What Are the Criteria for Alcoholism?

May 7, 2015

A man drinking alcohol

Millions of Americans drink alcohol each year. SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that in 2012, approximately 135.5 million Americans ages 12 and over, or 50 percent of that population, were current alcohol drinkers. But not everyone who drinks alcohol develops an abuse or dependence problem.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell what qualifies as alcohol abuse or dependency, so it’s helpful to know exactly what the criteria for these disorders are.


A graphic from the SMAHSA in 2012 about the amount of alcohol drinkersAlcoholism is the term that has traditionally been used to describe a condition in which a person has a severe addiction to alcohol, as well as complications that often result from alcohol addiction.

The Mayo Clinic defines alcoholism as “a chronic and often progressive disease” that is often manifested in the following symptoms:

  • Development of physical dependence
  • Difficulty managing one’s level of alcohol intake
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when ending alcohol consumption
  • Preoccupation with alcohol

Individuals suffering from alcoholism will also continue to use of alcohol despite the many negative consequences they may be experiencing in their lives.


The American Psychiatric Association (AMA) uses slightly different terminology and definitions for disorders related to alcohol. The fourth edition of the AMA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) distinguishes between two types of alcohol-related issues: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.


The DSM-IV describes a person struggling with alcohol abuse as displaying the following characteristics:

  • Consuming alcohol in dangerous situations
  • Continued consumption of alcohol that results in difficulty or inability to successfully engage in responsibilities at school, work or home
  • Development of difficulties with family members and friends as a result of the alcohol consumption


The DSM-IV defines a person with alcohol dependence as exhibiting several specific symptoms, including:

  • Being unable to control the amount of alcohol that is consumed and the length of time that drinking occurs
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms whenever alcohol consumption ends
  • Extreme changes in daily habits because of the effects of drinking
  • Failing at attempts to control drinking
  • Needing to consume increasingly larger amounts of alcohol in order to become intoxicated

As the manual explains, the latest edition of the AMA’s manual, the DSM-5, has combined the two definitions into one, now called “alcohol use disorders.”

These disorders are then subdivided into mild, moderate or severe categories, which are distinguished as follows:

  • Mild: the person exhibits two or three of any of the above-listed symptoms
  • Moderate: the person has four or five symptoms
  • Severe: the person has six or more symptoms

Regardless of the official terminology used to describe it, when drinking interferes with the daily functions of one’s life, he or she likely has some form of alcohol abuse problem.


When a person discovers that she has an alcohol use disorder, she may wonder how exactly the disorder developed.

The causes of these disorders are often complex and multifaceted, but the National Institutes of Health lists the following common factors that can lead to an alcohol abuse disorder:
  • Dealing with high levels of stress
  • Exhibiting low self-esteem
  • Experiencing peer pressure to consume alcohol, especially as a young person
  • Having easy access to alcohol
  • Struggling with interpersonal relationships
  • Suffering from another mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety

A person who has an alcohol use disorder may feel like her life is out of control and that no one is able to help her. She may also deny that a problem exists at all and try to control the condition on her own. But seeking out professional help with alcohol use disorders is the best way for a person to receive treatment and learn how to successfully manage her condition.

It can be scary to admit to having an alcohol use disorder, but doing so takes away the power from the disorder and gives it back to the person struggling with it.


If you have found yourself struggling with an alcohol use disorder, or if you are unsure about whether your drinking patterns might signal a problem, we are here to help. Give us a call at 844-660-5880 to talk with one of our admissions coordinators about your treatment options.

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