There are often misunderstandings about alcoholic drinking and what alcoholism is, versus what it isn’t. Alcoholism is classified as a disease and it includes dependence on alcohol to function “normally,” as well as intense cravings and a loss of control over one’s drinking.
Alcoholism is also often called alcohol use disorder (AUD), and it’s estimated that around 18 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder.
If someone abuses alcohol, binge drinks or is a problem drinker, they aren’t necessarily an alcoholic. However, their chances of developing alcoholism are significantly increased by these problematic drinking habits and patterns.
The Difference Between Casual and Alcoholic Drinking
Within the larger umbrella of alcohol abuse, different terms can be used to differentiate a person’s drinking habits.
First, there is what is called social drinking. This can also be referred to as casual drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people who are social or casual drinkers show a low risk of developing an alcohol problem.
For a female to be characterized as a low-risk social drinker, she would have no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three in a single sitting. For males, it would be no more than 14 drinks a week and no more than four a day.
Problem drinkers are not classified as alcoholics, but their drinking also goes beyond that of a casual or social drinker. A problem drinker may be someone who has negative effects resulting from their drinking, such as frequently getting hangovers.
However, most problem drinkers can cut back on their drinking or stop altogether if they need to.
For example, many people can be classified as problem drinkers during their college years, and then as they progress in their careers and lives, they will cut back on how much they drink.
The Difference Between Social or Problem Drinking and Alcoholism
One of the biggest differences between social or problem drinkers and alcoholics is the fact that with alcoholism the person isn’t able to correct their own behavior.
An alcoholic will often be faced with a laundry list of reasons as to why they should reduce their drinking or stop drinking, but despite their best efforts, they aren’t able to at least not without professional treatment.
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Recognizing the Signs of Alcohol Abuse and How To Tell If Someone Has a Drinking Problem
When someone is abusing alcohol, they are putting themselves at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder. Some of the warning signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism can include the inability to control oneself once they start drinking, and constantly thinking about alcohol.
Someone who is abusing alcohol or who has an alcohol use disorder may say they’re going to have just one drink, but that never ends up being the case. They might also always be thinking about when they’ll get their next drink.
If someone has an alcohol abuse problem, they will often behave in ways that are out of character for them while they’re drinking, and they’ll keep repeating the same patterns related to alcohol even if they don’t want to.
Someone who has an alcohol abuse problem will often start spending more time with people who are also heavy drinkers, they may drink before arriving at social events, and they will often set drinking limits for themselves and then find that they’re unable to meet them.
Other signs of alcohol abuse can include drinking alcohol every day and using it as a way to reward oneself. For example, someone who is abusing alcohol might start to tell themselves that drinking after work is a way to reward themselves for a hard day.
Over time as someone continues their patterns of alcohol abuse, they will often increasingly deny that a problem exists, and this can become defensive or secretive behavior.
If you start to recognize these signs of alcohol abuse in yourself or someone else, it’s important that help is sought sooner rather than later.
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Am I An Alcoholic—How Is Alcoholism Diagnosed?
If you’ve ever questioned whether you are an alcoholic or someone you love is, there are certain criteria used to make a diagnosis, as is the case with any medical condition. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder is problem drinking that evolves into something severe.
When someone has an alcohol use disorder they’re not able to stop drinking and much of their life centers around drinking including when they’ll have their next drink and how they’ll obtain more alcohol.
Symptoms of alcohol use disorder that are considered when making a diagnosis include:
- Drinking alone or trying to conceal or be secretive about alcohol use
- Having difficulty limiting how much alcohol you consume
- Blacking out and not being able to remember periods of time
- Creating rituals that center around drinking
- Losing interest in things that you were previously interested in
- Having cravings or strong urges to drink
- Becoming irritable if it’s your typical drinking “time” and you aren’t able to drink
- Hiding alcohol or storing it in odd places
- Problems start to occur related to drinking, maybe within relationships, legally or financially
- You develop a tolerance meaning you need to drink more to get the desired effects
- You experience withdrawal symptoms if you’re not drinking such as sweating, shaking or nausea
During the process to diagnose an alcohol use disorder, someone should have at least three of the criteria which are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
There are no blood tests or specific diagnostic tests that can be used for alcohol use disorder.
What Are the Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder can be classified as mild, moderate or severe. This diagnosis depends primarily on how many symptoms a person displays. For example, if someone has a few symptoms of alcoholism, it may be considered mild. Alcoholism can worsen over time, however.
The time it takes someone to develop an alcohol dependence is primarily related to them as an individual. Some people can develop an alcohol dependence in just a few months of heavy drinking, while other people might go years before their heavy drinking could be classified as an alcohol use disorder.
Over time, regularly consuming alcohol affects behavior and both physical and mental health. Excessive drinking can change the levels of key neurotransmitters in the brain including GABA and dopamine.
It also, of course, has severe effects on physical health over time including the liver and other major organs including the heart and kidneys.
Alcoholism Risk Factors
When someone drinks excessively and other risk factors are present, they may be more likely to develop alcoholism.
One risk factor is genes. Genetic factors can make people more likely to become addicted to substances. If someone has a family history, they should be especially careful when it comes to their alcohol intake.
The age at which someone had their first drink can be another alcoholism risk factor. Some research shows that the younger people are when they first try alcohol, the more likely they are to develop an alcohol use disorder later on.
Mental health issues can be linked to an increased likelihood of substance abuse. For example, people with depression or anxiety may turn to alcohol as a way to self-medicate.
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How Is Alcoholism Treated?
There are treatments available for alcoholism. First, many people who have symptoms of alcoholism will also be physically dependent on alcohol. In this situation, they will likely require medical supervision as they detox. Detoxing from alcohol can lead to severe and life-threatening symptoms. During a medical detox a person can safely, and comfortably go through alcohol withdrawal.
Then, beyond that, there are different options for treating alcoholism. For someone with a milder alcohol use disorder, an outpatient rehab program may be a good option. During outpatient treatment for alcoholism, a person can still go to work and live their daily life, but they also attend treatment sessions which may include group and individual counseling.
For someone with a more severe or longer-term alcohol problem, inpatient rehab may be a good option. Participants in inpatient alcohol treatment programs stay there for a period of time, which is usually at least 30 days and receive comprehensive counseling and supplemental therapies.
Certain medications are also approved to help treat alcoholism, although they’re intended to be used along with rehab. These medications include naltrexone which can help reduce heavy drinking and acamprosate which makes it easier for people to avoid alcohol. There’s also something called disulfiram which blocks alcohol being metabolized by the body and causes unpleasant side effects which can deter drinking.
If you would like to learn more about alcoholic drinking versus other patterns of alcohol use, the difference between casual and alcoholic drinking and the treatment options that are available, contact Amethyst Recovery Center.
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