Alcohol is such a common substance found in American, and drinking it has become so normal, that it is often difficult for an untrained person to recognize the signs of an alcoholic. Is someone drinking just because they are in college and it’s “what you do in college”? Are they acting funny and you don’t know why? Do you think you smelled alcohol on someone’s breath at work, but you aren’t certain? Are you wondering if you yourself are an alcoholic? 

First and foremost, take note that it is up to the individual in question whether or not they identify as an alcoholic. In fact, even Alcoholics Anonymous does not require it’s members to identify as an alcoholic. However, there are a number of methods of determining whether someone has an alcohol problem, or alcohol use disorder.

DSM-V Criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder

The most widely used clinical method of identifying an alcohol use disorder is via the criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DMS-V). The criteria ask if in the past year you have:

  • 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?

Answering yes to 2-3 of these criteria is diagnosed as a mild AUD, 4-5 is a moderate AUD, and 6 or more is considered a serious AUD. 

These criteria are questions that may not be observable or notable to an outsider and really need to be answered by the individual in question. With that, the DSM-V criteria are good for diagnostic purposes, but not for initially determining if persuing an assessment is necessary.

Signs of an Alcoholic
Infographic depicting the signs of an alcoholic.

CAGE Screening

Another way to identify alcoholism is via the CAGE Screening. This is a short yes or no quiz where if an individual answers “yes” to 2 or more questions, it is advised that they seek professional treatment.

The four CAGE screening questions are:

  1. Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get over a hangover?

Symptoms of Alcoholism

For the purposes of identifying the signs of an alcoholic, whether it be yourself or someone else, here are common symptoms that you can look out for:

  • Blacking out or short-term memory loss
  • Severe mood swings and irritability
  • Creating excuses for unusual drinking patterns, such as being stressed
  • Avoiding responsibilities and obligations in order to drink
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Hanging around new groups of people
  • Hiding drinking or drinking alone
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

Getting Help for an Alcoholic

If you observe signs that point to you or a loved one being an alcoholic, do not wait to take action. Also, if withdrawal symptoms begin to develop, this is a serious condition that requires medical attention. Contact an addiction treatment facility to get professional attention and get started today.