Drinking alcoholic beverages is common in many cultures around the world, and because the effects of drinking vary so widely among individuals, the line between social drinking and problem drinking isn’t always clear. The difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction can also be ambiguous. Alcoholism isn’t defined by when, where, or how much someone drinks, but rather by the effects of drinking on their life, which varies from person to person. Still, there are some basic guidelines to determining what makes a person an alcoholic.
Alcohol abuse: the road to addiction
While not everyone who abuses alcohol becomes an alcoholic, all alcoholics start with abusing alcohol. Common signs of alcohol abuse include:
- Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school
- Mixing drinking with dangerous situations, such as driving drunk or operating machinery while intoxicated
- Repeated legal problems due to drinking
- Continuing to drink despite knowing it’s causing relationship problems
- Regularly drinking to relieve stress
Tolerance: the first warning sign of alcoholism
One of the first warning signs that alcohol abuse is devolving into alcoholism is tolerance, or the condition in which someone needs to consume more alcohol in order achieve the same physical results because their body is “used” to it. Tolerance gets progressively worse, and prolonged heavy drinking can have disastrous effects on the human body.
Withdrawal: the second warning sign of alcoholism
When someone develops a tolerance to alcohol, not only does their body require more alcohol to feel buzzed or drunk, but they will also suffer severe physical effects if their body is deprived. Withdrawal symptoms include shakiness or trembling, sweating, nausea and vomiting, headaches, loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, depression, and anxiety. In severe cases, withdrawal can even lead to seizures, hallucination, and fever.
Other signs: loss of control and social consequences
Another sign that someone is becoming an alcoholic is a loss of control over their drinking—they drink more than they want to, and they’re unable to quit even if they truly want to be sober. Drinking to the point of blacking out on a regular basis is another symptom, which can lead to other physical, legal, and social consequences.
Drinking alone is another sign of potential alcoholism, along with drinking in secret or stashing alcohol in various hiding places in order to avoid judgment from family and friends. Relationship problems caused by alcohol abuse intensify with alcoholism, often leading to long-term estrangement. Alcoholism also often leads to a decreased participation in hobbies and social engagements that don’t involve drinking.
Alcoholism: a gradual disease
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse don’t happen overnight. The slide from excessive social drinking to serious problem drinking can be slow and sometimes imperceptible, even to the person who is suffering from the disease. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the warning signs. The sooner the problem is recognized, the sooner the recovery process can begin.
It’s also important to note that quitting alcohol “cold turkey” may not be effective and could even be harmful to those suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Medical treatment is often necessary for severe alcoholism. If you or someone you love is suffering from alcohol abuse or alcoholism, you are not alone. Help is available through various resources, including both inpatient and outpatient programs designed to help people based on their individual needs and goals.