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Social Drinking vs. Problem Drinking

Some people can drink liquor for hours on end and appear to stay sober, while others become tipsy after just one drink. So how can you tell if you or someone else is a problem drinker?

People who have alcohol dependence can't always predict how much they will drink, when they will stop, or what they will do while drinking. And it is common for alcoholics to deny the negative effects of drinking or that they even have a problem.

Alcohol is considered a drug because it depresses the central nervous system and can disrupt mental and motor skills, as well as damage internal organs when used excessively. Alcohol can be harmful both physically and economically.

The effects of alcohol

Alcohol can lessen tension, reduce inhibitions, and ease social interaction. When used in excess, however, it can be physically and psychologically addicting; cause impaired memory, coordination, and judgment; damage the heart, liver, and nervous system; and lead to birth defects. The abuser also places himself or herself and others at risk if he or she drives or operates machinery after drinking too much.

Alcohol abuse and dependence can start at any age, and there are no good predictors of when it may start, though a family history or current family alcohol or drug abuse problems may influence the start of personal drinking problems. Some people have been heavy drinkers for many years, but others develop a drinking problem later in life. Sometimes the onset is triggered by major life changes that cause depression, isolation, boredom, and loneliness.

Safe drinking

If you drink alcohol, take these steps to minimize risks:

  • Eat 15 minutes before drinking to help slow the alcohol's absorption and slow its effects.

  • Don’t drink when you are thirsty. Quench your thirst before beginning to drink.

  • Don't drink when you are under stress, emotionally upset, or tired.

  • Know when to stop. Think why you want to drink. You should not drink just to get drunk.

  • Don't mix alcohol with drugs or medications.

Signs of problem drinking

If you suspect someone has alcohol dependence, look for these symptoms:

  • Frequent uncontrolled drinking episodes

  • Excessive drinking to the point of intoxication

  • Going to work drunk or drinking on the job

  • Driving while drunk

  • Doing something under the influence of alcohol he or she would not otherwise do

  • Getting in trouble with the law or injuring himself or herself as a consequence of drinking

  • Problems at school, with social relationships, or with his or her family because of drinking

  • Using alcohol to decrease anxiety or sadness

  • Gulping drinks

  • Frequently having more than two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women or older adults (with a standard drink being one 12-ounce bottle or can of beer or a wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits)

  • Lying about or trying to hide drinking habits

  • Needing more alcohol to get high

  • Feeling irritable, resentful, or unreasonable when not drinking

  • Having medical, social, or financial worries caused by drinking

What you can do

  • Learn more facts about alcoholism through state and local councils on alcoholism, libraries, local hospitals, and religious groups.

  • Treat alcoholism as a disease, not a moral failure or lack of willpower.

  • Be understanding, but don't become an "enabler" by protecting or lying for an alcoholic, or denying the problem exists.

  • Encourage treatment; your health care provider can help find treatment resources.

  • Respect the recovered alcoholic's choice to avoid alcohol.