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The Definition of “Problem Drinking”

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 17, 2019

Problem drinking can have serious repercussions on a person making it hard for them to live a full life. Many individuals in this situation may want to quit, but they don’t know how. Entering into rehab may be a difficult step to take, but it may be the best solution to problem drinking.

What Is Problem Drinking?

Problem drinking is the consumption of alcohol that results in difficulty with a person’s mental or physical health, social life, and career. In its most severe form, problem drinking is defined as an alcohol use disorder.

Keep in mind that not every person who struggles with problem drinking will meet the criterion of an alcohol use disorder, but it becomes more likely the longer they use alcohol to cope with life. Problem drinking can refer to a moderate drinker, heavy drinker, or binge drinker.

Problem drinking has also been defined as drinking alcohol to fix (or cope with) one’s problems. Though, these types of drinkers aren’t fixing any problems with alcohol. In fact, most of them are doing the exact opposite.

Who Is At Risk For Problem Drinking?

People who simply drink to feel normal are at risk of problem drinking—these are people who resort to alcohol at any chance. High-risk drinkers are also candidates for problem drinking.

In general, people who are more likely to become problem drinkers are:

  • college students
  • trauma victims
  • veterans
  • high-stress professionals
  • those with mental disorders
    • anxiety
    • depression
    • antisocial personality
  • genetically predisposed to drinking problems
  • either men and women
  • Men are more likely to become “problem drinkers”

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Examples Of Problem Drinking

Picture a person receiving bad news at work. If she’s a problem drinker, she might go home and try to drink it away. The bad news is still there, and by drinking, she’s just temporarily forgotten about it, or become numb to it. Doing this over and over can result in bigger problems with health, job, or home life.

A person with previous medical condition such as psoriasis who continues to drink despite the worsening of the condition would be an example of problem drinking.

A first-year college student receives an assignment, but the anxiety of working on it makes it hard for him to focus. He decides to have a drink to cool his nerves, and then finishes the assignment. The problem? Now he has relied on a drug to feel normal—which is a type of alcohol abuse, and just as our first case scenario, continuing to do this can result in an alcohol use disorder.

Lastly, a business professional decides to go out drinking after a successful venture. At the end of the night, she decides that she’s in good enough form to drive home. Upon leaving the restaurant she gets into an accident, totals her car, and hurts her neck. In this case, the woman’s drinking has resulted in further problems, even though she doesn’t necessarily have an alcohol use disorder.

Types Of Drinking Problems

Problem drinking has become synonymous with alcohol use disorders (AUD), but problem drinking isn’t considered an AUD until in it become severe—or until a person meets all criterion. Nonetheless, an estimated 16 million people in the United States have an AUD. Now to clear up any confusion, below is a list of drinking problems along with their definition:

Alcohol Intoxication

When a person’s alcohol consumption leads to inappropriate behavior, impaired judgment, slurred speech, and unsteady gait. Alcohol affects each person differently, so we all react differently to alcohol based on our age, height, weight, and tolerance.

Problem Drinking

When accidents, injuries, and other issues result from drinking alcohol. Problem drinking is the cause of a large number of trips to the emergency room.

Binge Drinking

Excessive alcohol consumption. In its most basic form, it is drinking with the intent to get drunk. Binge drinking for men is defined as at least 5 alcoholic drinks in 2 hours, and for women it’s at least 4 alcoholic drinks in 2 hours.

Heavy Drinking

When a person binge drinks 5 or more days in the last month. Heavy drinking is a major cause of hypertension, brain and liver damage, and heart disease.

Alcohol Use Disorder

A chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drinking, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using alcohol. Two types of alcohol use disorder are alcoholism (alcohol dependence) and alcohol abuse.


When a person completely loses his or her control over alcohol intake. Alcoholism is characterized by intense alcohol cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when a person quits using alcohol.

Alcohol Abuse

Though a person isn’t physically dependent upon alcohol, it’s still considered a serious problem. In these cases, drinking causes problems with health, home, school, or work. Alcohol abuse can be the cause of legal issues as well.

“In 2014 there were 139.7 million current alcohol users aged 12 or older, with 23% classified as binge drinkers and 6.2% as heavy drinkers. About 17 million of these, or 6.4%, met criteria for an alcohol use disorder,” (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services).

Signs Of An Alcohol Use Disorder

There are a lot of different criterion for an AUD, and as established, not everyone who drinks heavily or “problem drinks” has one. There are a lot of people who consume alcohol in the United States, and deciding if you or your loved one has a problem is going to vital to your health, and future.

In order to determine the severity of you or your loved one’s drinking, and the presence of an alcohol use disorder, consider the following questions from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In the past year, have you:

  • had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • more than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • more than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

At an inpatient alcohol rehab, you’ll receive the best care to overcome both the mental and physical issues from alcohol. Alcohol rehab is an integral part of your recovery and can help you along the way.

National Institutes of Health - Alcohol Use Disorder

SAMHSA - Alcohol

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