine line between having a drinking problem and having an alcohol addiction, both are unhealthy behaviors that result in difficulties in social relationships and emotional well-being, work or career difficulties, finances, family and other areas in an individual’s life.

Defining a drinking problem

Having a “drinking problem” is different from having an alcohol addiction due to one main delineating factor, the ability to take a step back and quit. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), excessive drinking is categorized by heavy drinking, binge drinking, underage consumption, and women who drink during pregnancy. By gender, heavy drinking for men is defined as more than five drinks in one sitting and more than 15 drinks per week. For women, it is four drinks in one sitting and more than eight drinks in one week. These individuals may be classified as “almost alcoholic.” They are still able to take a step back and assess their situation and make proper adjustments.

What is the definition of alcoholism?

Alcoholism is defined by alcohol dependence, which is the body’s physical inability to stop drinking and the presence of alcohol cravings. Individuals with an alcohol addiction may go to extreme measures such as stealing, lying, hiding alcohol, drinking household cleaners that contain alcohol and other unhealthy behaviors to obtain alcohol due to cravings and the fear of withdrawal.  In the absence of alcohol, these individuals can experience alcohol withdrawals, which are characterized by agitation, tremors, hot flashes, increased heart rate, and blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, and seizures. Withdrawing from alcohol can be lethal, and therefore, individuals should seek professional help when trying to quit their drinking habit.

  • The inability to control alcohol intake after starting to drink
  • Obsessing thoughts about alcohol
  • Behaving in ways, while drunk, that is uncharacteristic of their sober personality
  • Repeating unwanted drinking patterns
  • Surrounding themselves socially with heavy drinkers
  • Getting drunk before actually arriving at parties/bars (pre-partying)
  • An increasing sense of denial that their heavy drinking is a problem because they can succeed professionally and personally
  • Setting drinking limits and not being able to adhere to them
  • Driving Drunk
  • Always having to finish an alcoholic beverage or even another person’s unfinished beverage
  • Drinking daily
  • Binge drinking
  • Using alcohol as a reward
  • Having chronic blackouts (memory lapse due to excessive drinking)
  • Feeling guilt and shame about their drunken behaviors
  • Taking breaks from drinking and then increasing alcohol consumption when they resume drinking after some time
  • Other people have expressed concern about their negative drunken behaviors
  • Engaging in risky sexual behavior when intoxicated
  • Not being able to imagine their life without alcohol


Seeking help

Regardless if you or a person you love has an alcohol problem or has an alcohol addiction, they should find some form of treatment before their behaviors spiral out of control. Individuals with alcohol problems do not need to practice abstinence, per se, but they can usually benefit from therapy to uncover why they are drinking so much. Many individuals with an alcohol problem use alcohol as a negative coping mechanism or as a way to cover up feelings of depression, anxiety, and low-self esteem. An alcohol problem can quickly turn into an alcohol addiction without any forewarning.