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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.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.

Functioning Alcoholic Tolerance

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?

Determining if you are or a loved one is a functioning alcoholic can be difficult, especially because it’s not a formal medical diagnosis. 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 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, 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.

Some short-term risks may include:2

  • Increased risky behaviors like drinking and driving, sexual promiscuity, and aggression.
  • Legal issues.
  • Financial problems.
  • Poor performance at school or work.
  • Unemployment.
  • Damaged relationships with friends and family.

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.
  • Hypertension.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart disease.
  • Cirrhosis.
  • Cancers.

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.


Getting a Functioning Alcoholic Help

If you believe you or a loved one may be a functioning alcoholic, it’s crucial to get help. 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.


Sources

  1. MedicalNewsToday. (2022). High functioning alcoholic: what to know.
  2. GoodRx Health. (2021). What is a functioning alcoholic and how does it differ from an alcoholic?
  3. GoodRx Health. (2022). Why is high-functioning alcohol tolerance bad for your health?
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). What is substance abuse treatment? (Original work published 2004).

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