Definition of an Alcoholic

Definition of an Alcoholic

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is the Definition of an Alcoholic?

Are They an Alcoholic?

Coming to terms with the fact that you or a loved one might have lost control over a relationship with alcohol can be overwhelming. For many, it can start out innocent, and then one day you wake up and may come to the realization that you or someone you love has hot the definition of an alcoholic. And once you have come to that conclusion or assumption — how do you move forward? If it’s you — it can be hard to admit these things to yourself. If it’s someone you love and care about, you likely want to come across as loving and not judgmental. That line can be a tricky one to walk.

The first part of this entire process is determining whether or not you or the person in your life actually has an issue1 This can be tricky and sensitive. You do not want to come off as judgmental or accusing them of being the definition of an alcoholic or something that is not true, so you need to have done your part. You need to research or talk to enough professionals to be able to layout for them clearly what you have been observing.

According to Philippa Gold, Chief Clinical Officer of Physis Recovery, the clinical definition of an alcoholic is:

Physical dependence on alcohol to the extent that stopping alcohol use would bring on withdrawal symptoms. In popular and therapeutic parlance, the term may also be used to refer to ingrained drinking habits that cause health or social problems. Treatment requires first ending the physical dependence and then making lifestyle changes that help the individual avoid relapse. In some cases, medication and hospitalization are necessary. Alcohol dependence can have many serious effects on the brain, liver, and other organs of the body, some of which can lead to death.

What is an Alcoholic? What are the Signs?

So, for starters — what is the definition of an alcoholic? An alcoholic is someone who no longer has the ability to control alcohol consumption. They often compulsively or mindlessly abuse alcohol — even if they know they have reached a point where they may need to stop. Alcoholism is chronic and relapse is common.

Alcoholism can be diagnosed if the individual meets 2 or more of the following habits within the same, single year:

  • consuming higher amounts of alcohol or consuming for a longer time than initially intended.
  • wanting to stop, but being unable to do so.
  • spending resources and time getting alcohol or recovering from the use of it.
  • cravings for alcohol
  • being unable to go to work or fulfill responsibilities at home or school
  • interpersonal problems because of alcohol use
  • giving up hobbies and activities previously enjoyed to consume alcohol
  • dangerous consumption of alcohol (driving, etc.)
  • needing to increase the amount you drink to feel the effects
  • withdrawal symptoms

This is criterion often used by a professional to diagnose someone with alcoholism2 While this could be a beneficial format to follow, your symptoms or the symptoms of your loved one may also appear to have the physical definition of an alcoholic:

  • numbness/tingling in feet or hands
  • unsteady on your feet
  • bruises or unexplained injuries
  • consistently upset stomach
  • redness in face
  • liver problems/yellow skin tone
  • infections/skin sores (alcohol impairs immune system)
  • weight change
  • disheveled appearance, poor skin, tired eyes

Alcoholism is a very dangerous disease externally, but it can have an extremely large impact on the inside of a person as well. Chronic drinking can lead to a significant amount of chronic diseases and physical issues. Those typically include:

  • heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke
  • liver disease
  • pancreatic problems
  • head/neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer
  • your weakened immune system can often lead to the contraction of serious diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

While those criteria items listed above make it simpler to analyze yourself and whether you do or do not have a problem with alcohol, it can be difficult to distinguish those traits in someone else.

Here are a few things to look out for in a partner or friend you think might have a problem with alcohol:

Secretive behavior. Whether or not they have realized they have an issue, they will likely be secretive or dishonest about where they have been/what they were doing/how they spent money

  • Fatigue
  • Defensive attitude. This can occur especially if they have realized or might know deep down they have a problem, but are not ready to tackle it just yet.
  • Frequent accidents/mistakes/forgetfulness. Alcohol can mess up cognitive function. When someone is currently under the influence their cognitive ability is impacted. When somebody has been abusing alcohol for a long period of time or extremely consistently, their cognitive abilities are impacted even when they are not under the influence.
  • Often distracted
  • Avoids or forgets responsibility
  • Mood swings
  • If you notice severe behavioral or physical changes when they take a break from alcohol, there is also likely a problem there.

Knowing the signs that point to someone being the definition of an alcoholic may be the first step, but it will also be the easiest portion of the situation. Your loved one may not be ready to have the conversation. They may get defensive. They may deny. Those are not uncommon reactions. It is important for them to know that you come from a place of love and care — not judgment. Navigating the situation well enough that they are aware of that is complicated but well worth the effort.

If you are wanting to help your partner or loved one, but want to do it right and are not sure where to begin, here are some ways you can prepare and move forward:

  • Study the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction.  You want to be prepared and able to validate what you think is occurring. Read as much as you can. Observe your partner. Write down their behaviors.
  • Discuss with a professional what you want to do, what they think you should do, and how they think you should approach the situation.
  • Avoid pressuring them or making them feel attacked. Be gentle.
  • Use phrases that start with “I” instead of “You”. You phrases sound accusatory.
  • Avoid labels. (alcoholic, addict)
  • Ask them questions about what they think is going on.
  • Approach in a private place where they feel comfortable
  • Use a concerned, caring tone. Avoid yelling, or judgmental tones of voice.

Your loved one may not realize this about themselves yet. Maybe they do and just are afraid of changing. Whatever the case, it is so great that your partner or loved one has someone in their life that cares enough about them to take the time to do this. They may not realize it at first, but they will eventually.

If you think you might have a problem with alcohol — be gentle with yourself and seek out the help you think you need. If someone you love is abusing alcohol — be gentle with them and help them move forward towards receiving the help that they need.

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References & Citations: Definition of an Alcoholic

  1. Baliunas DO, Taylor BJ, Irving H, et al. Alcohol as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2009;32(11):2123–2132. []
  2. Corrao G, Bagnardi V, Zambon A, La Vecchia C. A meta-analysis of alcohol consumption and the risk of 15 diseases. Preventive Medicine. 2004;38(5):613–619. []
  3. Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Chou SP, et al. Sociodemographic and psychopathologic predictors of first incidence of DSM-IV substance use, mood and anxiety disorders: Results from the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Molecular Psychiatry. 2009;14(11):1051–1066. []
  4. Leon DA, Chenet L, Shkolnikov VM, et al. Huge variation in Russian mortality rates 1984– 1994. Artefact, alcohol, or what? Lancet. 1997;350(9075):383–388. []
  5. Rehm J, Baliunas D, Borges GL, et al. The relation between different dimensions of alcohol consumption and burden of disease: The definition of an alcoholic. Addiction. 2010a;105(5):817–843. []
  6. Rehm J, Room R, Monteiro M, et al. Comparative Quantification of Health Risks: Global and Regional Burden of Disease Attributable to Selected Major Risk Factors. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2004. Alcohol use; pp. 959–1109. []
  7. World Health Organization (WHO) Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference; New York. 19–22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization no. 2, p. 100) []
  8. WHO. The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO; 2008. []

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Definition of an Alcoholic
Article Name
Definition of an Alcoholic
Knowing the signs that point to alcoholism may be the first step, but it will also be the easiest portion of the situation. Your loved one may not be ready to have the conversation. They may get defensive. They may deny. Those are not uncommon reactions. It is important for them to know that you come from a place of love and care -- not judgment. Navigating the situation well enough that they are aware of that is complicated but well worth the effort.
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