What is the Definition of Alcoholic?

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Arzt| Last Edited : February 02, 
| 4 Sources

Defining alcoholism and what makes an alcoholic an alcoholic, is not easy

"Is there a definitive definition of alcoholism?"

"Is there one definition of alcoholic?" Now these are a couple of questions that have occupied those working in the medical field for a very long time.

In the past the alcoholism definition was...

"....to be in a state of constant intoxication with total disregard for the negative consequences."

Alcoholism was also seen as an alcohol allergy and there were great efforts made to find an alcoholism cure.

Today the focus is more on alcoholism as a disease, the relationship between alcoholism and genetics, identifying the stages of alcoholism and the causes of alcoholism.

Alcoholism is on the rise in both the United States and the U.K. (as borne out by these alcohol abuse statistics), this makes the search for a universally acceptable and agreed upon alcoholism definition all the more urgent.

Although there are many varying defintions of alcoholism three aspects of the condition are generally agreed upon


alcoholism definitionPhoto by Kat Jayne
  • ...has four characteristics that manifest themselves in the alcoholic
  • ...is not a sign that somebody has weakness of character
  • ...is not necessarily the same as problem drinking, alcohol abuse, heavy drinking or binge drinking.

Alcoholism Definition
The Four Characteristics

An alcoholic will display at least two of the four characteristics of alcoholism listed below:

    Craving doesn’t mean wanting something. It means feeling like you need something. Typically the alcoholic obsesses about alcohol from morning till night. Hardly is one drink started when they start to think about the next. It is similar to being in the first flush of love. Being without that person is unbearable. Everything will be okay if you can just be with them. And so it is with the alcoholic. They are in love with alcohol. Deeply, passionately, blindly. Even if it destroys everything else that they love.
    The alcoholic is unable to have one drink or two, or three and stop. Once the first drink passes his/her lips it is all over. Control is handed over to the drink. The dependent drinker also loses control of their life. As the drinking gets worse so does the alcoholic’s ability to do even the most basic things. Paying bills, keeping appointments, personal hygiene all fall by the wayside as eventually does the alcoholic.
    The drinker, or I should say his body, has to have alcohol. If he doesn’t then physical withdrawal symptoms can begin to surface within 12-24 hours of the last drink. These can be VERY nasty. Such symptoms include nausea, shakiness, the sweats, hallucinations (rats crawling out of stomach are a common one), and anxiety. These symptoms are known as Delirium Tremens and can kill you. Delirium Tremens is colloquially known as the DTs, "the shakes", "the horrors", "the heebie geebies", "the fear", "the abdabs", "the staggers and jags" and "the jimjams”. Such names give an insight into the nature of alcohol withdrawal. It is essential that you consult a medical professional before detoxing from alcohol.
    As alcoholism progresses the drinker will need more and more alcohol to get the same ‘buzz’ as before. Of course the more alcohol consumed the more damage done to the body. It is not unknown for chronic alcoholics to drink two bottles of vodka and remain sober so far advanced is the disease.
There are, of course, different types of alcoholism.

Despite these common traits, no one alcoholic is the same as another. An important fact to remember. The stereotypical alcohol addict exists only in the mind. Anyone and everyone can become alcoholic.

If you or someone close to you thinks they meet the alcoholism definition, and want help and advice on quitting drinking then take a look at the following pages:

Alcoholism Definition
A Weakness of Character?

A sizable minority view the person suffering from alcoholism as weak and degenerate. In other words....the causes of the alcoholism are the faults of the alcoholic.

These people might give define an alcoholic as a weak person, someone somehow defective and different to others.

This definition seems untrue and unfair in my opinion. But have a look around the site and you decide on a suitable alcoholism definition. Only the alcoholic can truly decide that they are alcoholic (does that make any sense?).

In fact, alcoholism as a term is not used by everybody. It has gained such negative connotations (i.e. alcoholism is seen as a result of a defective character), that many professionals in the field now prefer to use the term alcohol dependent.

Alcoholism Definition
Heavy Drinking vs. Alcoholism

One way defining alcoholism is to look at what types of drinking are NOT alcoholic.

There are many ways of describing drinking habits. Some may lead to alcoholism, some definitely do not (check out this page for the ten warning signs of alcoholism)

Listed below are the most common ways of describing drinking habits:

  • MODERATE DRINKING: This is drinking without damaging your health. In fact alcohol has been shown to be beneficial to your health as long as it is not abused.
  • HEAVY DRINKING: This is drinking too much (according to moderate drinking guidelines) and too often. However, although it is bad for you, it may not be alcoholism because it might not include the four characteristics above. For example a heavy drinker may be able to have one drink on occasions and stop or they might go for long periods without drinking. But it is dangerous and not advised. Also it mean that the drinker is displaying the first signs of alcoholism. Full-blown alcoholism might be just around the corner.
  • BINGE DRINKING: This is drinking too much in one session. Officially it means having five or more drinks in one session, although it can refer to any period of getting fully drunk. It also can mean drinking to get drunk. It is very common among teenagers and young people. The U.K. has a particular problem with this according to alcoholism statistics. Go into any town center on a Friday and Saturday night and see the carnage. Despite the dangers of binge drinking it is not officially classed as alcoholism.
  • PROBLEM DRINKING: This is drinking that indicates the drinker might have a problem with alcohol. They could be an alcoholic, a binge drinker, a heavy drinker etc. They are certainly in danger of becoming an alcoholic-if not already.
  • ALCOHOL ABUSE: This is drinking to the point where it causes physical, social or moral harm. It includes all terms above except for the first. Once again it could be alcoholism or not. It’s important to be assessed by a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis. 
It is important to note that the definitions above are not black and white and can overlap.

All of these 'styles' of drinking can lead to alcoholism (including moderate drinking), all, except for the first, have adverse effects on your health and relationships with family and friends.

If you found this page helpful, then the following may be of interest to you:

Win Against Alcoholism Today

If you are ready to quit alcohol, it is time to receive the help you need. Take the initial step to recovery by reaching out to a dedicated treatment provider for assistance today.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


Alcohol dependence and withdrawal provided from Drinkaware: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-dependence

Tolerance, Dependence, Addiction: What’s the Difference? Provided from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: https://archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/

Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits provided from Harvard School of Public Health  https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/.  

Binge Drinking provided from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

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