A woman in pain covers her face as a man tries to communicate with her.
One symptom of alcohol use disorder is drinking habits that affect your personal and professional relationships.Westend61/Getty Images
  • Experts now refer to alcoholism as a mental health condition called alcohol use disorder (AUD).
  • Key signs include cravings, trouble controlling drinking, and drinking that affects your daily life.
  • A therapist or recovery professional can help you address drinking habits and create lasting change.
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Maybe you've never gotten a DUI or lost a job due to drinking alcohol — but you could still be at risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD) — formerly called alcoholism.

In fact, a 2017 study of 36,309 US adults found that one in eight American adults meets criteria for AUD — and most people don't even realize their drinking has become a problem.

Here are the 11 symptoms of AUD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

1. You drink more alcohol, or for a longer period, than intended

You might tell yourself, "I'm only having one drink tonight and then I'm going home." But at midnight, you're four drinks in. 

A 2019 NIH study reported that over 28% of people ages 18 and up engaged in binge drinking in the last month alone. 

Binge drinking refers to when a woman has four or more drinks or a man consumes five or more drinks within just a few hours. 

2. You struggle to stop drinking alcohol or stick to limits you set 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults who drink limit their intake to no more than two drinks a day for men or one a day for women. 

Maybe you want to cut back until your alcohol consumption aligns with these guidelines, but you find it difficult to control how many drinks you have. 

While it's not uncommon to set limits and find yourself falling short, you might want to consider whether it's a one-time occurrence or a consistent pattern. 

Research suggests that it takes anywhere between 18 and 254 days to break a habit — but if you struggle to change the unwanted behavior on your own, support from a professional can help.

3. You spend a lot of time getting alcohol, drinking, or recovering from drinking episodes

You've spent more than a few Sunday mornings with hangover symptoms, including a splitting headache and nausea. Or maybe you often feel far too tired to clean your house or get any chores done after an evening of going out with friends. 

This might not be a problem on its own, but it might warrant some closer consideration if you keep promising yourself to change your drinking habits and finding it tough to follow through.

4. You have cravings when not drinking alcohol

Cravings can stem from specific triggers, like the strong desire for a pumpkin spice cocktail that hits when you think about Thanksgiving. But more frequent cravings can also relate to your emotions. 

You might crave alcohol when experiencing strong emotions, like anxiety in a social setting or grief after heartbreak — particularly if you've used alcohol to cope with these feelings in the past. This happens in part because alcohol releases endorphins, creating temporary feelings of pleasure or happiness. 

5. Your drinking habits create problems at work, school, or home

Drinking at parties or after work with coworkers has, for many people, become a ritual that makes up an expected part of their week. However, this might create issues in other areas of your life.  

One in four college students report academic difficulties like missing class or falling behind on schoolwork because of drinking. At work, excessive drinking could factor into frequent tardiness, missed deadlines, or careless mistakes that could lead to consequences, like disciplinary action. 

Excessive alcohol use can also lead to an increase in debt when you spend more money than you have on partying or gambling when drinking — or forget about making credit card payments later on. 

6. Your drinking habits begin to affect your personal and professional relationships

AUD can affect your romantic partner, kids, and other family members. Over time, a romantic partner might fall into a caregiver or rescuer role, which can lead to patterns of codependency and enabling. On the flip side, a partner may put their foot down by leaving the relationship.

One in five American adults lived, during their teen years, with a relative who struggled with AUD, which increases their risk of experiencing emotional issues such as aggression and thoughts of suicide. What's more, children of people with AUD are four times more likely to develop AUD themselves.

7. Alcohol use leads you to cut back on work, hobbies, and other activities 

Your hobbies and drinking might occur together: a few drinks on the golf course, a glass or three of wine while painting, or a few beers in the lodge between downhill runs on the slopes.

"As the drinking increases, it becomes prohibitive and the person golfs, paints, or skis less and drinks more," explains Michael Genovese, MD, JD, and Chief Medical Officer at Acadia Healthcare. "Eventually, the hobby becomes 'less interesting,' or you hear, 'I don't have the time, I've been so busy.' Eventually, the hobby is no longer a hobby. The hobby is drinking."

8. You drink alcohol even when it poses a safety risk

You probably know not to drink and drive. But even skiing, swimming, or hiking under the influence can lead to injuries or worse, says Genovese. 

Likewise, working a job that impacts the safety of others — if you're a surgeon, pilot, or machine operator, for example — also puts both yourself and others at risk.

9. You continue drinking even when you know it's affecting your wellbeing

"Alcohol reduces your quality of sleep and contributes to both depression and anxiety," says John Mendelson, MD and Chief Medical Officer of Ria Health

These negative effects can snowball. Over time, it may become difficult to do well at work, have healthy relationships at home, or find the energy to pursue the things that once brought you joy.

10. You develop a tolerance for alcohol

Tolerance occurs when it takes a larger amount of alcohol to produce the same effect. Tolerance to most effects from alcohol typically develops over several drinking sessions.

In basic terms, tolerance means your body has started to adapt to the presence of the chemicals in alcohol, gradually requiring larger quantities to feel the same effects. 

"If feeling relaxed used to take only a glass of wine but now requires a bottle of wine, that person has an increased tolerance," says Mendelson. 

11. You experience withdrawal

Withdrawal refers to the symptoms that occur after long-term use of alcohol is reduced or stopped, whether you reduce your weekly number of drinks or go cold turkey. These symptoms can begin within hours of ending a drinking session, and may last for weeks.

Withdrawal can have both physical and psychological symptoms, including: 

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Racing heart
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations

"These symptoms are often relieved in the short run by drinking. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, some may have a little alcohol [in a Bloody Mary or other mixed drink] after a night of drinking. When AUD progresses, many drink not to feel good, but to avoid feeling terrible withdrawal symptoms," says Mendelson.

Do I have AUD?

The simplest way to determine if you might have AUD is to honestly assess if alcohol affects your life in any significant way.

Genovese suggests asking yourself the following:

  • Am I present for my kids by helping with homework or enjoying the school play? 
  • Is my work of the same caliber it always was? 
  • Can my buddies count on me like they always have?
  • How do I feel? Am I tired all of the time? Am I out of shape? 
  • Do I find myself frequently or constantly thinking about the next opportunity to have a drink?

According to the CDC, excessive drinking is responsible for one in 10 deaths among adults between ages 20 to 64. 

Helping yourself or a loved one cope with AUD may seem intimidating, but if you're ready to stop drinking and get the support you deserve, you can work toward recovery — no matter how heavy your drinking or how powerless you feel. And you don't have to wait until you hit rock bottom: you can make a change at any time, starting right now.

Insider's takeaway

AUD is a serious medical condition that should be addressed as soon as possible. If left untreated, it can have lasting effects on both your physical and mental health and strain your relationships at work and home.

If you think you may have AUD or may be at risk of developing it, talk to a doctor about next steps toward getting the treatment you deserve.

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