Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse

By Tim Wood

Published: October 11, 2020

If you/a loved one drinks alcohol, it’s important to know the warning signs/symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Alcoholism is characterised by an inability to control alcohol use while alcohol abuse is characterised by excessive alcohol intake as a regular practice or on individual occasions such as binge drinking.

Moderate drinking as per the NHS

According to the NHS, both men and women shouldn’t drink over 14 units weekly on a regular basis. The drinks should be spread over three or more days. You can calculate the number of units in any alcoholic drink by multiplying the ABV (% of alcohol in a drink) by the volume of the drink (in ml) and then divide by 1000.

For instance, a 750ml drink with a 6% alcohol volume contains 6 x 750 ÷ 1000 = 4.5 units

All alcoholic drinks have the ABV clearly included. A 750ml wine bottle with a 12% ABV has 9 units. Following the NHS’s recommendation, you shouldn’t drink more than 1.5 bottles a week. The consumption should also be spread over 3 or more days (i.e., 375 ml per day at most); otherwise, you may be guilty of alcohol abuse.

Drinking problems beyond NHS recommended daily intake

Besides tracking how much alcohol you consume based on ABV and volume, there are other ways of knowing when you “cross the line” from social or moderate drinking to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Alcohol has been in many cultures globally for centuries. While drinking is common, the effects may vary, making drinking problems hard to spot or figure out. However, if you drink to cope with life (change your mood, avoid feeling bad or related reasons), you are in dangerous territory.

You/a loved one has drinking problems if: They feel ashamed/guilty about drinking, can’t control the alcohol they consume, hide their drinking habits, lie about their drinking, and blackout/forget completely/partially what they did while drinking.

Anyone who consumes alcohol can develop drinking problems. The importance of knowing the signs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse can’t, therefore, be overemphasized. Understanding these signs is the first and most important step to overcome drinking problems.

Effects of alcohol abuse/alcoholism

Alcohol-related problems affect every aspect of a person’s life. Long term alcohol abuse and alcoholism cause serious health problems that affect virtually every organ in the body from the heart and liver to the brain.

Persons suffering from alcoholism, as well as those who abuse alcohol, also tend to experience psychological effects such as depression. Problem drinking also comes with financial, career, and relationship problems.

Persons who must drink on a daily basis find themselves in problems very fast since alcohol is expensive, and consumption renders one incapacitated/unable to work.

Joblessness and an uncontrollable urge to drink leads to financial and relationship problems.

Persons struggling with problem drinking are unable to build and sustain careers as well as relationships. Persons who abuse alcohol or struggle with alcoholism have no time to build or sustain important relationships.

Problem drinking and relationships with loved ones

The health consequences of drinking, like heart problems, cancer, and liver disease are dire. The social consequences aren’t any better.

Persons who abuse alcohol and those who are unable to control consumption struggle with problems like unemployment, domestic violence, and poverty.

In the unlikely event that alcohol abusers are able to work or hold their relationships together, they can’t avoid the negative effects of their behaviour on personal relationships.

While everything may look fine, close personal relationships are usually strained by alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Close friends and family try to cover the behaviour of persons with drinking problems. They feel obligated to clean up after the mess created by their loved ones to the extent of lying for the person and even working more hours to deal with the financial problems created in the process.

These actions attract a lot of resentment and other consequences like fear when violence is involved. Children who are raised by parents/guardians who are heavy drinkers tend to suffer emotional trauma.

Risk factors

Drinking problems may be linked to genetics, social environment, upbringing, and emotional health, among other factors.

Race is also a factor with some racial groups more susceptible to drinking problems than others.

Individuals raised in homes with a history of alcohol abuse/alcoholism or family members with close associations with heavy drinkers tend to develop alcohol abuse/alcoholism problems.

Individuals with mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and bipolar are also at higher risk as stimulants like alcohol tend to self-medicate.

Gender is also a risk factor, with men being more predisposed to alcohol-related problems than women.

Most cultures globally tend to “praise” male drinkers contributing to more alcohol-related problems among men. This is despite the fact that men tend to be more tolerant of alcohol than women.

Main signs of problem drinking

There is a distinct difference between alcohol dependence and alcoholism. Alcohol abusers have a degree of restraint in regards to their drinking habits. For instance, they can set a limit on their drinking.

While they can binge drink, they can restrain themselves from frequent excessive episodes of excessive alcohol consumption. However, alcohol is still dangerous to alcohol abusers.

The main signs of problem drinking include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Neglecting important duties/responsibilities: If you/a loved one find themselves neglecting work, home, or school duties/responsibilities because of alcohol, that’s a sure sign of problem drinking
  • Putting yourself/loved ones in danger because of alcohol: Alcohol impairs thinking, resulting in irresponsible and potentially dangerous behaviours like driving while drunk, operating machinery, and taking alcohol alongside medication even when you’ve been advised not to do so. Intoxication can also lead to irresponsible sexual behaviour that puts a spouse or partner at risk of contracting STDs
  • Legal problems: Alcohol abusers and those battling addiction also tend to find themselves in legal trouble, the most common being DUI and disorderly conduct. If you/a loved one is arrested because of drunk driving or being disorderly, that’s a sure sign of a problem
  • Inability to stop drinking despite the obvious negative consequences: If you can’t stop drinking even after you find yourself in trouble because of alcohol, you have a drinking problem. Alcohol addiction is a disease. If you can’t stop on your own, you need help. Misappropriating funds (i.e., drinking when you haven’t paid rent or school fees) should be a warning sign more so if you stop being worried about the consequences of your behaviour on loved ones
  • Drinking to cope with stress among other psychological/health problems: When you drink to self-medicate (i.e., relieve stress, to fight insomnia, etc.), you have a problem. Drinking regularly to relieve stress or to deal with personal issues like arguments with a boss or a spouse is a warning sign

How can I identify alcohol dependence?

Alcohol dependence or alcoholism comes with many signs. Being dependent on alcohol is the most dangerous level of problem drinking. Alcoholism manifests all signs of alcohol abuse and more.

If you can’t function without alcohol, you are battling alcohol addiction (alcoholism). There are two main warning signs, the first being tolerance.

If you don’t get drunk drinking the same amount of alcohol, you are on the path to becoming dependent on alcohol. This sign should take into consideration the ABV of different alcoholic drinks.

If you don’t get the same effect drinking the same exact alcoholic drink, you may be developing dependence.

While some people can drink more than others without getting drunk, differences in alcohol consumption levels suggest a problem, especially when you have to keep increasing the amount of alcohol you consume over short periods of time to get the same exact feeling. Tolerance is an early sign of alcoholism.

Withdrawal is another warning sign. If you attempt to stop drinking and are faced with symptoms like shaking, anxiety, among many others, you may already be addicted.

Excessive drinking/alcohol abuse over long periods results in increased tolerance, which is noticed once you try to quit drinking. Withdrawal symptoms range from anxiety and trembling to insomnia, vomiting, sweating, fatigue, irritability, depression, headache, and loss of appetite.

Alcoholics also tend to experience hallucinations, seizures, fever, agitation, and confusion when they try quitting alcohol.

Other signs to look out for include losing control. If you frequently drink more than you planned despite being serious about drinking limits, you may have developed dependence.

The same applies to failed attempts to stop drinking on your own. If you have tried many times to stop drinking and failed, you have a problem.

Individuals struggling with dependence also tend to give up important things to drink. For instance, hobbies that were once a priority may be abandoned for drinking escapades.

The same applies to family time and important engagements like work. If drinking and recovering from the effects are all a person does, such persons have already “crossed the path”.

Excessive drinking: Binge drinking & alcohol poisoning

Persons struggling with alcoholism drink on a daily basis. The drinking may be prolonged or confined to short and heavy episodes.

As per the CDC, binge drinking is consuming alcohol excessively to the extent of raising your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) to 0.08g/dl and above.

This translates to 5 or more alcoholic beverages for men and 4 or more alcoholic beverages for women within a span of 2 hours or less.

Binge drinking is generally a young adult problem with college students in parties being the main culprits. They may drink heavily for a day then abstain for an entire week only to drink heavily again the next week.

While younger adults tend to drink more than their older counterparts, there are older adults who still binge drink.

Binge drinking is common in certain circumstances i.e., when taking shots, drinking cocktails made using multiple alcohol servicing, or when playing drinking games, among other scenarios where one is likely to lose track of their alcohol intake.

Binge drinking causes the same problems as over-dependence, sometimes worse. Binge drinking has long-term health effects. It can also cause relationship and financial problems.

Binge drinking is also known to cause reckless/irresponsible behaviour like driving while drunk, engaging in violent behaviour and having unprotected sex. In serious cases, binge drinking causes alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.

Alcohol poisoning is an effect of binge drinking i.e., drinking too much too fast to the extent of getting health effects such as slow breathing, reduced heart rate, body temperature, and other symptoms like vomiting, seizures, unconsciousness, depressed gag reflex, and death in some cases.

Persons suspected to be suffering from alcohol poisoning should be taken to the hospital immediately. You shouldn’t leave such persons to sleep.

What’s more, it’s advisable to turn them by their side to stop them from choking when/if they vomit.

Some common signs include unconsciousness, semi-consciousness, slow breathing, clammy skin, and a strong alcohol odour.


One notable challenge/obstacle to getting help when you have alcohol dependency or alcohol abuse problems is denial. When a person’s desire to indulge is so strong, they find ways of rationalising their drinking behaviour even when the negative consequences are obvious.

Besides finding excuses for their behaviour, denial also increases alcohol-related problems. Denial is exhibited in many ways ranging from underestimating alcohol consumption to downplaying the obvious negative consequences of drinking.

Alcohol abusers in denial will also complain that their friends and family members are exaggerating their problems. They may also try blaming others for their behaviour.

For instance, a person can blame a quarrelsome spouse, unfair boss, work stress, financial troubles, among other things, rather than taking personal responsibility.

While financial trouble and work-related problems are common, patterns of deterioration coupled with denial and blaming other people is a cause for concern.

If you/a loved one tries to rationalize their drinking behaviour, lies about drinking, refuses to talk about the problem and/or becomes overly defensive when confronted, it’s important to seek professional help.

Common alcohol dependence and abuse myths

There are many misconceptions about problem drinking. Persons struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction tend to tell themselves many lies.

Here are the most common:

I can quit drinking anytime I wish: Most people with drinking problems think they can quit anytime. While some can quit, most are just in denial. Others use this myth as an excuse for their drinking. The truth is – most want to quit but can’t and tell themselves they can if they wanted to just to feel in control.

  • No one should tell me when to stop drinking: There’s also the notion that problem drinking doesn’t hurt anyone but the drinker. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While no one can decide for you when you should quit, you need to be called out because alcoholism and alcohol abuse hurts loved ones financially and psychologically
  • I don’t have alcohol problems because I don’t drink daily: Alcoholism isn’t defined based on when you drink. It also doesn’t matter what you drink. Some people endorse beer and wine over other alcoholic beverages because they think they are a better option and can’t possibly cause addiction. This isn’t true. The focus should be on the effects of drinking, regardless of when you drink or how much you drink. As mentioned above, binge drinking is as dangerous as regular drinking
  • I can’t be an alcoholic if I am still working, or I am financially stable/secure: Problem drinking doesn’t care about financial status or career. You could be working, in school, or providing for your family adequately and still have an alcohol problem. However, the effects of alcoholism/alcohol abuse are bound to catch up with you
  • Alcoholism is better than drug abuse: There’s also a misconception that alcoholism isn’t “real” addiction. This isn’t true. The effects of alcohol addiction are as severe as those of drug addiction. Excessive alcohol consumption can destroy your career, health, and relationships. Alcohol addiction also comes with withdrawal symptoms like those experienced in drug addiction

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism treatment

As mentioned above, the #1 step to getting rid of alcohol abuse or alcoholism is acceptance. It takes unmatched courage to admit you have a drinking problem. The next step is finding help.

Alcohol addiction is a disease that deserves professional treatment in alcohol rehab. Attempting to stop drinking on your own can be life-threatening. The symptoms/signs of alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.

A professional detox coupled with therapy, self-help programs, and other additions like aftercare increase the likelihood of a full recovery. Defeating alcohol addiction is easier with the right treatment and support from loved ones.

Recovery is dependent on mental health treatment, adopting healthier coping strategies, and making better/more informed decisions when coping with life’s challenges. Full recovery is also dependent on tackling the underlying problems that cause alcoholism/alcohol abuse.

These problems include, but aren’t limited to, poor stress management mechanisms, depression, unresolved trauma, and mental health issues, among other problems.

The severity of underlying problems depends on the time a person takes covering up their alcohol addiction/abuse problems.

Seeking alcohol addiction/alcohol abuse help for a loved one.

Most families cover up alcohol addiction/abuse problems. Admitting that a family member or relative needs help is a painful experience; however, it’s the first step towards recovery.

Both families and individuals struggling with addiction can get the help they need.

As problem drinkers undergo detox, family members can go through group therapy to understand addiction and foster healing and forgiveness.

You should start by talking openly and honestly with family members whose drinking is a problem. However, it’s worth noting that the choice to act on alcohol dependence or addiction is up to the person drinking. You can’t force a family member/loved one to stop drinking.

You stand to benefit from support groups that specifically deal with families struggling with alcoholism. Simple activities like listening to people with similar challenges can offer unmatched comfort and support.

Things to avoid when seeking alcohol addiction help for a loved one

There are many ways of helping an addicted loved one. However, you should be careful of the approach you use as some methods have been proven to be counterproductive.

You should avoid:

  • Threats, punishment, bribes or preaching. Emotional appeals hardly yield appealing results. In fact, they add to a drinker’s problems such as guilt and compulsion to drink
  • Arguing: You shouldn’t argue with a loved one struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Arguments don’t solve anything. In fact, they can make things worse if the person is intoxicated
  • Drinking with your loved one: Drinking with a problem drinker may seem like a great idea. However, you may end up with the same problem. What’s more, you may lose the moral authority to address the problem
  • Taking responsibility for someone else’s drinking problems: As much as there may be “outside” reasons influencing a person’s drinking habits, the ultimate responsibility shouldn’t be shifted to third parties. It’s not even advisable to take over the responsibilities of a problem drinker as this may leave them without a sense of importance/dignity

Tackling teen drinking problems

If you have a teen/underage child who is drinking, you must purpose to remain calm before initiating a confrontation.

While the thought of teen alcohol addiction can evoke confusion, anger, resentment, and many other negative feelings, a violent confrontation or outburst will make the situation worse.

Instead, communicate your concerns clearly and calmly from a loving parent’s perspective. Begin by highlighting the rules and consequences of their actions.

Instead of issuing threats, make your child understand how they are ruining their life. You should also monitor your child’s activities just to ensure they steer clear of alcohol triggers i.e., bad company.

It also helps to introduce them to productive social activities and interests like new hobbies that will help them avoid problem drinking. You should also help your child discover underlying issues causing their addiction problems.

These issues could be anything from divorce, stress, major life changes, moving, etc. If the above remedies don’t work, seek professional help for your child.

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By Tim Wood

Tim enjoys writing about addiction and recovery, this topic has personally affected him, fuelling his desire to help others.