Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention and Educational Services

Alcohol Abuse & Dependence

When does alcohol abuse become alcohol dependence?

Many of the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse overlap with the signs and symptoms of alcohol dependency. There is a fine line between the two, but the crossover occurs when the person becomes dependent on alcohol.

An alcoholic is unable to control their drinking, they have built up a tolerance to alcohol which over time requires them to drink larger quantities of alcohol in order to obtain the same effect, and they will usually experience withdrawal symptoms when they don't drink. Someone with a high tolerance may feel the physical effects of alcohol less, but the amount of alcohol in the blood is not any lower. Acquiring a high tolerance overrides your body's natural ways of telling you that you have had too much to drink. Tolerance makes you less aware that you are impaired, and increases the risk that you will make unsafe choices (e.g. driving, having unprotected sex). Even if you are a seasoned drinker, having a high tolerance does not prevent decreases in reaction time and does not increase the amount of alcohol needed to cause death (an approximate BAC of .35 or higher). Increasing tolerance is one of the first steps in the development of addiction. 

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse


  • Continuing to drink even though you have health problems that are affected or caused by your drinking

Financial issues

  • Paying bills late; collection agencies calling
  • Inability to keep track of your money

Legal issues

  • Driving while under the influence (DUI)

Risky behavior

  • Putting yourself or others in danger

Employment or school

  • Continuing to drink even though you realize your job or education is in jeopardy
  • Missing work or school, or going in late due to alcohol use

Family and friends

  • Feeling annoyed when other people comment on, or criticize your drinking habits
  • Feeling remorse or guilt after drinking
  • Associating with questionable acquaintances or frequenting out of the ordinary locations when drinking

Social life

  • Scheduling your day around drinking
  • Focusing recreational activities around obtaining alcohol, drinking or recovering from alcohol use   
  • Drinking alone or in secret

Signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence


  • Strong and overwhelming desire to drink alcohol at a specific time or the next morning
  • Creating a ritual of having drinks before, with, or after dinner, and becoming annoyed when this pattern is disturbed or questioned


  • A tendency to drink more than intended to feel the same effect, or being unable to stop drinking once you start to drink alcohol
  • Consuming a large quantity of alcohol without appearing intoxicated

Effects on memory and motivation

  • Not remembering conversations or commitments; sometimes referred to as a "blackout"
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies that were once pleasurable   


“A Family History of Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?”

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publication

If you are among the millions of people in this country who have a parent, grandparent, or other close relative with alcoholism, you may have wondered what your family's history of alcoholism means for you.

  • Are problems with alcohol a part of your future?
  • Is your risk for becoming an alcoholic greater than for people who do not have a family history of alcoholism?
  • If so, what can you do to lower your risk?

This publication provides great insights.