The Different Types of Alcohol Problems

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When we talk about someone having an alcohol problem, it does not necessarily mean that they are an alcoholic. Problems with alcohol can range from occasionally drinking at harmful levels to full-blown alcoholism, or alcohol dependence.

Not everyone who has an alcohol use disorder is an alcoholic, and not everyone who could benefit from treatment is an alcoholic. You don't have to exhibit all of the symptoms to have a drinking problem.

Under the diagnosis guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, there are 11 symptoms of alcohol use disorders. If someone displays only 2-3 of these symptoms they can be diagnosed with a mild alcohol use disorder.

Drinkers who exhibit 4-5 of the symptoms are considered to have a moderate alcohol use disorder, and those with 6 or more symptoms, are diagnosed with a severe alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol Abuse and Dependence

The designation of mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorders is the terminology used in official medical diagnoses. The three main types of alcohol problems are probably more commonly described as:

Binge Drinking

One of the most common alcohol problems is binge drinking, which is simply drinking a harmful amount of alcohol in any one drinking session. Binge drinking is officially defined as drinking 5 or more standard drinks at one sitting for males (4 for females).

Why is drinking 5 or more drinks considered a problem? Scientific research has shown that alcohol consumption at that level can do real harm to your health. There are many different ways that binge drinking can cause serious health problems.

Therefore, by definition, if you engage in binge drinking, even occasionally, you have an alcohol problem. You may not have a severe problem, or be an alcoholic, but your drinking is considered hazardous.

College Binge Drinking

The greatest amount of research into binge drinking has revolved around the drinking habits on college campuses, where it is a common practice among 18-21-year-olds. Research shows that students who binge drink are:

  • More likely to damage property
  • Have problems with law enforcement
  • Miss more classes
  • Experience more hangovers
  • Become injured

Research also indicates that students on campuses with higher binge drinking rates experience more physical assaults and unwanted sexual advances.

Alcohol Abuse

Going out with friends and having a few too many on occasion is an alcohol problem, but it is very common among young people. When those drinking bouts begin to cause you real problems in your life, and you continue to drink in spite of the negative consequences, is when your drinking becomes alcohol abuse.

It is considered alcohol abuse if you continue to drink in spite of:

  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Neglect of your responsibilities
  • Trouble with the law
  • Drinking while driving

If your drinking has caused you problems in other areas of your life—social, legal or personal problems—and you continue to drink despite those reoccurring problems, then your level of alcohol consumption has become abusive.

Because alcoholism is considered a progressive disease, if you do not get help for your alcohol problem at this stage, you could be headed for much more severe problems.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol abuse can turn into alcohol dependence very quickly and usually does so along a predictable path. Not only do you continue to drink despite growing problems in your life, but continue after your alcohol consumption begins to affect you physically.

People who are alcohol dependent:

  • Continue to drink despite physical or psychological problems
  • Begin to crave alcohol when not drinking
  • Develop a tolerance for the effects of alcohol
  • Have withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

Once someone reaches the alcohol-dependent—or severe alcohol use disorder—stage, it is much more difficult for them to try to get and stay sober, because they have developed a physical addiction to and psychological dependence upon alcohol.

In short, they have become alcoholics. It is much easier to quit drinking before reaching the alcohol dependence stage, but unfortunately, many drinkers do not reach out for help until their drinking causes them overwhelming negative consequences, a phenomenon known as hitting bottom.

Do You Have an Alcohol Problem?

Answering questions about having an alcohol abuse problem will give you an idea if your drinking patterns are safe, risky or harmful. Be honest with yourself. Only you will see the results of your test and you can only benefit if your answers are accurate.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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