How to Identify an Alcoholic

According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health’s Dietary Guidelines for 2020-2025, moderate alcohol consumption is considered up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.1

While even moderate drinking has some risks, the risks increase significantly when a person’s alcohol intake moves beyond moderate consumption.1,2 One of these risks is the potential for developing an alcohol use disorder, or AUD.2

Risky drinking and are not synonymous with alcohol addiction; however, they may lead to an AUD.2 Here, we’ll define alcohol abuse, provide information on identifying problematic alcohol use, list the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, and share how to seek help for alcohol addiction.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Binge drinking, heavy drinking, or excessive drinking are all terms that describe having too much alcohol.

In the U.S., drinking is often a part of everyday life. From cocktails after work to beers at a baseball game, alcohol is a part of so many social activities. And because drinking is so normalized, it can be hard to differentiate where acceptable, social drinking crosses over into alcohol misuse.

Knowing what constitutes excessive alcohol consumption can help you determine if your or someone else’s drinking is moving into concerning territory.

What Is Excessive Drinking?

Excessive drinking is an umbrella term that encompasses the following:3

Heavy Drinking

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as:3

  • Women: 8 or more drinks per week.
  • Men: 15 or more drinks per week.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) gives a slightly different definition that breaks the numbers of drinks down by day instead of by week:2

  • Men: More than 4 drinks on a given day.
  • Women: More than 3 drinks on a given day.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking—sometimes called “heavy episode drinking,” or HED—refers to drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) to a level of 0.08 or higher.2,4 The CDC and NIAAA provide the following estimates for what it will take for both men and women to reach this BAC:2,3

  • Men: 5 or more drinks in a 2-hour period.
  • Women: 4 or more drinks in a 2-hour period.

According to the World Health Organization, binge drinking is “one of the most important indicators for acute consequences of alcohol use, such as injuries.”

The risks of excessive drinking are many and include short-term risks such as injury and alcohol poisoning to long-term risks such as cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and mental health problems.3

According to the CDC, the majority of people who drink to excess are not alcohol-dependent or have an alcohol use disorder;3 however, regularly engaging in heavy or binge drinking is a risk factor for AUD.2

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Someone may engage in binge drinking from time to time or drink more heavily one day than other days, but this doesn’t mean they are misusing alcohol regularly or that their drinking has become problematic.

The above signs may indicate that a person is on a dangerous path to developing alcohol addiction.

Recognizing the Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder

Problem drinking can over time grow into an alcohol use disorder, diagnosed by doctors when drinking causes health problems, distress, or other harms in a person’s life.8

Alcohol Use Disorder Criteria

A person may be diagnosed with an AUD if they meet 2 or more of the following criteria in a 12-month period:9

  • Consuming more alcohol than intended or drinking longer than intended.
  • Trying to cut down on drinking more than once and not succeeding.
  • Spending a lot of time getting alcohol, drinking, or feeling hungover.
  • Craving alcohol or having a strong urge to drink.
  • Engaging in risky activities (e.g., having unprotected sex, driving, or operating machinery) while intoxicated.
  • Finding that drinking, or being sick after drinking, interferes with work, school, or family responsibilities.
  • Cutting back on important activities or hobbies to drink.
  • Continuing to drink even when it has caused problems in relationships with friends and family.
  • Continuing to drink knowing that alcohol has caused or worsened a physical or mental health issue.
  • Developing a tolerance for alcohol (needing to drink more to feel the effects).
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms while not drinking and/or taking another substance such as a benzodiazepine to prevent or relieve withdrawal symptoms.

What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

People with substance use problems are impacted by their problematic drinking patterns in many different ways. Some people who suffer from a severe substance use problem do not function well in their daily lives, while others may convince others and even themselves that they don’t have a problem.10

Those who continue to keep up appearances while drinking excessively may be informally referred to as a “high-functioning alcoholic.”10

The term high-functioning alcoholic may be used to describe a person with an alcohol use disorder who is still able to keep some semblance of normality in their lives. They may continue to hold a job, take care of financial issues, or care for children.10

Even if a person appears to be holding it together and not hitting some kind of bottom, they may still need help identifying their alcohol addiction and treating it.10

Getting Help for Alcohol Misuse

If you, or a loved one, are struggling with alcohol use issues, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. You don’t need to wait for an alcohol use disorder to fully develop.

Oftentimes, treatment will be more effective when it is sought early, and this means getting help as soon as problematic alcohol use becomes apparent.11 Treatment for alcohol use disorder may consist of one or more of the following:

  • Medical detoxification. For alcohol-dependent individuals, medical detox is a priority. The alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be one of the most dangerous of all substance withdrawal syndromes. Undergoing withdrawal after long-term excessive alcohol use can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens (DTs).12
  • Inpatient rehab. An inpatient treatment environment provides significant support and a sober environment in the first weeks and months of recovery.
  • Outpatient treatment. There are several levels of outpatient care ranging from very intensive (partial hospitalization) to much less intensive (standard outpatient therapy). What you elect will differ based on how much support you need and how you and your doctor or treatment team feel you’re progressing in your recovery.
  • Mutual help groups/12-Step organizations. Often incorporated into both inpatient and outpatient treatment, alcoholics in recovery will often attend 12-Step (AA) or other support groups (e.g., SMART Recovery) for years after completing treatment.

Alcohol addiction treatment will often involve more than one of the above. For example, someone may go from medical detox into an inpatient program and then through one or more levels of outpatient care.

Alcohol Recovery Center Near Miami, FL

Recovery First offers many levels of care for addiction treatment, from safe medical detox to intensive outpatient programming. We also offer specialized treatment for Veterans struggling with problematic alcohol use and for licensed healthcare professionals whose careers may have been impacted by their alcohol use.

To learn more about the different levels of care provided at our alcohol rehab near Miami, and to get help for yourself or a loved one, call us at today.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.

Have you lost control of your drinking?
When contemplating the costs of alcoholism for yourself, child, or loved one, consider the costs, or consequences, of “things as they are now.” What would happen if the drinking continued or escalated? Contact Recovery First, and we will help you or your loved one get the treatment needed to stop the dangerous, progressive effects of addiction.