Social Drinking vs. Problem Drinking, Alcohol Addiction, and Alcohol Use Disorder
Sep 25, 2022
In This Article
Humans have drunk alcohol for thousands of years. It is so ingrained in our culture that it’s considered a normal part of everyday life. Drinking is a part of social gatherings, celebrations, ceremonies, and more.
Millions of people enjoy casual drinking because it can make them feel more relaxed and sociable and less anxious. Public health officials agree that alcohol can be a part of an overall healthy lifestyle — if drinking is kept to a moderate level. (1)
Many people consider themselves “social drinkers” or “occasional drinkers” and enjoy casual drinking, yet wonder whether their drinking habits could be a problem.
Many people consider a social drinker as someone who drinks at parties and other social situations. In fact, that’s the definition you’ll find in Merriam-Webster. (2)
This definition is helpful as a starting point, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how much alcohol a person is actually drinking.
If someone goes to parties nearly every day, they may be consuming a lot more alcohol than is healthy despite meeting the dictionary definition of a social drinker.
Regardless of the circumstances in which alcohol is consumed (i.e., at a party or solo), in the United States drinking is considered a part of a healthy lifestyle when it’s done in moderation.
The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture’s “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025” defines moderate drinking as follows:
- Men: 2 standard drinks or fewer per day
- Women: 1 standard drink or fewer per day
In the United States, a standard drink (3) is defined as:
- 12 ounces of a regular beer that’s approximately 5% alcohol by volume
- 5 ounces of wine that’s about 12% alcohol by volume
- 1.5 ounces of a distilled spirit that’s about 40% alcohol by volume
According to a survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by American Addiction Centers (4), people consume the most alcohol at:
- Bachelor and bachelorette parties
- A night out with friends
- Wedding receptions
- A night out with co-workers
- Family gatherings
- Office parties
- Date nights
People tend to drink alcohol on these occasions, and in other social situations, both as a means of celebrating with others and as a way to relax and fit in during potentially stressful or uncomfortable situations.
These are all self-designations, not medical terms, so they’re open to broad interpretation.
But in general, people who refer to themselves with these terms are really talking about one thing: They usually only drink alcohol when they're in social situations.
The amount of alcohol they consume can vary widely, though.
For example, if someone calls themselves a moderate drinker and is sticking to the accepted public health definition of moderate drinking, they will not consume more than 2 drinks per day if they are an adult male, and not more than 1 drink per day if they’re an adult female.
If you’re having trouble stopping or controlling your alcohol use despite any negative consequences from drinking, you may have a problem with alcohol.
In fact, this is the definition of alcohol use disorder (AUD).
AUD is a medical condition. Depending on the number of symptoms present, it can be diagnosed as mild, moderate, or severe. (5)
In the U.S., the historical terms “alcoholism” and “alcoholic” are no longer used as an official diagnosis. (6)
Defining alcohol misuse varies between health organizations, but not by much. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offer the following guidelines on problem drinking levels:
|Problem||NIAAA Definition for Males||NIAAA Definition for Females||SAMHSA Definition for Males||SAMHSA Definition for Females|
|Binge drinking (7)||5 or more drinks in about 2 hours||4 or more drinks in about 2 hours||5 or more drinks on the same occasion or within a couple of hours of each other on at least 1 day in the past month||4 or more drinks on the same occasion or within a couple of hours of each other on at least 1 day in the past month|
|Heavy drinking (8)||More than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week||More than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week||Binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month||Binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month|
Maybe you are concerned that your drinking is becoming a problem, or maybe someone close to you has shown concern about your drinking. If that is the case, you are not alone. Many people experience alcohol issues.
To help you figure out whether your drinking habits are becoming unhealthy, consider if any of the following symptoms of alcohol use disorder (9) apply to you:
- You’re unable to stop drinking at a point when you think you should stop.
- You choose drinking over responsibilities or obligations in your life.
- You have strong cravings for alcohol.
- You’ve blacked out from drinking.
- You’ve engaged in potentially harmful activities (e.g., drunk driving, unprotected sex, swimming, fighting) while impaired from drinking.
- You have tried to quit but were unsuccessful.
- You’re frequently sick as a result of drinking or getting over the aftereffects of too much alcohol.
- You have to drink much more than you once did to get the desired effect. Or your usual number of drinks has much less effect than it used to.
- You’re stuck in a pattern of regularly stopping drinking for a while and then restarting.
- You continue to drink despite it causing difficulties with friends and family.
- You’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, malaise, or a seizure.
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Yes, it is possible for some people diagnosed with AUD to cut down their drinking to a healthier level. Medication such as naltrexone can help people limit or stop drinking. Others may need to practice abstinence from alcohol. Medication can help these people as well.
No. If you can control and stop your drinking, and alcohol is not causing any negative consequences, moderate drinking is considered a part of a healthy lifestyle. There are a few telltale signs that you might need to adjust your approach to social drinking to semi or full sobriety.
No, because getting drunk often involves heavy drinking or binge drinking. If you regularly drink more than the definition of moderate drinking — 2 drinks per day for men, 1 drink per day for women — it’s a sign you may have a problem with alcohol.
Occasional, moderate, or casual drinking is defined as 14 or fewer drinks a week for men, and 7 or fewer drinks per week for women.
Recreational drinking and social drinking are common terms people use to refer to drinking to have fun.
Yes. No matter what form of alcohol you drink, if you have trouble cutting down or stopping and your drinking has negative consequences in your life, you likely have a problem with alcohol.
Read more articles about Consequences Of Alcohol Use
About The Author
Ian Landau is a journalist who's written extensively about health and wellness since 2010. He is also the author of The Hypochondriac's Handbook (Skyhorse, 2010).