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Alcohol Misuse

Last Updated June 2024 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

What is alcohol misuse?

Alcohol misuse is a serious problem. It is a pattern of drinking too much alcohol too often. It interferes with your daily life. You may be suffering from alcohol misuse if you drink too much alcohol at one time or too often throughout the week. It is also a problem if drinking harms your relationships. It can cause you to be unable to function at work and in other areas of your life.

Alcohol misuse can lead to alcoholism­­­—a physical dependency on alcohol. Too much alcohol at one time also can lead to alcohol poisoning. One alcoholic drink is defined as a 12-ounce bottle of beer; a 5-ounce glass of wine; or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (such as whiskey, rum, or tequila).

You are misusing alcohol when:

  • You drink 8 drinks per week or more than 4 drinks per occasion (for women).
  • You drink more than 15 drinks per week or more than 5 drinks per occasion (for men).
  • You have more than 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion (for men and women older than 65).
  • Consuming these amounts of alcohol harms your health, relationships, work, and/or causes legal problems.


Symptoms of alcohol misuse

You may be misusing alcohol if:

  • You have tried stopping using alcohol for a week or more but can’t make it past a few days.
  • You can’t stop drinking once you start.
  • You recognize you need to stop or cut back.
  • You are unable to perform at work or home when you are drinking.
  • You feel guilty after drinking.
  • Others are telling you that you have a problem.
  • You feel annoyed by criticism of your drinking.
  • You have a drink in the morning to get yourself going after drinking too much the night before.
  • You have physically hurt someone else or yourself after drinking too much. This could be due to accidents or violence.
  • You hide your drinking or your alcohol.
  • You have blackouts and memory lapses after drinking too much.
  • You are depressed.
  • You are getting traffic or driving tickets while under the influence of alcohol.
  • Your drinking is interfering with your relationships.
  • Your hands are shaking.

Alcohol affects your health in other ways, too. It can cause cirrhosis, a disease of the liver. It’s a significant cause of deaths and injuries because of accidents. It can damage your baby’s health if you drink alcohol during pregnancy. It can cause a bleeding ulcer and irritate the lining of your stomach. Alcohol also can cause you to gain weight, feel sick or dizzy, cause you to have bad breath, and make your skin break out.

What causes alcohol misuse?

People misuse alcohol for many reasons. It may be due to social pressure, a desire to relax, a coping mechanism for anxiety, depression, tension, loneliness, self-doubt or unhappiness, or a family history of misusing alcohol.

How is alcohol misuse diagnosed?

Many people who are misusing alcohol will hear from family and friends that they have a problem. Generally, doctors believe a person is misusing alcohol when:

  • Drinking interferes with your responsibilities at work, home, or school.
  • Drinking puts you or someone else in physical danger (driving, operating machinery, mixing alcohol and medicine, drinking alcohol while pregnant).
  • It leads to legal problems.
  • It harms your relationships.

Can alcohol abuse be prevented or avoided?

If you have a family history of alcoholism or alcohol misuse, you may have to work harder at resisting or limiting alcohol. Other ways to reduce your alcohol consumption:

  • Limit yourself to one drink when by yourself or with friends.
  • Seek treatment for underlying mental health conditions.
  • Avoid spending time with others who abuse alcohol.
  • Talk to your doctor.
  • Consider joining a support group made up of others facing the same challenge.

Your doctor may screen for alcohol misuse. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends screening adults aged 18 years or older for alcohol misuse. Also, AAFP recommends teaching teens between 12 and 17 years old to avoid alcohol.

Alcohol misuse treatment

If you are the one suffering from alcohol misuse, the first step is recognizing you need help. Many studies show that people struggling with alcohol misuse can benefit from some form of treatment. However, everyone is different. Not all treatments work the same for every person. The sooner a person seeks treatment, the better the outcome.

Behavioral therapy can be used to treat alcohol misuse. It can take the form of support groups, counseling, or a combination of the two. Some prescription medicines can treat alcohol misuse by helping people stop or reduce their drinking. As with all medicines, some might cause side effects.

Once you have found a treatment that is effective for you, it’s important to stick to that treatment. Also, it’s helpful to avoid situations that involve a lot of alcohol.

Living with alcohol misuse

Living with alcohol misuse means recognizing the triggers that make you want to drink. For example, hanging around with others who drink will make it difficult for you. You may be experiencing stress or unhappiness in your life and don’t have a counselor or friend to talk with. This could cause you to turn to alcohol to help you cope.

Living with alcohol misuse will continue to be a struggle if you do not recognize that you need help. You will continue to jeopardize your safety, your job or school, and your relationships.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Can alcohol misuse begin when you are elderly?
  • Will prescription medicines used for alcohol misuse interact with other medicines I take for my health?
  • Can I take antidepressant medicine while being treated for alcohol misuse?
  • Can I drink occasionally if I am suffering from alcohol misuse and can stop after one drink?
  • What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?
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