Since drinking is so common in many cultures and the effects vary so widely from person to person, it’s not always easy to figure out where the line is between social drinking and problem drinking. The bottom line is how alcohol affects you. If your drinking is causing problems in your life, you have a drinking problem.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse or problem drinking

Substance abuse experts make a distinction between alcohol abuse and alcoholism (also called alcohol dependence). Unlike alcoholics, alcohol abusers have some ability to set limits on their drinking. However, their alcohol use is still self-destructive and dangerous to themselves or others. 

Common signs and symptoms include:

Repeatedly neglecting your responsibilities at home, work, or school because of your drinking. For example, performing poorly at work, flunking classes, neglecting your kids, or skipping out on commitments because you’re hung over.

Using alcohol in situations where it’s physically dangerous, such as drinking and driving, operating machinery while intoxicated, or mixing alcohol with prescription medication against doctor’s orders.

Experiencing repeated legal problems on account of your drinking. For example, getting arrested for driving under the influence or for drunk and disorderly conduct.

Continuing to drink even though your alcohol use is causing problems in your relationships. Getting drunk with your buddies, for example, even though you know your wife will be very upset, or fighting with your family because they dislike how you act when you drink.

Drinking as a way to relax or de-stress. Many drinking problems start when people use alcohol to self-soothe and relieve stress. Getting drunk after every stressful day, for example, or reaching for a bottle every time you have an argument with your spouse or boss.

Serious dependence can lead to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms including convulsions, starting eight to twelve hours after the last drink. The delirium tremens (D.T.’s) begins three to four days later where the person becomes extremely agitated, shakes, hallucinates and loses touch with reality.

An increasingly heavy drinker often says he could stop whenever he chooses—he just never “chooses” to do so. Alcoholism is not a destination, but a progression, a long road of deterioration in which life continuously worsens.