Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a serious condition that involves excessive and uncontrolled consumption of alcohol. Some people drink to the point of becoming drunk and out of control, while others can drink the same amount and function normally. When a person is addicted to alcohol but appears to be in full control of their everyday lives, they’re called a functioning alcoholic or high-functioning alcoholic.
In the United States, 32 million – or one in seven people – is thought to have AUD. Meanwhile, 19.5% of U.S. alcoholics fall under the “functional” subtype and are generally middle-aged, educated people with families and careers, but have a history of alcoholism somewhere in their family lineage. This may not seem like your typical alcoholic, but this type of alcoholism is quite prevalent and can start early in life through binge drinking.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six adults will binge drink approximately four times per month and consume about seven alcoholic beverages per binge. Binge drinking is common in social settings like college, clubs, and bars with drinkers ranging from 18-34 years old.
Alcohol abuse can be influenced by social drinking, so it’s important to get help the moment you feel your social drinking is turning into a larger problem. If you notice yourself developing intense cravings for alcohol, it may be time to explore professional treatment.
Read on for more tips and signs of functioning alcoholism.
Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
Alcoholism can be very serious, and one of the main concerns about functioning alcoholics is that because their addiction doesn’t typically get in the way of them being successful, loved ones may not realize the severity of the problem, therefore delaying intervention.
In any case, people with an alcohol problem typically develop both a physical and mental dependence that can become debilitating over time. Depending on how long and how much a person has been drinking will impact the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system.
As a drinking problem persists, the brain starts to compensate for heightened levels of alcohol. In response, the body begins to work overtime to keep the brain functioning and alert.
Have you’ve asked yourself How do I know if I’m an alcoholic? or Is my loved one an alcoholic? Signs of alcoholism can look like the following:
1. Experiencing Temporary Blackouts
Binge drinking can easily lead to a blackout. A partial blackout is when certain cues can help a person recall memories. A complete blackout occurs when a person’s memory loss is permanent, and they can’t remember anything that happened prior to blacking out.
Blackouts typically happen when a person is binge drinking and their blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches the dangerously high levels of 0.20-0.29%.
2. Mood Swings
Alcoholism can elicit a wide range of behavioral effects. One moment an alcoholic can be happy, social, and the life of the party, and the next, angry, confrontational, and belligerent.
This symptom of alcohol abuse can be particularly draining for those around the person drinking, as the alcoholic can act impulsively and without reason. Additionally, alcoholics can engage in dangerous behaviors like unprotected sex, drunk driving, and other activities that put both themselves and others at risk.
3. Loss of Motor Skills
Alcohol acts as a depressant on the body’s central nervous system, so when someone is drunk, they might experience loss of muscle control, slurred speech, slower reaction times, and impaired vision.
4. Increased Tolerance
The more and longer a person drinks, the higher their tolerance for alcohol becomes. This happens because the body becomes less sensitive over time to the effects of alcohol, so more is needed to get the same response.
Increased tolerance to alcohol can present a gamut of problems like organ damage, increase the side effects of prescription drugs, and affect a person’s performance at work and home.
5. Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms with Decreased Use
A sudden drop in alcohol levels will cause withdrawal symptoms, and these symptoms can be much more dangerous than withdrawal from other substances. Mild withdrawal symptoms can appear as early as six hours after the last drink, while more serious symptoms can appear as early as 12-72 hours after the last drink and pose serious health risks. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can look like the following:
Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms:
- Shakes (not to be confused with delirium tremens)
- Mood swings (irritable, depressed, anxious)
- Dilated pupils
- Trouble sleeping
Serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms:
- Delirium tremens (DTs)
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Profuse sweating
- Extreme mood swings
6. Making Excuses to Drink
Alcoholism can make people resort to extreme measures to downplay or hide the problem altogether. A lot of times an alcoholic will make up excuses for their drinking. It’s common to hear someone say they need to drink to feel relaxed, help with pain or depression, or help them feel more comfortable in social settings.
It’s also common for an alcoholic to make their problem seem not as serious. Loved ones may hear from an alcoholic family member that they don’t drink all day long, can stop whenever they want to, have a good job and thriving household, are a good parent, etc.
Allowing excuses will not help an alcoholic get better, so it’s imperative to be able to identify such behavior and know when it’s time to seek professional help.
7. Changes in Appearance
Alcoholism can do a number on a person’s body over time. It depletes the body of vital nutrients and minerals, dehydrates organs (including the skin), and is packed with empty calories.
Alcoholics may start noticing changes in their appearance as drinking progresses such as wrinkles on the face, bloodshot eyes (alcohol dilates blood vessels), reddish skin, weight gain or loss, bloating, hair loss, and more.
Side effects like these are a clear sign that the body is in distress and it’s time to ask for professional help.
Consequences of Functioning Alcoholism
Living as a functional alcoholic can be difficult and isolating as the person tries to keep up a façade that everything is normal when it’s not. Not only are the consequences of alcoholism serious from a psychosocial standpoint, but also a health standpoint.
Alcohol abuse can result in damage throughout the body, with a particular focus on the liver. Alcohol-related liver damage is caused by drinking too much alcohol and it affects a person in several stages. Typically, symptoms won’t show until the liver has been extremely damaged (this usually depends on how much and for how long a person has been drinking).
The three stages are:
Stage 1: Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease is characterized by a build-up of fats in the liver due to excessive alcohol consumption. It typically doesn’t present any symptoms; however, some patients find out they have fatty liver disease through routine bloodwork. This can be reversed if drinking stops for several weeks, allowing the liver to return to normal.
Stage 2: Alcoholic Hepatitis
Alcoholic hepatitis is a much more serious condition that results in inflammation of the liver and can be caused by binge drinking. However, alcoholic hepatitis can be reversed if a person commits to stop drinking. In many cases, people are not even aware they have liver damage until they find out that they have alcoholic hepatitis.
Stage 3: Liver Cirrhosis
Liver cirrhosis is characterized by scarring on the liver and decreased liver function. This stage is non-reversible, but alcoholics can prevent further damage by quitting drinking. At this point, if a person with liver cirrhosis does not commit to sobriety it can significantly reduce their life expectancy.
Beyond liver damage, other consequences of functioning alcoholism can be developing alcohol dependence, where a person needs alcohol every day (usually in large quantities) and can’t function without it. As with many addictions, consuming larger quantities of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, a potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical help.
Signs of alcohol poisoning can look like:
- Slurred speech
- Decreased physical coordination
- Irregular breathing patterns
- Decreased body temperature
- Loss of bowels and bladder control
If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call 9-1-1 immediately.
How to Help the High-Functioning Alcoholic
It can be difficult to help a high-functioning alcoholic because it can be tough identifying there is a problem in the first place. Additionally, there just isn’t a lot of research on the suffering of people with functional addictions. This is due in large part to the fact that people with functioning addictions are much less likely to ask for help or treatment.
Since there is a certain level of denial and secrecy with this type of addiction, it’s vital that loved ones stay vigilant. There may come a time when family members need to meet away from the person suffering from alcoholism to discuss intervention, treatment options, and a long-term plan to support the individual with the drinking problem moving forward.
Once a person is ready to receive treatment for alcohol addiction, they must receive comprehensive care starting with medical detox. Unlike many other addictive substances, quitting alcohol cold turkey is not safe and can be deadly.
Individuals who are extremely dependent on alcohol can suffer life-threatening withdrawals as mentioned above, with one of the most dangerous symptoms being delirium tremens (DTs). DTs typically happen within three to five days after a person has stopped drinking.
DTs can cause extreme confusion, seizures, and cardiac symptoms like tachycardia and hypertension. This is the most serious symptom of alcohol withdrawal and cannot be taken lightly. Professional drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers have medical professionals that can help families every step of the way.
Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction in Florida
If you’ve been asking yourself What is a functioning alcoholic? we hope you have some clear answers now. Please know if you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol use disorder you are not alone.
At AION Health Group, we provide patients suffering from alcoholism with a comprehensive approach to addiction recovery through a wide variety of alcohol treatment programs at three, Florida-based treatment facilities.
*Abstinence-based recovery means patients will not receive medical comfort while detoxing