Alcohol always carries an addiction risk. What starts as casual drinking can evolve into something more complicated.
Unhealthy drinking strains your body, your mind and your relationships. And while an occasional glass isn’t likely to do long-term damage for most, sometimes even occasional drinking can turn into a bigger issue for some people.
But how can you tell if alcohol is turning into an issue for you? It’s not always easy.
There may be warning signs and red flags, though, on the road to alcohol abuse. And paying attention to those signs might help you avoid potentially devastating consequences.
If you suspect that alcohol may have too much control over your life, it’s time to make a change. In recognition of Alcohol Awareness Month, here’s how to tell if alcohol is becoming a problem for you.
Disclaimer: The following is meant for information only and not intended to diagnose or treat any mental, physical or behavioral health condition. As always, talk to a doctor if you have concerns about your health.
Signs That You’re Drinking Too Much
There’s no official test to find out if you have an alcohol problem. Doctors can’t do lab work or run a scan to see if you’re losing control of your drinking.
The way to diagnose unhealthy alcohol use is to ask questions about your drinking habits and how they affect your life. Friends or family members might be able to share what they’ve seen, too.
But there are some signs to look out for. These include:
- Intake: If you start drinking more than usual over time, this might indicate a problem. The same goes for how much you drink in order to feel the effects. You may also find it hard to cut back on your alcohol intake, or you might fixate on when you’ll have another drink.
- Social: Do you miss work or school deadlines because of your drinking? Or maybe you’ve skipped a few social activities to drink instead? If alcohol is interfering with your social life, that could signal a problem. Friends and family might notice, too, since drinking too much could lead to arguments about your habits.
- Behavioral or physical: Making risky choices after drinking can be a sign of a problem, as can feeling certain physical effects. These can be feeling sick from alcohol use or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you’re not drinking.
Signs of withdrawal include feeling shaky, sweaty or worn out. When you haven’t had a drink for a while, your stomach might get upset, and your head might pound. Feeling depressed, nervous or short-tempered can also come with withdrawal.
Not everyone with an alcohol problem will answer a questionnaire about drinking habits in the same way.
And, importantly, you don’t have to check every box to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder.
Perhaps you have just a few signs of alcohol misuse. That could mean that you have a mild or moderate problem. But a problem is a problem, and small issues can snowball into a major addiction.
Some people may be at greater risk of developing a substance use disorder. For instance, your genes may play a large role here. Addiction problems tend to run in families.
Mental health and substance abuse often go hand in hand. You might be more prone to an alcohol use disorder if you have anxiety or depression. Past trauma may also leave you susceptible.
Alcohol’s role in your life can make a difference, too. People who start drinking when they’re young may have more problems in the long run. The more often you have “one too many,” the higher your risk goes.
The Risks of Heavy Drinking
Alcohol overuse changes your brain patterns. You might start drinking more and more in order to achieve a certain feeling or satisfy your cravings.
Lapses in judgment may also become common. That’s why excessive drinking can make risky behaviors seem reasonable to you.
Unfortunately, this lust for risky behavior comes with its own set of risks and potentially fatal consequences. Driving while under the influence can cause car accidents. Having unprotected sex may expose you to sexually transmitted infections. And you may be more likely to commit a crime, attempt suicide or try illegal drugs when you’re using alcohol heavily.
Alcohol is a depressant, too. It slows down your nervous system. That’s why drinking affects how you walk and talk. If you drink too much, these effects can be taken to extremes. Your body might slow down to the point that you go into a coma.
Heavy drinking harms your body in other ways as well. It can damage your liver, your stomach and your heart. Your bones and your eyes may become weaker. If you have diabetes, excess drinking can make it harder to control your sugar. Plus, alcohol abuse can lower your immunity to germs. It may also raise your risk of various cancers.
Safer Drinking Choices
Addiction is a serious problem. But that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to completely avoid alcohol. Some people can drink a moderate amount of alcohol without trouble.
As a general rule, that means two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women. Of course, “one drink” means different things depending on what’s in the glass. A single unit of alcohol for moderation limits is:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
These guidelines don’t work for everyone, though.
If you’ve struggled with substance abuse or addiction runs in your family, avoiding all alcohol might be your best choice. The same goes for people with heart or liver disease, or other medical conditions that require medication that can interact poorly with alcohol.
And if you’re pregnant, you should definitely nix the alcohol, since there’s no known safe amount for pregnant women.
But don’t take our word for it. Check in with your doctor if you have a family history of alcohol issues, take medication regularly or have a medical condition that might make drinking more of a problem for you.
Steps to Take
Treatment for alcohol overuse is available. If you suspect that your drinking is an issue, you can address it. The sooner you get help, the better treatment may be.
Consider cutting back on your own first, though this is often easier said than done. And don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work. It just means that you need more support.
Talk to people you trust. Ask friends or family members not to offer you drinks. You can even ask them to put alcoholic drinks away when you’re around.
The people in your life might have helpful feedback about your drinking habits, too. Hearing their thoughts could reinforce the idea that you need help. A friend or family member might even go with you to appointments or provide rides to therapy if you need it.
For medical help, start by seeing your regular doctor. From there, you might be referred to specialists who are experts in alcohol treatment.
Depending on your situation, you might benefit from:
- Support groups
- Individual counseling sessions
- A detox program
- Inpatient or outpatient rehab
- Medications like disulfiram or naltrexone
Resources for Alcohol Help
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers a free online quiz about drinking habits. Put a check next to each statement that applies to you. The website will give you feedback about your drinking. You’ll also receive tips about the next steps to take.
NIAAA also runs an Alcohol Treatment Navigator website. You can download a free toolkit from the site. This guide can help you pick out treatment providers.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a database of addiction services. Using this tool, you can input your zip code to find licensed programs in your area. The site also explains treatment options and has articles about paying for care.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is another free service.
You can call for yourself or a family member. The hotline staff will provide information about local treatment programs or support services in your area. Some resources are state-funded or have sliding-scale payment options. The National Helpline can be reached day or night at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Remember, alcohol addiction is a medical issue. You wouldn’t feel bad about getting treatment for strep throat or cancer. In the same way, you don’t need to feel bad about getting help for your drinking. You just need to ask for help when you need it.