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  • What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic? | Overview, Signs, & Other Traits

    Alcohol use disorder, also called AUD or alcohol addiction, is a disease that makes you feel unable to control your alcohol consumption. 

    Many people with this disease struggle to function in daily life. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 20 percent of people with alcohol use disorder are considered functioning alcoholics

    What Is A Functioning Alcoholic?

    A functioning alcoholic (also called a high-functioning alcoholic or functional alcoholic) is a person with alcohol use disorder who seems to maintain a normal life. 

    Unlike most people with AUD, a functioning alcoholic may have a steady job, fulfilling hobbies, and close relationships with friends and family members.

    If you’re a functioning alcoholic, you might assume you don’t need addiction treatment. However, even if your drinking habits don’t disrupt your daily life now, they likely will someday. 

    In addition, heavy drinking habits pose serious health risks, such as:

    Signs Of High-Functioning Alcoholism

    A functioning alcoholic engages in unhealthy drinking patterns, namely binge drinking or heavy drinking. 

    Binge drinking means having 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours for men and having 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours for women. 

    Heavy drinking means having more than 4 drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks per week for men and having more than 3 drinks in one day or more than 7 drinks per week for women. 

    Along with these unhealthy drinking patterns, other warning signs of functioning alcoholism include:

    • having intense cravings for alcohol
    • feeling unable to relax without alcohol 
    • joking about your drinking habits
    • wanting to stop drinking but feeling unable to do so
    • drinking when you’re alone
    • drinking alcohol with every meal
    • getting drunk on accident
    • forgetting what happened while you were drinking
    • getting upset when you can’t drink
    • continuing to drink even when it causes health issues like depression or liver disease

    Other Traits Of A Functioning Alcoholic

    Nearly all functioning alcoholics experience denial, tolerance, and physical dependence. 

    Denial

    Many people who have alcohol use disorder refuse to admit it, usually due to shame. This is called denial. 

    In most cases, functioning alcoholics stay in denial longer than non-functioning alcoholics. That’s because they have more excuses. 

    For example, they might argue that they can’t possibly have an alcohol problem because they always show up to work on time or have never had legal problems like a DUI.

    Other common forms of denial include:

    • lying about how often you drink 
    • hiding alcohol
    • getting angry when a loved one expresses concern over your drinking habits
    • downplaying your drinking problem by comparing yourself to people with more severe drinking problems
    • claiming you can’t have alcohol use disorder because you only drink expensive alcohol 
    • describing your alcohol use disorder as a “bad habit” with zero negative consequences

    Tolerance

    Most people who abuse alcohol develop a high tolerance for the drug. That means that over time, they need increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel intoxicated.

    Functioning alcoholics tend to have even higher tolerances than non-functioning alcoholics. That’s why they can drink a large amount of alcohol without becoming too intoxicated to complete daily tasks. 

    Although tolerance may help you function, it’s extremely dangerous. When you drink larger and larger amounts of alcohol, you face a high risk of alcohol poisoning. Common signs of alcohol overdose or poisoning include:

    • nausea and vomiting
    • slow or irregular breathing
    • confusion
    • pale or bluish skin
    • seizures
    • loss of consciousness 

    If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, seek emergency medical care immediately. When left untreated, an alcohol overdose can be fatal. 

    Physical Dependence

    When you regularly drink alcohol, your body may start relying on the drug to function normally. This is called physical dependence. If you try to stop drinking, you’ll likely experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as:

    • depression
    • anxiety
    • irritability
    • mood swings
    • trouble thinking clearly
    • sweating
    • shakiness 
    • nausea and vomiting
    • nightmares

    In many cases, these withdrawal symptoms prevent functioning alcoholics from reducing or stopping their alcohol consumption. 

    Alcohol Rehab Options

    To quit alcohol with minimal withdrawal symptoms, you should attend a medical detox program at an addiction treatment center. 

    There, a team of doctors will help you slowly stop using alcohol while monitoring your health. They may also prescribe medications to ease certain withdrawal symptoms.

    If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol abuse, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment programs provide medical detox, therapy, support groups, and other services to help you achieve and maintain recovery. 

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2022 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
    Sources

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Alcohol Use and Your Health
    National Institutes of Health - Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Drinking Levels Defined
    U.S. National Library of Medicine - Alcohol use disorder

    Medically Reviewed by
    Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on May 20, 2022
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