problem drinker or alcoholic?

What is the difference between a problem drinker and an alcoholic?

It can be hard to define what constitutes a problem drinker or an alcoholic. It’s a term that’s been thrown around a lot lately, but what does it mean, and who is considered a problem drinker? There’s a difference between having a drink or two and being a problem drinker. While the former may reflect a social or psychological dependence, the latter is a clinical diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. But what does this label mean, and how can it help you understand your relationship with alcohol?

When most people think of an alcoholic, they likely imagine a person with a severe drinking problem. However, alcoholism is a disease that impacts the brain and body and is characterized by a person’s inability to control their drinking. While there are many different types of alcoholism, most people with the disease are considered to have a “problem drinking” pattern. A problem drinker may be able to control the amount they drink on certain occasions or maintain sobriety for a while, but the disease is still present.

While figuring out the differences can be tough, there are signs to look out for. Signs of a problem drinker can include missing work after a night of drinking, getting into arguments when under the influence, or even reckless behavior when consuming alcohol. In comparison, signs of an alcoholic can be the inability to stop drinking after their first drink, the thought of when they can drink again consuming their minds, and physical symptoms when they stop drinking.

Statistics on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that alcoholism is a disease that affects the body and brain. It’s characterized by a person’s inability to control their drinking, which often leads to problems at work, in relationships, and their health.

In addition, the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that alcohol abuse, alcohol use disorder (AUD), and alcoholism in the United States kills over 3 million people each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined excessive alcohol use is responsible for 7.1% of diseases among males and 2.2% among females.

While these statistics seem dire, it is important to know the truth about alcohol abuse so knowledge of treatment can become more accessible.

Signs of Alcoholism

The hallmark of alcoholism is a pattern of drinking that’s dangerous and causes problems. For someone who doesn’t realize they have a problem, signs may include blackouts, memory problems, financial problems, or legal issues. A problem drinker may also be aware of the risks and negative consequences of their drinking but can’t stop.

Signs of alcoholism and the progression through the stages of alcoholism may vary slightly from person to person but may include the following:

Inability to Control Drinking

One of the first signs of alcoholism is the inability to control drinking. This is reflected in a person’s drinking habits. A problem drinker may be able to control the amount they drink on certain occasions or maintain sobriety for a while, but the disease is still present.

Bouts of Extreme Drinking

A person with a more advanced stage of the disease may experience bouts of extreme drinking or drinking to the point where it negatively impacts their life.

Physical and Mental Signs of an Alcohol Problem

  • Whole Body: Blackout, dizziness, shakiness, craving, or sweating.
  • Gastrointestinal: Nausea or vomiting.
  • Psychological: Delirium or fear.
  • Mood: Anxiety, euphoria, general discontent, guilt, or loneliness.
  • Behavioral: Aggression, agitation, compulsive behavior, self-destructive behavior, or lack of restraint.

According to the NIAAA, Part 1, the best way to determine if you have a problem drinking pattern or if you’re an alcoholic is the frequency and amount of alcohol you consume. The institute says that most people who drink in moderation have a problem drinking pattern if they’ve tried to cut back and their drinking hasn’t changed. If you find yourself in this situation, you may want to consider the possibility of alcoholism. Abstaining from drinking is the only way to know for sure.

The DSM-5 Criteria for Alcoholism

While the above information and symptoms to look out for can be helpful, there is an actual list of criteria listed in the DSM-5 to help diagnose an alcohol disorder. The DSM-5 is a tool used by mental health professionals to standardize the classification of mental disorders.

Their 11 criteria for alcohol use disorder is listed below. It’s important to note that not all symptoms are required to be diagnosed with a disorder, and of course any diagnosis should be done by a mental health professional.

  • Feeling powerless to control one’s level of alcohol use
  • Declining to engage in social activities or hobbies that used to be of interest
  • Having a desire to stop or decrease drinking but being unable to do so
  • Using alcohol in high-risk situations, such as while swimming or driving
  • Devoting significant time and resources to drinking
  • Developing a tolerance for alcohol (i.e., needing more alcohol over time to match the feelings from earlier use)
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol when not drinking
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking (e.g., cravings, sweating, shaking, and nausea)
  • Facing problems at work, home, or school because of alcohol use
  • In reaction to the discomfort associated with withdrawal, having to drink to feel better
  • Continuing to use alcohol even when it is leading to social, physical, relationship, and personal problems

Alcohol Treatment at Emerge Healing Center

If you’re concerned that you or your loved one may have a drinking problem, contact us today for a confidential assessment. Emerge Healing Center is here to help you determine the best option for your needs. Our highly-trained staff is here to answer any questions you may have and get you into the most effective alcoholism treatment program possible.