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Social Drinkers, Problem Drinkers and Alcoholics

Learn the differences and warning signs.

When the term "high-functioning alcoholic" is mentioned, various types of drinkers often begin to question their own drinking and worry if they fall into this category. Part of this confusion is that many individuals are unclear about the differences between social drinkers, problem drinkers, and alcoholics. There is also a lack of awareness of what the true warning signs of alcoholism are.

Social Drinkers

Social drinkers are those individuals who drink in low-risk patterns. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), "low-risk" drinking for females consists of no more than 7 drinks per week and no more than 3 drinks per sitting. For males, it consists of no more than 14 drinks per week and no more than 4 drinks per day.

Problem Drinkers

Problem drinkers display clear differences between their drinking habits and those of alcoholics. In fact, according to the NIAAA, 72 percent of people have a single period of heavy drinking that lasts 3-4 years and peaks at ages 18-24 (typically occurs during the college years) that they phase out of.

When problem drinkers are given sufficient reason to cut back on their drinking (i.e., have a negative drinking consequence, debilitating hangover, become a parent), they can self-correct and return to drinking in a low-risk manner.


In contrast, alcoholics may be given countless reasons to cut back on their drinking but they are unable to permanently cut back. Alcoholics may have occasions where they drink in a low-risk manner, but they inevitably return to their alcoholic drinking patterns.

High-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) in particular tend to minimize their drinking by falsely labeling it as a "problem" or as "heavy" drinking because they often do not believe that they fit the stereotype of the typical alcoholic. However, what defines an alcoholic is a person's relationship to alcohol and not how they appear to the outside world in terms of their personal, professional or academic life.

Warning Signs of Alcoholism

Some of the following alcoholism warning signs are tailored to HFAs but are applicable to all subtypes of alcoholics. They include, but are not limited to:

  1. Inability to control alcohol intake after starting to drink
  2. Obsessing about alcohol (i.e., next time the person can drink, how they are going to get alcohol, who they're going to go out drinking with)
  3. Behaving in ways, while drunk, that are uncharacteristic of their sober personality
  4. Repeating unwanted drinking patterns
  5. Surrounding themselves socially with heavy drinkers
  6. Getting drunk before actually arriving at parties/bars (pre-partying)
  7. An increasing sense of denial that their heavy drinking is a problem because they can succeed professionally and personally
  8. Setting drinking limits (i.e., only having three drinks, only drinking three days per week) and not being able to adhere to them
  9. Driving drunk and, by sheer luck, not getting arrested or involved in an accident
  10. Always having to finish an alcoholic beverage or even another person's unfinished beverage
  11. Using alcohol as a reward
  12. Drinking daily
  13. Living a double life by separating drinking life from professional or home life
  14. Binge drinking (more than five drinks in one sitting)
  15. Having chronic blackouts (memory lapse due to excessive drinking) and not remembering what they did for a portion of their drinking episode
  16. Feeling guilt and shame about their drunken behaviors
  17. Taking breaks from drinking and then increasing alcohol consumption when they resume drinking after a period of time
  18. People have expressed concern about their negative drunken behaviors
  19. Engaging in risky sexual behavior when intoxicated
  20. Not being able to imagine their life without alcohol in it

If individuals display a number of these warning signs, it is important for them to address this issue. Finding someone in their lives that they can be honest with and admit they need help, can assist individuals in beginning this process. In addition, speaking with someone in the mental health or health care field, such as a therapist or social worker (preferably an addiction specialist) and/or medical doctor can help potential alcoholics receive a thorough assessment of their drinking patterns and provide suggestions for appropriate treatment.

There is no harm in at least checking out an abstinence-based program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery®, or Women for Sobriety meetings. Each of these recovery programs has members who are HFAs as well as lower functioning alcoholics. Meetings are held in person as well as online and are typically listed on their websites. It is most important for alcoholics to realize that they are not alone and that millions of sober alcoholics now have fulfilling lives without drinking.

For online alcohol screening tools or alcoholism resources, please visit Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.

More from Sarah A. Benton LMHC, LPC, LCPC, AADC
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