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Home » High functioning alcoholic: Signs, risks, and more – Medical News Today

High functioning alcoholic: Signs, risks, and more – Medical News Today

A high functioning alcoholic is an informal term that refers to someone who appears to maintain a successful professional and personal life while drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Drinking is often covert, and the person may deny they have any issue with their drinking.
People should note that the term “high functioning alcoholic” is no longer in use within the medical community. This is due to the potentially stigmatizing language around the word “alcoholic”, which may also prevent someone from seeking help and support.
According to the American Addiction Centers (AAC), a high functioning alcoholic informally describes a person who, on the surface, appears to be able to maintain a typical functioning life while drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
This means someone who seems to be able to continue to perform and even succeed in their career or family life, maintaining relationships, physical health, and avoiding involvement with criminality, despite excessive alcohol use.
This article explores the meaning of the term high functioning alcoholic, looks at the signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD), how people can help friends and family, and more.
A person who appears to be managing their alcohol intake but is experiencing issues with their relationship to alcohol has what is now known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA) defines excessive alcohol use as:
Due to some people’s ability to mask their AUD, it is difficult to find research on those that are high functioning. However, the AAC highlights a study that estimates at least 20% of people with AUDs are high functioning, while other studies suggest that as many as three-quarters of people with AUDs are able to function at a high level in some areas of their life.
The AAC highlights a series of signs that may suggest a person is high functioning while maintaining what appears to be a successful career, family life, or social life:
It is important to note that these signs may not be obvious to a loved one or friend. This is because people can be skillful at hiding the signs of an issue with alcohol.
People who are not considered “high functioning” in relation to their alcohol use disorder are more likely to:
The more a person drinks, the more at risk they are of developing severe alcohol use disorder. Early intervention is therefore vital.
Learn more about alcohol use disorder here.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol carries many risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 95,000 people lose their lives every year due to excessive alcohol use.
Short-term risks include:
Long-term risks include:
People who are concerned about their drinking habits, and those who are showing signs of an AUD, may wish to reach out for help and support. According to the NIAAA, the majority of people with an AUD can benefit from some form of treatment.
The NIAAA offers a range of assessment tools and strategies to help people understand their drinking patterns, reduce their drinking, or quit completely. provides an anonymous online evaluation tool to check if drinking has become problematic and provides further resources for help and support.
Contacting a healthcare professional may also help. A doctor can check a person’s drinking levels and recommend further treatment options.
Seeking help for addiction may seem daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support. If you believe that you or someone close to you is struggling with addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:
Treatment for AUDs can take several forms. Often a combination of treatments is the best approach.
The first step for most people is detox, which means quitting alcohol. A detox may take place at a hospital or inpatient facility, such as rehab.
If withdrawal symptoms are severe, a doctor may prescribe medication to reduce extreme agitation and hallucinations. These can include:
Sometimes, doctors prescribe medications that can help a person quit drinking to prevent relapse. These include:
Once detox is complete, a person may transfer to a substance use disorder program.
It is also possible to detox as part of an outpatient program, which features varying levels of support and treatment.
Further treatment interventions may include:
Recovery from alcohol use disorder can be a lifelong process. Many people with AUDs decide to have further treatment and support, such as attending group therapy, individual counseling, or support groups.
Learn more about alcohol detox here.
Certain factors may increase a person’s risk of developing an AUD. These include:
Peer pressure and easy availability of alcohol can increase the risk of developing an AUD. Negative life experiences, such as grief, abuse, or living in poverty, can also increase the odds.
More recently, a 2020 study found that people who used alcohol to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to drink alone and drink to excessive amounts. Researchers cited further risk factors, such as having a child under 18 and at home, having depression, and having fewer social interactions due to the pandemic.
It can be very difficult for people to watch someone they care about experience an AUD. Family and friends may worry that pointing out risky drinking behaviors to the person may alienate them and risk further harm. The AAC recommends the following steps to reach out and connect with someone living with an AUD, as well as supporting oneself:
The term high functioning alcoholic is no longer in use in the medical community. However, some people may use the phrase to refer to individuals who are experiencing an AUD but are still able to successfully function in their work and personal lives.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can impact short- and long-term physical and mental health. Getting help early on can reduce the risk of developing alcohol addiction.
It is important to know that an AUD is a chronic but treatable disease. Early intervention and treatment can help reduce the severity of the disease and prevent further physical or mental complications from developing.
Last medically reviewed on April 27, 2022
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