How to Tell if Someone is an Alcoholic

Alcoholism, more formally known as alcohol use disorder, is a very serious brain disease and behavioral disorder. Experts describe it as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”

Knowing how to tell if someone is an alcoholic is crucial in being able to help them. If someone you care about is exhibiting troubling behaviors in terms of drinking, you need to recognize them, speak up, and encourage that person to get professional treatment. It is extremely difficult to overcome alcoholism without help, but treatment with experts at a rehab facility is effective for most people and can lead to successful recovery.

Alcoholism - Photo of a woman sitting at a table drinking straight from a bottle of scotch. Clearly she is dealing with alcoholism.

What is Alcoholism?

Mental and behavioral health experts categorize alcoholism as a mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder. The term alcoholism is mostly out of date, but some people still use it to refer to a severe use disorder. It is a synonym for alcohol addiction.

To diagnose an alcohol use disorder, addiction professionals look for eleven criteria. These behaviors indicate problematic alcohol use, and having just two of them can lead to a diagnosis of a mild disorder. The more behaviors you see in someone else, the more severe their issue with alcohol is:

1.       Drinking more or for longer than intended

2.       Persistent but failed efforts to quit drinking or to drink less

3.       Spending a lot of time drinking or hung over

4.       Craving alcohol

5.       Failing to meet responsibilities because of drinking

6.       Experiencing relationship problems because of drinking and continuing to drink in spite of them

7.       Giving up other activities to spend more time drinking

8.       Using alcohol in hazardous situations

9.       Continuing to drink even when knowing alcohol is causing mental or physical health problems

10.   Experiencing tolerance, which means you need more alcohol to get intoxicated

11.   Going through withdrawal when not drinking

Just two of these signs can signal a mild alcohol use disorder, but the symptoms must be persistent. For instance, if your loved one has a hangover and misses an event as a result, they are not necessarily an alcoholic. But if that behavior happens over and over again, it may indicate an alcohol use disorder.

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Signs Someone is Struggling with Alcoholism

The above criteria are used to diagnose alcohol use disorder, but there are other signs someone may exhibit that are unique or specific. There may also be early warning signs. The sooner you are aware of a drinking problem in someone you care about, the easier it will be for them to get effective help.

Everyone relates to alcohol differently. Some may display early warning signs before an addiction develops, while others may be able to hide their symptoms until alcoholism no longer allows them to. Here are some more clues of a drinking problem in someone you care about:

  • Their social life revolves around drinking. Most of their activities, nights out, and social groups involve alcohol.
  • When drinking is not involved in an activity, they get irritable or don’t want to do it.
  • They get annoyed or defensive when someone points out that they may drink too much.
  • They drink when it’s not socially appropriate, such as in the morning.
  • Drinking is a coping mechanism for negative emotions. For instance, they drink to alleviate stress or to try to manage depression.
  • They can drink a large quantity without seeming to get drunk.
  • Alcohol changes their personality significantly, and for the worse. Yet this doesn’t stop them from drinking.
  • They come up with excuses to drink, like a bad day at work or an argument with their partner.
  • They have a family history of alcoholism.
  • Alcohol has become necessary in order to function in certain situations, for instance when meeting new people at a social gathering.
  • They’ve been hiding alcohol in the home or lying about drinking.
  • You have to make excuses to other people for their drinking or behavior when drunk.
  • More than one person has mentioned that they are worried about your loved one.
  • They’re spending more money on alcohol than they can really afford.

How Can I Help an Alcoholic? Starting a Conversation

If you know how to tell if someone is an alcoholic, you can help them. The most important thing you can do for someone who you suspect has an alcohol use disorder is to talk about it. It may not be easy to do, since alcoholism often creates resistance and avoidance in a person suffering from it. But if addictions are not directly addressed, they tend to worsen; they don’t get better without real, effective, professional treatment.

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There are effective ways to talk to someone about their drinking. It is essential that you start this conversation when your loved one is sober and not drinking at all. Focus on how their drinking affects you and how it makes you feel, such as worried or scared.

Use concrete facts when you bring up this issue. Without judgement or emotion, discuss specific behaviors and situations that have been problematic because of their drinking. For example, talk about the times your loved one drove after drinking too much and the risks they took in doing so.

This can be an emotional conversation, but it is important to remain calm. Avoid yelling, criticism or pleading with them. Be rational and clear, and then offer your assistance in getting help. Provide specific options, such as going with them to the doctor or looking at rehab facilities and treatment options together.

Helping a Loved One Find Treatment

Very few people are able to overcome alcoholism without professional help. Impress this fact upon your loved one when you talk about their problematic drinking behaviors. They are likely to promise to drink less, but if accurate, it is appropriate to point out the fact that they have tried unsuccessfully to cut back. This is an indicator that they need more help than you can provide.

Together you can find a great treatment facility that will help your loved one overcome alcohol addiction. Rehab can be highly effective and provides a safe environment, a period of time for focusing on treatment and wellness, expert and caring staff, and a supportive community of other people with similar experiences.

Most treatment facilities offer services and individualized treatment plans that include detox, medical care, behavioral therapies, group therapy and support, family and relationship therapies, alternative and creative therapies, and wellness care for overall health. Good rehab centers will also focus on relapse prevention and will help your loved one prepare for a sober future back at home with coping strategies and healthy lifestyle changes.

Knowing how to tell if someone is an alcoholic or is developing an alcohol use disorder can be lifesaving. Understand the signs and don’t be afraid to speak up when you see them in someone you care about. You can make a profound difference in the life of a friend or family member who is struggling by getting them the professional treatment they need.

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If you or someone you know needs help with alcohol abuse Find Addiction Rehabs is here to help. Call anytime 7 days a week 24 hours a day.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder.

Thompson, W. (2018, November 27). What are the DSM-5 Criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder? Medscape.

MedlinePlus. (2018, July 8). Helping a Loved One with a Drinking Problem.