Functioning Alcoholics: Signs, Risks, & Getting Help
Functioning alcoholic is a term used to refer to a person who is dependent upon alcohol but can still function in everyday society.1 You may hear the term in the media or in everyday life—it’s important to know that this is a colloquial term, not a formal diagnosis.
What most people picture when they think of someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic is very different than what they picture when they think of someone with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Although it may not seem as severe or visibly damaging as a severe AUD, functioning alcoholism is still associated with a host of risks and dangers.1
What Is a Functioning Alcoholic?
A functioning alcoholic refers to someone who has a negative relationship with alcohol, in that they are an alcoholic but can still carry out their daily duties and responsibilities.2 Someone who may be a high-functioning alcoholic is able to manage many aspects of their life, despite possibly having an AUD.2
This person may be able to hold down a job, take care of their family, and keep their affairs in order, but they may be drinking heavily—often in secret.2 AUD is a spectrum, and functioning alcoholism tends to fall on the milder end of this spectrum or earlier stages of alcohol addiction, regardless of the dangers it poses to someone’s health, relationships, and responsibilities.
Because functioning alcoholism is considered more mild, it can be difficult to recognize. Many people are in denial because they are still functional and responsible. Some people may overlook their drinking problem or the problem of their loved one because the person is successful in maintaining their everyday lives. Many who are living with functioning alcoholism may be good hiding their drinking.
There is a study that estimates that about 20% of people who have been diagnosed with an AUD come across as highly functioning people who have found success in education and employment.5 Additional research has found that between 50-75% of those diagnosed with an AUD function at a high level in multiple areas of their lives.5
Functioning Alcoholic Tolerance
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking is considered drinking more than 4 drinks per day for a man and more than 3 drinks per day for a woman.6
A functioning alcoholic may be someone who has high alcohol tolerance, which means they can drink large amounts of alcohol and still function relatively normally.3 At its core, alcohol tolerance refers to how your brain has adapted to having alcohol in your body, causing you to experience less of the effects of alcohol over time.3 Someone with a high alcohol tolerance, which could include a high-functioning alcoholic, may not seem or feel as impaired as another similar individual with the same blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
Having a high tolerance to alcohol may be a sign of having an AUD.3 Many people could be in denial that they have a problematic relationship with alcohol or are high-functioning alcoholics, which makes it hard to track just how many are affected by this type of AUD in the United States.
Am I a Functioning Alcoholic? Is My Loved One?
Determining if you are or a loved one is a functioning alcoholic can be difficult, especially because it’s not a formal medical diagnosis so the signs of a high-functioning alcoholic are not set in stone. To further complicate the situation, a functioning alcoholic may drink in hiding or be in denial about their situation.
Some potential signs of a functioning alcoholic can include:2
- Consuming more alcohol over time.
- Having cravings or strong urges to drink.
- Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you go too long without drinking.
- Continuing to drink despite it causing issues with relationships or being able to perform daily duties at home or work.
- Having an increased tolerance to alcohol (e.g., drinking more to feel the same effects).
- Forgetting things that you’ve done while you’re drinking.
- Hiding your alcohol consumption from friends and family.
- Taking a step back from activities that used to be important.
- Failing to cut back or cease drinking.
- Drinking alcohol and partaking in dangerous situations, like drinking and driving.
- Increasing time spent getting, consuming, and recovering from drinking.
If you’re experiencing 2 or more of the above symptoms of alcohol addiction, you may be a high-functioning alcoholic or may have AUD. Contact a health professional to further evaluate your situation, and take this alcohol addiction self-assessment.
High-functioning alcoholism is a mild form of AUD. Failing to get the help you need for such a condition can lead to it worsening. Regardless, functioning alcoholism presents a host of different risks and dangers if it is not properly addressed and treated.
Dangers & Risk of Functioning Alcoholism
Some high-functioning alcoholics may be able to hide or deny their alcohol use, but the effects of functioning alcoholism can compound and become overwhelming.2 For example, a functioning alcoholic can still face many risks and dangers. While they may seem like they have it together, a functional alcoholic may quickly loss control and put themselves or others at risk.
For example, a functioning alcoholic can still face many dangers such as:2
- Drinking and driving.
- Accident, fall, or injury from intoxication.
- Sexual promiscuity.
- Aggressive behaviors.
- Legal issues (from a DWI or other incident while intoxicated).
- Financial problems.
- Poor performance at school or work.
- Damaged relationships with friends and family from drinking.
There are also a variety of short-term health risks, that, if left unaddressed, can become long-term issues. These include:2
- A weakened immune system.
- Heart disease.
- Liver damage.
Functioning alcoholism can turn into a worsened AUD. What’s more, functional alcoholics, like others with substance use disorders, are at an increased risk of developing a mental illness connected to alcohol use.
Getting Yourself or a Functioning Alcoholic Help
If you are concerned about your loved one, you should think about having an honest conversation with them about their alcohol consumption. Encourage them to discuss the issue with a counselor or their primary care doctor. There may be denial about the issue with their issue with alcohol, and your loved one may use their successful functioning in life as an example of why they don’t have a problem.
If they haven’t experienced consequences from their alcohol use, you can remind them that negative consequences aren’t the only criteria for identifying alcohol misuse. They can still be negatively affected even as they function well in their lives.
It is important to address the problem as soon as possible because an AUD can be progressive. Early intervention may also help avoid long-term health damage or other issues, including relationship or legal trouble.
If you are worried about yourself or a loved one and are wondering how to help a functioning alcoholic, it’s crucial to get support and assistance. Treatment for alcohol abuse doesn’t need to wait until after a serious incident or problem arises. Keep in mind, if you’re concerned about a loved one, a functioning alcoholic may be in denial, so it can be difficult to get them help if they don’t think they need it.
Treatment for high-functioning alcoholism may vary based on your unique situation. However, because it tends to be considered as a less severe AUD, seeking out an outpatient option for care may be a good choice. An outpatient program involves a patient receiving care at a facility once or twice a week but requires no overnight stay.4 Use the addiction treatment center directory to find a program near you.
Find Out if Your Insurance Plan Covers Alcohol Addiction Rehab
American Addiction Centers can people who are struggling with alcohol misuse and AUD. To find out if your insurance covers alcohol addiction treatment at an American Addiction Centers facility, click here or fill out the form below. Your information is kept 100% confidential.