When Does Casual Drinking Become a Drinking Problem?

Cocktails after work. A pitcher after classes. Shots on a Friday night. Bloody Mary’s at brunch. Wine with dinner. Punch at a party.

This behavior and consumption of alcohol sounds typical for a college student or young adult, but when does alcohol consumption stop being part of one’s normal social life and turn into a concerning, unhealthy behavior?

Unhealthy alcohol use can be all too common in college students and young adults. The national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Assocoation (SAMHSA) reports that18-21 is the most vulnerable age group for developing long-term alcohol abuse, a phenomenon exacerbated by the fact that the brain is still developing throughout those ages.1   Although, alcohol consumption is part of the college culture, here are some signs that you or someone you know may be turning into a problem drinker:

Binge Drinking

College campuses especially can be places where harmful alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking, is practiced. Binge drinking is classified as consuming more than five drinks for a male in one occasion, and four drinks for a female in the same time period. Drinking for the sole purpose of “getting drunk” can be a sign of a greater problem and can lead to alcohol dependence.

Also, binge drinking, like other unhealthy alcohol consumption practices, can lead to numerous health problems, including internal injuries, decreased neurological functioning and increased likeliness of illness and disease.

Increased Tolerance

As people continue to use alcohol, it will take more of the substance to get the desired effect. This build-up in tolerance will force users to consume more alcohol over longer periods of time. This can lead to one’s blood alcohol content building up until they are suddenly severely intoxicated. One of the long-term effects of increased tolerance is severe liver damage.


Lying or Hiding Alcohol Consumption

If someone is embarrassed about his or her alcohol consumption or lies about it, take it as a sign that something is out of hand. If someone’s drinking is not a problem, why would they hide it?

The average person would not hide normal drinking behaviors, so if they are hiding their alcohol consumption, it could be a sign that their behavior has crossed the line into dangerous behavior.

Using Alcohol as a Crutch

While alcohol has been proven to reduce stress and ease tension, it should never be used as medication. Using alcohol to ease physical or emotional pain, is not only an improper use of the substance, it can lead to alcohol dependence.

Devoting Numerous Resources to Obtaining Alcohol

If someone devotes a lot of time, money or other resources to obtaining alcohol, it demonstrates how important it is to them. When someone thinks about where their next drink will come from, how they will get to the liquor store at the end of the day or if there is enough money in their bank account for them to go to the bar after work, it shows that alcohol is constantly on their mind.


If someone is dependent on alcohol or another substance, they will experience withdrawal when they do not have access to it. They can become irritable, angry, resentful or unreasonable when they do not have access to their substance of choice. This shows emotional and physical dependence on a drug.

Broken Relationships

Excessive alcohol use can easily come between people. It is difficult to watch friends and family members struggle with substance abuse. If someone you know seems to be having numerous relationship problems due to their alcohol use, it could be a sign that they value alcohol more than their interpersonal relationships.

Getting Help

If you or a friend exhibits one or more of these signs of a problem, there are numerous ways to get help. Try to stop drinking for a while. If this proves to be too much, consult the help of a counselor or addiction treatment center.

Trained professionals will be the best source of help when dealing with substance abuse. If you are concerned for a friend, you may want to consult a counselor to learn the best way to confront your friend about their drinking problem. When you do discuss a drinking problem with a friend, be sure to express your concerns in a non-judgmental manner. Offer to go to counseling with them or help them find places where they can receive treatment.


* Please note: this author is not a health care provider and this article should not be considered as professional medical advice

1 SAMHSA http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/dependence.htm


Molly Dutmers


Contributing Author

Molly Dutmers is a junior communication major at Wake Forest University from Chicago. Molly is currently the editor-in-chief of the Old Gold & Black, Wake Forest’s student newspaper. When she isn’t writing or editing, Molly is spending time with her two dogs, Lulu May Georgina and Sparky Eugene Xavier.

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