Alcoholism is the most serious form of problem drinking, and describes a strong, often uncontrollable, desire to drink. Sufferers of alcoholism will often place drinking above all other obligations, including work and family, and may build up a physical tolerance or experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop.
Alcoholism is sometimes known as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence. It’s slightly different to ‘harmful drinking’ which is an occasional pattern of drinking which can cause damage your health.
An example of harmful drinking is drinking too much at a party, and risking a fall or argument. This pattern may develop into alcoholism if that kind of harmful drinking becomes a habit and happens on a regular basis.
It can be tricky to spot the signs of alcoholism as alcoholics can be secretive about it and can become angry if confronted.
However, if someone close to you is showing any of the following signs, it may be that they’re suffering from alcoholism:
- A lack of interest in previously normal activities
- Appearing intoxicated more regularly
- Needing to drink more in order to achieve the same effects
- Appearing tired, unwell or irritable
- An inability to say no to alcohol
- Anxiety, depression or other mental health problems
- Becoming secretive or dishonest
If you think you may be drinking too much, or that your drinking is beginning to have a damaging effect on your life, taking our alcohol self-assessment can help you understand if there is cause for concern.
In many cases, the first step of treating alcoholism is acknowledging there is a problem. As with many health problems the second step is to seek help from a healthcare professional, like your local GP who can refer you to a specialist.
Or, use the mutual help groups: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is widely available, free and there is no waiting list: just phone their helpline (0800 9177 650), turn up and watch how they help each other.
A doctor will diagnose alcoholism when three or more of the following have been present together in the past year (1):
- An overwhelming desire to drink
- An inability to stop or to control harmful drinking
- Withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking
- Evidence of alcohol tolerance
- Pursuing the consumption of alcohol to the exclusion of alternative pleasures
- Continuing to drink despite clear evidence of harmful consequences
There are different treatments available for people diagnosed with alcoholism but a key stage of treatment is detoxification.
Detox involves stopping drinking completely so that the body can adjust to being without alcohol. During this time, a person may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Ongoing treatment generally falls into one of three main camps:
Psychological and psychosocial treatments can involve counselling to help you understand and change your attitude towards drinking.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can also be offered to help change negative thought patterns which lead to drinking.
Mutual help such as AA help partly because of the new network of support a person gains and also because people adjust their thinking and their attitudes to themselves and others.
Pharmacological treatments (i.e. medications) can also have a role in preventing relapse for some people who are trying to abstain, or trying to reduce their drinking.
If someone close to you is displaying signs of alcohol addiction, it can be difficult to know what to do. You might feel worried about them, frustrated that they don’t seem to want help or frightened for them or even by them (2). All of these feelings are normal and there is help out there both for alcoholics and those caring for them.
Talk honestly with your loved one about their drinking, and try to persuade them to see a doctor. It can be very difficult for alcoholics to admit they have a problem but being supportive, open and non-judgemental can make them feel safe.
If you accompany someone to an appointment, try to get a simple explanation for the person in simple language about the illness, the long-term effects and the options for recovery. Ask how you can best support the person; perhaps request an out of hours emergency telephone number – that may make you feel safer.
You can find more practical advice on our “Concerned about someone’s drinking?” page.
(1) Alcohol Learning Centre. Specialist Treatment. Available at:
(2) Royal College of Psychiatrists, Alcohol, drugs and addiction. Available at: