What is a Problem Drinker?

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If you been asking yourself “Am I a problem drinker” or “Do I have alcoholism”, you’re not alone.

Data from SAMHSA’s latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH 2020) shows that over 28 million adults have alcohol use disorder. Regrettably, the same data shows that only 2 million engaged with professional treatment, amounting to just 7% getting the help they need.

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When you start questioning your alcohol intake, you will encounter various terms used to describe drinking patterns. These include: 

While these terms relate to different patterns of alcohol abuse, all the above patterns of consumption are unhealthy and inadvisable. 

What is considered a problem drinker, then? 

Problem Drinker Definition

While someone considered a problem drinking and someone diagnosed with alcohol use disorder both have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, a problem drinker is not necessarily addicted to alcohol, either physically or psychologically.    

Problem drinking is a non-clinical descriptor for any pattern of alcohol consumption triggering negative outcomes, such as: 

  • Relationship problems
  • Arrest for DUI
  • Issues at work

Problem drinking is sometimes referred to as alcohol misuse or alcohol abuse. 

NIAAA (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) highlights two especially damaging problematic drinking patterns: 

  • Binge drinking
  • Heavy drinking

The guidelines that NIAAA use are predicated on the following standard drinks

  • 5% alcohol beer (12oz)
  • 12% alcohol wine (5oz)
  • 40% alcohol distilled spirits (1.5%)

If a man drinks more than 5 standard drinks within 2 hours or a woman drinks more than 4 standard drinks in the same period, this is classified as binge drinking. 

When a man consumes more than 15 standard drinks weekly or a woman consumes more than 8 standard drinks weekly, this is classified as heavy drinking. 

Both of these forms of problematic drinking can heighten your risk of developing alcohol use disorder. 

An image of a man struggling as a problem drinker

What Does Problem Drinking Look Like?

All cases of problem drinking are different, but most problem drinkers tend to experience adverse outcomes from alcohol not associated with social drinkers. 

Problem drinkers often exhibit these characteristics and behaviors: 

  • Feel compelled to moderate their alcohol intake.
  • Experience feelings of guilt about their alcohol consumption.
  • Friends and family members criticize their drinking patterns.
  • Often feel the need to drink more alcohol.
  • Frequently exceed guidelines for moderate drinking.
  • Engage in episodes of binge drinking.
  • Encounter problems in their personal and professional lives.

Problem drinking is perhaps most commonly associated with heavy drinking and binge drinking. Both problematic forms of alcohol abuse can increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder or experiencing a life-threatening alcohol overdose. 

Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism

Problem drinking refers to any unhealthy and abusive form of alcohol consumption.

Alcoholism, by contrast, is defined by NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), as a chronic and relapsing brain condition characterized by compulsive alcohol use despite negative consequences. 

What is considered an alcoholic drinker, then? 

Well, alcohol use disorder is diagnosed using the criteria set out in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The latest edition, DSM-5, includes cravings as a symptom of AUD. 

You will be asked versions of the following questions based on your alcohol consumption over the previous month: 

  1. Have you found yourself drinking more than you planned or drinking for longer than intended?
  2. Do you experience cravings for alcohol so powerful that you struggle to focus on anything else?
  3. Have you tried and failed to moderate your alcohol consumption or to stop drinking completely?
  4. Do you spend large chunks of time drinking and recovering from the effects of alcohol abuse?
  5. Are you failing to meet responsibilities at home, work, or school?
  6. Are you spending less time on activities you once enjoyed because of your alcohol consumption?
  7. Do you continue to drink in spite of problems in your relationships due to your alcohol intake?
  8. Do you drink alcohol in dangerous situations (when driving, for instance)?
  9. Are you continuing to drink alcohol even though it is inflaming a physical or mental health condition?
  10. Do you need more alcohol to achieve the same effects as tolerance builds?
  11. Do you get withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off?

Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed according to the number of symptoms present as follows: 

  • Mild AUD: 2 or 3 symptoms
  • Moderate AUD: 4 or 5 symptoms
  • Severe AUD: 6 or more symptoms
california beach representing alcohol relapse detox at california detox center.

Treatment for a Problem Drinker at California Detox

At California Detox, we provide evidence-based treatment for alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder. 

At our luxury Laguna Beach rehab, you can first take advantage of a supervised detox. With medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings and around-the-clock clinical care, a medical detox is the safest and most comfortable approach to alcohol withdrawal. 

Once the toxins are purged from your system – this will take a week or so – you will be ready to engage with ongoing treatment at all levels of intensity: 

  • Inpatient treatment (residential rehab)
  • OP (traditional outpatient program)
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program)
  • Virtual IOP (remote rehab)
  • PHP (partial hospitalization program)

If you have alcoholism and a co-occurring mental health condition like PTSD or depression, we offer integrated dual diagnosis treatment programs at California Detox. 

Alcohol use disorder responds positively to medication-assisted treatment. Your treatment team may administer FDA-approved medications, both during detox and throughout ongoing treatment. In addition to MAT, you can also access these interventions and services: 

  • Group counseling
  • Individual counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Psychotherapy (CBT and DBT)
  • Holistic therapies

If you initiate your recovery from alcohol addiction or problem drinking here at California Detox, you can create a firm and lasting foundation for sustained sobriety. Take the first vital step by reaching out for immediate assistance at 844.427.6002.


A problem drinker is a non-clinical term for any pattern of alcohol consumption that triggers negative outcomes. Binge drinking and heavy drinking are both considered problem drinkers, although not all problem drinkers engage in those patterns of alcohol abuse.
No. Problem drinking is otherwise known as alcohol misuse or alcohol abuse. Problem drinking is associated with adverse outcomes, but it is not the same as alcoholism. Alcoholism is the informal descriptor for alcohol use disorder, a chronic and relapsing brain disease. Central to alcoholism is the compulsive desire to drink despite negative consequences.


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