Definition of an Alcoholic

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited: August 29,
| 4 Sources

What is the definition of an alcoholic? The term "alcoholic" is often thrown around without much thought, and the definition of an alcoholic differs from person to person. Many people believe that alcoholism can be defined by how many drinks a person consumes in one sitting or over the course of a week. Others may instead focus on alcohol's effects on mental health, relationships, or physical conditions such as liver cirrhosis. 

Ask ten professionals for the definition of an alcoholic and you might get ten different answers. While the facts about alcohol are fairly well

Documented, there is often debate as to who is drinking to excess and who is not as it pertains to medical terminology.

For laypeople, the issue is often more pragmatic. Infrequent or social drinkers are most often seen as not having a problem. In many social circles, the occasional drink is all but mandatory.

The issue of whether or not a person has crossed the line often depends on how the person acts as well as how often he or she drinks. In these situations, the definition of an alcoholic is based more on circumstance than science.

Even professionals are split on the issue. Many experts believe that defining an alcoholic is not their place, and it should be left up to the individual concerned. Others believe that alcoholics are addicts who suffer from a disease. Still others may view alcoholism as a personality disorder or treat it as any other mental illness.

One of these definitions would seem to fit the bill for what defines an alcoholic, but which do you agree with?

How many drinks can one have before they're considered an alcoholic?

How often does someone have to drink for them to be considered an alcoholic?

What diagnostic tests can determine if someone has crossed this line?

Can people who fit into other categories also be defined as alcoholic by some of these standards?

Is there a difference between how people who suffer from an illness and those who don't?

Alcoholism is a serious problem throughout the world. It affects not only those drinking, but their families, friends, and communities as well. Without a proper understanding of what it means to be an alcoholic, this problem will likely continue to see little improvement in years to come.

definition-of-an-alcoholicPhoto by Anshu A

Warning Signs

While it may be difficult to agree on the set definition of an alcoholic, some behavior patterns are useful in deciding if a person has a problem or not.

It should be noted that not all people who drink to excess will exhibit the same patterns as others who drink to excess. Some of the warning signs that might become apparent when someone is drinking too much include:

  • Routine Drinking: Persons who may be heading for trouble will often begin to drink on a daily or hourly basis. As time passes, they may begin to drink within minutes of waking up and continue throughout the day. Of the many facts about alcohol that are agreed upon, constant drinking is well established.
  • Changes in Habits: As people begin to drink more, they often lapse into periods involving changes in their daily habits. They may bathe less; they may miss work or be late; work performance often suffers and this may lead to dismissal. Persons who are drinking to excess may come home late or not come home at all. They may find themselves in trouble with the law or suddenly begin to get DUI's. People who were once careful become careless.
  • Social Problems: People who drink too much often find themselves causing issues for those around them. They may become argumentative and irritable; they may engage in behaviors that involve violence or other dangerous situations; they may make poor decisions leading to an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Along with the physical problems, these social problems are well documented as warning signs of problem drinking.
  • Physical Changes: Another set of facts about alcohol that are not debated is that heavy, prolonged drinking will cause changes in the person's body. They may experience health problems with their stomach which can be painful and very uncomfortable. Diarrhea is often a symptom of excessive drinking. They may begin to encounter problems sleeping or staying awake. Loss of balance during episodes of drinking often results in falls.

Other, more severe, problems may follow, including liver and brain problems as well as blood and heart issues. Of all the facts about alcohol, changes in the body are well established.

It should be noted that many medical professionals will base their definition of an alcoholic on the physical problems that they find in the person.

Self-Help Tools

There are many self-help tests and tools available to help those who may be wondering about their own condition as it pertains to drinking. Most of these tools are in the form of simple tests. One of the more popular is the CAGE Questionnaire.

The CAGE Questionnaire asks four questions. Answering yes to two or more of the questions may indicate a problem.

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


Learning more about the facts about alcohol can help you decide if you or a loved one has a problem. Trying to fit a person into your definition of an alcoholic may not be as useful.

The signs and symptoms of problem drinking vary wildly in some cases, and the best way to get reliable information is to seek the aid of a trained professional.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LPC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

More than definition of an alcoholic on our alcoholism stages page

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