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What Is An Alcoholic? | Definition, Signs, & Treatment

Published on June 29, 2021
What Is An Alcoholic? | Definition, Signs, & Treatment

In the past, the word “alcoholic” described anyone who struggled to stop drinking alcohol even if they tried to quit. Alcoholics also included people who had an alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, or even people who drank large amounts of alcohol on occasion.

Alcoholism Vs. Alcohol Use Disorder

Currently, the term “alcohol use disorder” is used by medical professionals to talk about people with a drinking problem. The term “alcoholic” may still be used by people outside of medical settings to describe a similar range of people who struggle with alcohol consumption.

The term “alcoholic” may be seen as stigmatizing or demeaning to people who are still trying to work through their problems. However, you may hear people talk about their experiences as “alcoholics” during Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or while talking to other patients.

Knowing how and why you may hear the word “alcoholism” may be important if it applies to you or a loved one.

Replacing “Alcoholic” With “Person With Alcohol Use Disorder”

The DSM-5, or Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, uses the term “alcohol use disorder” to describe a wide range of problem drinking habits.

The previous edition, the DSM-IV, divided alcohol problems into two groups of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. The DSM-V combines these into the AUD umbrella and adds other criteria. Alcohol use disorder has a wide-range of symptoms and severity.

On many medical websites, the term “alcohol use disorder” is used where “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” may have been used in the past. This change reflects how more positive language can be used to encourage people to face their problems.

Signs Of Alcoholism/Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder may start relatively innocently in the short-term. You may take up drinking to be more social or to overcome shyness. If drinking continues, healthy or moderate drinking may turn into a form of alcoholism.

Alcoholism has many signs, including:

  • spending a lot of time drinking or thinking about drinking
  • being unable to control the amount you drink
  • drinking more to feel the same effects of alcohol
  • continued drinking despite problems with work, family members, mental health, etc.
  • often experiencing blackouts or memory loss due to binge drinking
  • feeling withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit

Alcoholism can affect anyone, from young adults to the elderly. Recognizing these signs can be important when it comes to getting help.

Effects Of Heavy Drinking

The effects of heavy drinking are a public health problem in the United States. One study showed nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. had died due to excessive drinking. 

Many of these people may have fit the definitions of an alcoholic or someone struggling with alcohol use disorder.

Leaving alcohol use disorder untreated can also make your health problems worsen. Severe alcohol use disorder is linked to an increased risk of:

  • liver cirrhosis or liver disease
  • various types of cancer
  • heart disease
  • pancreatitis
  • high blood pressure
  • fetal alcohol syndrome (for expecting mothers)

Learn more about The Effects Of Being An Alcoholic

Treatment Programs For Alcoholism/Alcohol Use Disorder

While the definition of phrases like “alcoholism” and “alcohol use disorder” are still changing, getting treatment for a drinking problem remains an effective way to quit drinking. 

Once an alcohol use disorder has been diagnosed, you will likely be recommended treatment options. 

Detox, Therapy, & Support Groups

The first priorities may involve getting sober through detoxification (or detox) while managing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. After that, you may be given therapy and linked with support groups.

Accepting that you could use treatment could put you on the path to recovery before it is too late. To find a treatment facility that works for you, talk to your healthcare provider or contact us today.

Alcoholic FAQ

What Are The Signs You’re An Alcoholic?

If you’re wondering how to identify an alcoholic in the mirror, consider:

  • what it feels like when you go without alcohol
  • how often you drink more than you meant to
  • how much you feel you need to drink now vs. how much you used to drink
  • whether your drinking makes you feel secretive, guilty, or defensive
  • if you have a family history of alcoholism

Learn more about the Signs & Symptoms Of Alcoholism

What Is The Average Lifespan Of An Alcoholic?

Estimating the average lifespan of those with alcohol use disorder is difficult, as definitions and research methods vary.

  • one study found that those hospitalized with AUDs lived 24–28 years less than the general population
  • the CDC states that alcohol-related deaths eliminate approximately 29 years of life per death
  • another estimated that those who drink more than 10-15 drinks/week lose between 1-2 years of life expectancy, while those who drink more than 18 drinks/week lose 4-5 years

Learn more about The Life Expectancy Of An Alcoholic

What Is A Functional Alcoholic?

A functional alcoholic is a person with alcohol use disorder (AUD) who seems to have a normal life. For example, they may perform well at work and enjoy close relationships with friends and family. 

However, although they may appear healthy, functional alcoholics face the same problems as all people with alcohol use disorder. 

To learn more, read What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

What Is A Dry Alcoholic?

“Dry drunk syndrome” refers to a person who no longer drinks alcohol, but still feels the effects of drinking alcohol. Dry drunk syndrome is medically referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome and can be treated with professional help and therapy.

Learn more about Dry Alcoholics

How Can You Tell If You’re An Alcoholic?

You can find out if you’re alcoholic by taking a screening test or online assessment. An alcohol assessment can help you understand the symptoms of alcohol use disorder and determine if you have a problem. 

To learn more, read Am I An Alcoholic? 10 Question To Help You Find Out

How Can You Help An Alcoholic In Denial?

If your loved one has alcohol use disorder (AUD) but denies it, you can help them by:

  • learning the symptoms of AUD, so you can identify when your loved one’s struggling
  • not shielding your loved one from the consequences of their alcohol abuse, so they’ll become motivated to admit they have a problem and seek help 
  • caring for yourself, so you’ll feel well enough to care for your loved one
  • sharing your concerns about your loved one’s alcohol use in an honest, gentle, and understanding manner
  • helping your loved one find an addiction treatment program 

Learn more about How To Deal With An Alcoholic In Denial

How Can You Help An Alcoholic Into Treatment?

Unfortunately, when someone struggles with substance abuse there is no way to force them to get help if they don’t want it.

However, by researching alcohol dependence, speaking clearly, refusing to enable their behavior, and offering to support them in their journey, you may be able to help your loved one finally acknowledge their addiction and enter a treatment program.

Learn more about How You Can Help An Alcoholic Into Treatment

What Is A “Weekend” Alcoholic?

A weekend alcoholic is a person who abuses alcohol on weekends. While weekend alcoholics drink little to no alcohol during the week, their heavy weekend drinking puts them at high risk of alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction). 

To learn more, read 10 Signs Your Weekend Drinking Is Problematic

How Can You Talk To Someone About Their Drinking Problem?

When speaking to someone about their drinking problem, it’s important to first do research. If it’s helpful to you, write down your thoughts and feelings to better express them to your loved one. 

Be careful not to be angry or shame them. Always approach the situation with empathy, and offer your support whenever possible.

Learn more about How To Talk To Someone About Their Drinking Problem

What Happens To The Children Of Alcoholics?

The children of alcoholics often learn problematic personality traits as a way to cope with growing up in a home defined by alcohol abuse. 

Support groups like The Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al-Anon were formed to help people learn about themselves and support each other.

Learn more about Adult Children Of Alcoholics

What Are The Stages Of Alcohol Recovery?

The stages of alcohol recovery are pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Some experts debate a sixth termination stage as well. The stages of recovery can be a guideline for finding and participating in effective alcohol abuse treatment.

Learn more about The Stages Of Alcoholic Recovery

Does Rehab Work For Alcoholics?

Because relapse is common in addiction recovery, it’s reasonable to question whether rehab works for someone with alcohol use disorder.

While hard figures and statistics aren’t readily available, alcohol rehab programs are effective and work when someone is motivated to change and receives treatment services that address their individual needs.

To learn more, read Does Rehab Work As A Treatment For Alcoholics?

What Are Some Slang Terms For Alcoholism Or Drinking?

Common slang terms for heavy drinking include:

  • hitting the booze
  • hitting the bottle
  • chugging
  • getting blasted
  • getting hammered
  • getting toasted
  • getting wrecked

Heavy drinking often leads to alcoholism, also called alcohol use disorder. Common slang terms for a person who struggles with alcohol use disorder include:

  • alchie/alkey/alkie
  • boozer
  • drunkard
  • guzzler
  • juicer
  • tosspot

Learn more about Slang For Alcohol & Alcoholics

How Can You Tell If You’re Dating An Alcoholic?

A few signs you might be dating someone with an alcohol addiction include having a family history of alcohol abuse, only going to places where alcohol is served, or finishing other people’s drinks at the end of the night.

To learn more, read 10 Signs You’re Dating An Alcoholic

Can Alcoholics Drink In Moderation?

Most alcoholics cannot drink alcohol in moderation. Drinking any amount of alcohol can increase the risk of relapse. Abstinence from alcohol is likely the only way that recovering patients can stay on a healthy path.

To learn more, read Can Alcoholics Ever Return To Casual Drinking?

How Can Loved Ones Support Those In Alcohol Recovery?

To support a loved one with alcohol use disorder, you should:

  • learn as much as you can about the disease
  • know the signs of relapse
  • show compassion instead of judgment
  • avoid enabling your loved one’s alcohol use
  • help your loved one manage stress, find new hobbies, avoid triggers, and treat co-occurring mental health issues
  • take care of yourself
  • attend support groups for people with loved ones in recovery 

Learn more about How To Support An Alcoholic Loved One In Recovery

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Alcohol Questions and Answers
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Data on Excessive Drinking
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Alcohol Use Disorder
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - When It Comes to Reducing Alcohol-Related Stigma, Words Matter

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