Signs You Drink Too Much and How to Get Help

How much is too much? Here's what it means to be a binge or heavy drinker and what to do about it.

Unrecognizable man pouring red wine in two glasses.
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Enjoying a drink every now and then to socialize, celebrate, or unwind isn't uncommon. Two-thirds of adults in the United States drank alcohol in 2018—and, of those people, 15% reported drinking in moderation, while 5% said they were heavy drinkers.¹

So what's the line between drinking occasionally and drinking too much? And how can you tell if you're erring on the side of excessive alcohol use? Here's what experts say about the definitions of drinking patterns and how alcohol may affect your health.

How Much Is Too Much?

Many of us may not realize whether our typical alcohol intake is moderate, heavy, or somewhere in between. Drinking habits can also ebb and flow throughout the course of our lifetime. For example, women's heavy drinking days (defined as four or more drinks in one sitting) rose by 41% from 2019 to 2020, increasing at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.²

Here's how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define alcohol drinking amounts:³,⁴

  • Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men. This is HHS's recommended daily maximum.
  • Binge drinking means four or more drinks per day for women and five or more drinks per day for men. Note that these numbers refer to drinks consumed during the same time period, like while at a party or out to dinner.
  • Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week for women or 15 plus drinks per week for men.

For these purposes, the federal government defines a "standard drink" as an alcoholic beverage that contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. This generally equates to:⁴

  • A 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer
  • A 5-ounce glass of wine
  • A 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, such as tequila or vodka

When reading these guidelines, keep in mind that alcohol can affect people differently—even when they're drinking the same amounts. The varying effects that alcohol has on a person can depend on several factors, like your age, body, how quickly you consumed it, and the amount of food in your stomach at the time.⁵

And as the CDC points out, biological differences in body type and chemistry can lead to higher intoxication levels in women compared to men.⁶ What's more, some research shows that women face increased health risks linked to excessive alcohol use over time. These potential long-term effects include health problems such as:⁷

Signs You're Drinking Too Much

To get a sense of whether your drinking habits are bordering on risky, consider starting by becoming aware of your patterns around alcohol.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests looking out for certain red flags. For example, signs of excessive drinking might include one or some of the following:⁸,⁹

  • You are drinking more than you planned to
  • Your drinking interferes with your daily activities, obligations, and relationships
  • You continue to drink, even if it affects your mental or physical health
  • Your friends or family members comment about your recent drinking habits
  • You find yourself having to drink more to get the same effect you once did
  • You spend a lot of time drinking, or thinking about alcohol
  • You are not able to limit or stop drinking, even if you try

Drinking excessively (too much) doesn't automatically point to an alcohol use disorder, or AUD, which the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has defined as a chronic disease.¹⁰ In other words, not everyone who binge drinks would meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for AUD—but engaging in those heavy drinking patterns does make it more likely. Only a healthcare provider would be able to make this diagnosis.

When to Seek Help

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing alcohol issues. A good first step is simply recognizing that there might be a drinking issue at play, and doing something about it.

If You Think You Have a Problem

If you're worried that your drinking habits may be problematic, recognize that you're not alone. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) points out that many people across the U.S. find themselves struggling with control over drinking habits at some point in their lifetime.¹²

To take action, speak to a healthcare provider (if accessible to you) to get a medical evaluation. Your provider may recommend medical treatment, if applicable, or refer you to sources who can help support your treatment goals through other methods like professional behavioral counseling or a 12-step program.¹²

In addition, experts at HHS recommend:¹³

  • Recording your habits: Keeping track of how much you drink per day may help you drink less overall.
  • Setting limits: Decide how many days a week you'll drink, keeping in mind that you shouldn't go past one drink per day.
  • Planning ahead: Be prepared to avoid places and situations that trigger you to drink, and practice your responses to social pressure to drink.
  • Finding healthy ways to manage stress: Remember that there are other options besides reaching for a drink when you're having a stressful day, like calling a friend, taking a walk, watching a movie, or indulging in self-care.
  • Keeping temptation to a minimum: If you're someone who regularly drinks at home, try cutting back on the amount of alcohol you keep stored.
  • Remembering your motivation: Think through the reasons why you want to drink less, and look at it often. This might include motivating factors like losing weight or saving money.

And perhaps most importantly, don't do this alone. Lean on friends, family members, or community allies or support sooner rather than later.

If You Think a Loved One Has a Problem

Having a conversation with a loved one about a potential drinking issue isn't easy—but it's important. Remember that you can't force anyone to get help, but you can offer your support and friendship.

It's a good idea to broach this subject carefully and from a place of support during a time when the person is not drinking. This might look something like:¹⁴

  • Expressing your feelings about how the person's drinking affects you
  • Sticking to the facts by referencing specific behaviors, rather than assumptions
  • Explaining your concerns about your loved one's health and wellbeing
  • Staying away from labels like "alcoholic" or another judgmental descriptor
  • Avoiding preaching, lecturing, threatening, or pleading
  • Not using guilt or bribery to try to get the person to stop drinking
  • Offering to accompany the person to see a healthcare provider

Also important in this situation is taking care of yourself. The National Institute on Aging points out that you might seek support through trusted friends and family members, or counseling offered through programs like Al-Anon specifically for people dealing with loved ones' drinking problems.¹⁵

Next Steps

Simply put, drinking too much and too often can harm your health and wellbeing. Whether your drinking typically takes place at home or at the bar, it's a good idea to monitor the amount of alcohol you're consuming on a regular basis and know how much is considered excessive. From there, don't be ashamed or embarrassed to seek support—whether it's confiding in a friend or heading straight to a healthcare provider for professional medical assistance.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

Sources:

  1. Boersma P, Villarroel MA, Vahratian A. Heavy drinking among U.S. adults, 2018. NCHS Data Brief, no 374. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020.
  2. Pollard MS, Tucker JS, Green HD. Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2022942. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and public health: What is a standard drink?.
  5. MedlinePlus. Alcohol.
  6. National Institutes of Health. Why do women face higher risks for alcohol-related consequences?.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and public health: Excessive alcohol use and women's health.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Alcohol use: Facts & resources.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and public health: Frequently asked questions.
  10. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)external icon. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
  11. MedlinePlus. Alcohol use disorder (AUD).
  12. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help.
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  14. MedlinePlus. Helping a loved one with a drinking problem.
  15. National Institute on Aging. How to help someone you know with a drinking problem.
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