Alcohol misuse

Defining a drink problem

There are three main types of alcohol misuse – hazardous, harmful and dependent drinking. This is determined by the amount of alcohol consumed.

Hazardous drinking

Hazardous drinking is defined as when a person drinks over the recommended weekly limit of alcohol (21 units for men and 14 units for women).

It is also possible to drink hazardously by binge drinking, even if you are within your weekly limit. Binge drinking involves drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short space of time – eight units in a day for men and six units in a day for women.

If you are drinking hazardously, you may not yet have any health problems related to alcohol, but you are increasing your risk of experiencing problems in the future.

Hazardous drinking, particularly binge drinking, also carries additional risks such as:

  • being involved in an accident
  • becoming involved in an argument or fight
  • taking part in risky or illegal behaviour when drunk, such as drink-driving

Harmful drinking

Harmful drinking is defined as when a person drinks over the recommended weekly amount of alcohol and experiences health problems that are directly related to alcohol.

In some cases, there may be obvious problems such as:

Many of the health problems that occur as a result of harmful drinking do not cause any symptoms until they reach their most serious stages. These include:

This means it can be easy to underestimate the levels of physical damage that is caused by harmful drinking. Harmful drinking can also cause related social problems, such as difficulties with your partner or spouse, family and friends or at work or college.

Dependent drinking

Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive. It is possible to become dependent on it.

Being dependent on alcohol means that a person feels that they are unable to function without alcohol, and the consumption of alcohol becomes an important, or sometimes the most important, factor in their life.

Depending on their level of dependence, a person can experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms can be both physical and psychological.

Physical withdrawal symptoms include:

  • hand tremors ("the shakes")
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • visual hallucinations (seeing things that are not actually real)
  • seizures (fits) in the most serious cases

Psychological withdrawal symptoms include:

  • depression
  • anxiety 
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • insomnia (difficulty sleeping)

Severely dependent drinkers usually experience severe withdrawal symptoms. They often fall into a pattern of "relief drinking", where they drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Severely dependent drinkers are often able to tolerate very high levels of alcohol, and they are able to drink amounts that would incapacitate, or even kill, most other people.

Read more about the risks of alcohol misuse.

Last updated: 24 June 2013

Continue to next section: Diagnosing alcohol misuse