Recognising the difference between social drinking and problem drinking

Recognising the difference between social drinking and problem drinking

Most people find it difficult to identify when ‘normal’ drinking becomes problem drinking. For example, how do you know how often is too often when it comes to how many times a week you go for after-work drinks?

In general, drinking is considered a problem when it starts to adversely affect a person’s personal or professional life, or when they start to lose control over their drinking habits. Drinking will often become an important and sometimes even the most important factor in a person’s life and they are likely to start feeling that they quite simply cannot function without it.

At present, the NHS estimates that approximately 9% of men and 3% of women living in the UK are showing signs of alcohol dependence.  

The different types of drinking problems

People often assume that you only have a problem with drinking if you’re an alcoholic. However, there are many different variations of problem drinking.

Alcohol intoxication – This occurs when drinking large quantities of alcohol leads to inappropriate behaviour and impaired judgement. Whilst it may seem ordinary to many people to get very drunk and laugh about it the next day, this can be classed as problem drinking.

With symptoms including slurred speech, loss of coordination, becoming unsteady on our feet, difficulty paying attention or remembering things, confusion and even coma, alcohol intoxication can have serious consequences.

Problem drinking – Although some people may not fit the criteria for alcohol addiction, they can still be at risk of accidents and problems which may result from drinking too much. Problem drinkers can be moderate, heavy or binge drinkers.

  • Moderate drinkers – Healthy people who drink moderately have a relatively low risk of developing a problem. For women and those over the age of 65, a moderate drinker is classed as someone who has no more than one drink per day. For men it’s no more than two drinks per day. Although this category is defined as ‘low risk’, problems can still occur even after just one drink. Consuming alcohol quickly, whilst on medication or simply having a low tolerance to it can affect your balance, judgment and ability to drive as well as leave you feeling slightly drunk even if it is just the one drink.
  • Heavy drinkers – Those who drink heavily are significantly more at risk of developing problems with alcohol. Women who consume more than seven drinks per week or three drinks per occasion are classed as heavy drinkers and for men it’s more than 14 drinks per week or four drinks per occasion.
  • Binge drinkers – People who only drink once or twice a week often don’t realise that they also have a significant chance of developing a problem with alcohol. Women who consume more than four drinks and men who drink more than five alcoholic beverages during a session are classed as binge drinkers.

Alcohol addiction

Alcohol addiction can be hard to identify because symptoms can range from mild to severe. Those who are addicted to alcohol will typically have two or more of the following symptoms and the more symptoms there are, the more severe the disorder.

  • You regularly end up drinking more or for longer than you intended
  • You wish that you could cut down on your alcohol intake but can’t
  • You spend a lot of time trying to get alcohol, getting drunk or recovering from being drunk
  • You regularly crave alcohol or have a strong desire to drink
  • You can’t fulfil commitments such as going to work or remembering family events
  • You carry on drinking despite the fact that it’s causing problems at work or with friends or your partner
  • You will still drink even if it’s dangerous to do so – for example, you’re driving
  • You need to increase your alcohol intake in order to get the same effect you used to
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop or cut back on drinking. This may include sweating, racing heart, shaking, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, restlessness, anxiety or even seizures.

How much alcohol is it safe to drink?

There are a lot of misconceptions about how much it’s safe to drink and what the current guidelines are. Current government guidelines actually state that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

Another mistaken belief is that men can safely drink more than women. Again, this is incorrect and the government guidelines are the same for both men and women who are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week.

One unit of alcohol is the equivalent to:

  • A single measure of a 37.5% ABV spirit
  • Half a pint of 4% strength lager
  • Just two-thirds of a 125 ml glass of 12% wine

In order to stay within the recommended alcohol limits, this means that you should drink no more than the following in the space of a week:

  • Six 175ml glasses of 13% wine
  • Six pints of 4% lager or ale
  • Five pints of 4.5% cider
  • 14 25ml measures of a 40% spirit

If you think that you or someone you know could have a problem with alcohol, please feel free to visit our Alcohol Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation page for more information about the signs, symptoms and treatments that are available. Alternatively, you can contact us in the strictest of confidence if you would like to speak to someone. 

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