Social Drinking vs. Problem Drinking

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

"If a person drinks repeatedly and the drinking causes personal, professional or family problems, they may have the disease of alcoholism," says Hamilton Beazley, PhD, a psychologist and former president of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. "When alcoholics drink, they 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 can start at any age, and there are no explicit predictors of when it may commence, though a family history or current family substance problems may influence the onset. Some people have been heavy drinkers for many years, but others develop a drinking problem later in life. Sometimes this is because of 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.

  • 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.

  • Don't mix alcohol with drugs.

Signs of problem drinking

If you suspect someone is an alcoholic, 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 one drink a day (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 will-power.

  • 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.
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