All About Problem Drinking

in Addiction
Published Feb 11, 2021
problem drinking

Problem alcohol use exists on a spectrum. You, or your loved one, may only binge drink, or perhaps you’re what we call a “gray area drinker.” You may even have thought that you might be suffering with addiction. But, how do you know? What is the difference between problem use and addiction?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ve outlined the main categories and features of problem drinking and what to do to get the help you, or your loved one, might need.

Alcohol Use in the US

Drinking is ingrained within our culture. We use it to celebrate, commiserate, and cope with stress. We use it to avoid our feelings and to give us courage — we even use it during yoga (See: Vino & Vinyasa classes)! We practically use alcohol to cope with every situation and emotion. It is no wonder that there is a problem with alcohol use in the United States.

Normal drinking limits

Many Americans have no clue about normal drinking limits, or even what is classed as one drink.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), low-risk drinking is drinking no more than 3 drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week for women. Men are advised not to exceed four drinks per day, or 14 drinks per week. Sadly, according to NIAAA, only 2 in 100 Americans drink within these limits. And even if you do drink within these limits, people can still experience problems with their drinking and their health.

What is a standard drink?

A standard drink isn’t necessarily the size of the container that you buy it in. For example, some measures of wine poured in a bar exceed the amount that is classed as a standard drink. If you’re unsure, check the label. In the United States, a standard drink is defined as a drink with 14 grams (or 0.6 fluid ounces) of alcohol. That looks like:

  • 12 oz of regular beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 5 oz wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 5 oz of distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol)

Given that so many social situations and engagements revolve around drinking one or more drinks, it can mean that you exceed the normal limits quickly. But just when does it become a problem?

How do I know if I have a drinking problem?

Persistent and harmful use of alcohol is more common than you might think. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report that:

  • Approximately 15 million Americans have alcohol use disorder
  • 60 million Americans were binge drinkers
  • 15 million Americans were heavy drinkers
  • 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related deaths per year
Binge drinking/heavy drinking

Binge drinking is high-intensity drinking resulting in high peak blood alcohol concentrations. That looks like consuming 4 or more drinks on one occasion for women and 5 for men. Heavy drinking is defined as 8 drinks or more per week for women, and 15 or more for men. Drinking beyond these limits and experiencing a number of other behavioral effects may mean you risk developing alcohol use disorder.

Gray area drinking

Even if you haven’t reached a clinical definition of alcohol use disorder, you could still be in the grey area: your drinking is problematic, especially in emotionally charged situations. Although,  you’re not skipping work or falling down drunk every day your drinking still could be impacting your life. This can be a tricky area to navigate — while you have some awareness of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, you can gloss over it because it isn’t that bad.

Some indicators of risky or excessive drinking include:

  • You try to cut down or stop drinking unsuccessfully
  • Loved ones and friends share concerns about your drinking
  • Drinking more or longer than you intend
  • Continuing to drink even though it makes you feel unwell
  • Have had legal problems due to drinking, such as a DUI
  • Spend a lot of time drinking or thinking about alcohol
  • Increased tolerance, requiring more to have the result it once did
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking

For more information on gray area drinking, Gallus hosted TEDx speaker and health coach Jolene Park on this topic, watch the full presentation here.

Alcohol use disorder

When problem drinking becomes acute, it may meet the clinical definition of alcohol use disorder (formerly known as alcoholism). Alcohol use disorder is defined as a chronic relapsing brain disorder that is characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite the negative consequences.

Alcohol Use Disorder is a serious medical condition affecting an estimated 14.8 million Americans (SAMHSA, 2019). According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

To determine if you or a loved one may have alcohol use disorder or just a problematic relationship with alcohol, NIAAA has produced the following helpful list of questions.

  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten arrested, been held at a police station, or had other legal problems because of your drinking?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?

You can use this tool and receive helpful feedback. There are a number of other online quizzes and screening tools that can help you to determine if you or someone you know may be experiencing a problem with alcohol.

Before tackling an alcohol problem, however, it’s critical to know the effects of suddenly stopping and withdrawal.

Alcohol detox withdrawal symptoms

As we are talking about the harmful effects of alcohol, it’s important to note too that it can be dangerous to stop drinking suddenly, especially after drinking for a prolonged period of time. It can cause the body to experience alcohol detox withdrawal symptoms that include:

  1. Nausea and vomiting
  2. Delirium tremens
  3. Seizures
  4. Excessive sweating
  5. Headaches
  6. Anxiety
  7. Tremors
  8. Irritability
  9. Depression
  10. Increased heart rate
  11. Difficulty sleeping
  12. Hallucinations

There is a more serious side effect known as delirium tremens (DTs) that some people experience when they discontinue alcohol use. The DTs are periods of hallucinations, confusion, and disorientation. If an individual develops these and the condition goes untreated it could be fatal.

Alcohol detoxification recommendations

SAMHSA recommend professional intervention for alcohol detox:

For alcohol, sedative-hypnotic, and opioid withdrawal syndromes, hospitalization or some form of 24-hour medical care is generally the preferred setting for detoxification, based upon principles of safety and humanitarian concerns.”

– SAMHSA Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment Improvement Protocol, TIP 45

We can help overcome uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms through effective, safe, and comfortable medical detox provided by addiction experts. Our patients are rarely uncomfortable because we provide an individualized plan for each patient and their needs.

At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we bring compassion to the commotion. Peace to the pain. Empowerment to the powerless. If you or someone you know needs support with addiction problems, bring us your battle. Call us today and take the best, first step towards recovery: 720-704-1432

For information about finding a detox center, read our blog How to Pick a Medical Detox Facility or visit our alcohol addiction treatment page.

You may also want to read…

What Does an Alcohol Detox Look Like?

Key Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

How to Detox from Alcohol

What to Expect from an Alcohol Detox Center

Alcohol Awareness Month 2020