There is a difference between appreciating the flavours of a favourite wine at dinner or enjoying a beer while watching a ballgame and needing alcohol to function.
Spotting the differences requires developing a familiarity with the symptoms of alcohol dependence, also called alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD).
In 2019, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s national survey found 14.1 million adults ages 18 and older had alcohol use disorder. Among youth between the ages of 12 and 17, an estimated 414,000 had AUD.
AUD is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use. Certain people are at increased risk for abusing alcohol, including those with a family history of alcohol problems; people who drink at an early age; individuals with various mental health conditions; and those with a history of trauma.
Bradford Health Services and American Addiction Centers, which provide addiction treatment services, say these signs can tell if someone’s casual or social drinking has become a problem.
Heavy drinking: Habitually overindulging or binge drinking is a key sign of alcohol abuse. Consuming alcohol in large amounts most days of the week is another sign of a problem.
Risky activities: Alcohol can lower inhibitions, so those with AUD often drive under the influence, leave gatherings with strangers, ignore risks, and act out.
Powerlessness and disinterest: Some with alcoholism feel powerless to control their level of alcohol use. Hobbies and social activities that were once enjoyed may not be of interest any longer.
Cravings and withdrawal: Individuals who think about alcohol when not drinking or those who experience sweating, shaking and nausea while sober likely have alcohol dependence. These symptoms may be paired with mood swings and drinking to feel better.
Tolerance: Heavy drinkers may develop a higher tolerance and need to consume more alcohol over time to match feelings from earlier use.
Sneaking drinks or drinking alone: Drinking alone more than normal or sneaking sips when others are not looking are signs of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
Making excuses: People with AUD may find reasons to justify drinking, such as being under a lot of stress or using alcohol as a sleep aid.
People need not reach rock bottom before seeking treatment for AUD. It’s never too early to seek help. According to Robert Poznanovich, executive director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a person must first recognize that he or she has lost control and wants to regain that control.