Many of us may have laughed at the old joke, “I’m not so think as you drunk I am,” but knowing when to stop and recognizing when there is a problem is a serious topic. Excessive alcohol use ranks third in lifestyle-related causes of death in America. High-risk or problem drinking has harmful repercussions that can hurt not only the consumer, but also those around them.

As the intake nurse at the St. John Outpatient Behavioral Health Services in Tulsa, Jo Ann Flournoy, RN-BC, has seen this problem firsthand and believes that awareness and education are key to becoming responsible consumers. “It’s important to catch something before it turns into problem drinking. Awareness is the number one key to prevention,” explains Flournoy. The risk factors for developing alcoholism include the “steady” drinking amount, age, family history and mental health. It’s important to note that it’s also possible to have a problem with alcohol even though it has not developed into alcoholism. Allan Gates, manager of the Intensive Outpatient Program at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital, suggests assessing your risk by asking yourself  a few questions: Do you understand your reasons for drinking alcohol? Is it to get drunk, be social, fit in with others? Do you over-drink when you don’t mean to? “If you do, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” shares Gates. Does anyone in your family have alcoholism? “If so, it is a red flag for you.” 

By The Numbers

The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism terms “heavy” or at-risk drinking for a man as more than four drinks per day or more than 14 drinks a week, and for a woman as three drinks a day or seven drinks in a week. To remain below these amounts is considered low-risk drinking. A “drink,” according to official standards is defined as one 12-ounce beer, five to six ounces of wine or one-and-a-half ounces of 80-proof liquor.

“From what I’ve seen, even these amounts are probably a bit too lenient,” says Flournoy, who encourages people to consider lowering that amount. “Many times we’ll hear, ‘I’ve switched to beer,’ but you can be drinking beer and still have a problem,” she adds. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people keep their alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one for women.

Problem Drinking

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that becomes harmful to one’s health, relationships, work and many times results in legal woes such as receiving a DUI. If left unchecked, this behavior can lead to increasing the amounts of “steady drinking” to get the same effect, which most often ends in chemical dependency. While drinking alcohol is common at many social gatherings, it’s crucial to be aware of your consumption. “By definition, it is no longer social drinking when alcohol causes a problem in any area of your life,” says Gates.

Symptoms such as drinking alone, making excuses to drink, the inability to stop, neglecting to eat, as well as experiencing shakes in the morning or after long periods without drinking are telltale signs that there is a problem. For teens, it’s important to look for changes in relationships, declining grades, mood changes and defensive behavior. Experts agree that setting a good example and talking openly with children about expectations can make a big difference. Gates points out that you need to know what the role model is in your family for how to use alcohol successfully. Self-medicating plays a big role in alcohol abuse. It’s important to catch the signs, such as using alcohol to mitigate social situations or anxieties, fix depression or alleviate work pressures. Beyond the mental, there is also a physical toll. “Alcohol is truly an equal opportunity employer,” says Flournoy. “It affects the entire body.” From the brain to the immune system and even reproductive system, all areas of the body are severely harmed by abuse. Those who aren’t abusing alcohol do need to be aware of how their consumption affects medication and other conditions they have. Education and awareness are critical to being responsible.

Getting Help

If you are concerned about your risk or find yourself unable to limit drinking, it’s important to contact a primary care physician or health care provider. They can direct you to the next step, whether that is a full-care detox program or a mental health professional. There are also private hotlines, such as the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment referral, as well as support groups.

In cases where it is a loved one that you are concerned about, experts suggest voicing your concerns. “Many times, people are unaware of how much it affects them. Let them know in a non-confrontational way that you care about them and that you are becoming concerned,” says Flournoy. Gates recommends also getting a professional alcoholism counselor to do an assessment. There are interventions and therapists that can help guide you to your next step.

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