Social Drinker vs Problem Drinker: What’s The Difference?

You’re out for a night of fun with friends and your one drink has turned into half a dozen. You don’t normally drink this much, just every once in a while so it’s fine…right? Determining when you should be concerned about your drinking habit can be surprisingly difficult. 

Social Drinker vs Problem Drinker

The line between social drinker vs problem drinker is much narrower than you might think. Plus, most people tend to underestimate how much they drink (both the amount in a single sitting and the frequency in which they indulge) so trying to analyze your own relationship with alcohol can be tricky.

What is a Social Drinker?

A social drinker is considered to be someone who primarily drinks on social occasions and does so in moderation. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has defined this threshold based on gender. For women, this means a maximum of 3 drinks in a single day but no more than 7 drinks total during a week. For men, who have greater alcohol tolerance, this threshold is no more than 4 drinks in a given day, with a maximum of 14 drinks in a single week. This type of drinking pattern is considered to be low-risk with a very low likelihood of leading to alcohol addiction. 

These limits sound fairly reasonable, but those aren’t the only set of numbers that determine whether your drinking is high or low risk. It’s important to consider what a standard drink is. Drinking three pitchers of beer during one night is a vastly different amount of alcohol than drinking three cans worth. So when the NIAAA refers to a “drink”, they are referring to both set numbers of drinks and specific amounts per drink.

The Size of a Standard Drink

The size of a standard drink is determined by the alcohol content and is defined as a drink with 14 grams of pure alcohol. Naturally, the stronger the drink, the smaller the standard size will be. Your standard beer is about 5% alcohol. Wine is a bit stronger with an average of 12% alcohol content. Distilled spirits (gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, etc.) are some of the strongest with around 40% alcohol content. As such, the standard size of each will be:

  • Beer: 12.5 fluid ounces (the size of the average beer can)
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces
  • Spirits: 1.5 fluid ounces

Let’s revisit our earlier comparison. Using the standard drink size, a pitcher of beer is typically 32 ounces and the equivalent of slightly less than 3 cans of beer. Drinking three pitches would actually equate to about 8 cans of beer, putting the drinker well beyond the limits of what’s defined as social drinking.

How does your drinking compare when measured using standard drink sizes? 

What is a Problem Drinker?

A problem drinker isn’t an official term or diagnosis. It is often used to describe drinking habits that have caused negative social, behavioral, financial or health consequences to a point where individuals feel the need (or are told) to cut back. Problem drinkers can self-correct whereas genuine alcoholics will find themselves both physically and mentally compelled to continue drinking heavily.

Drinking that falls under this category often falls in the realm of alcohol abuse, although it’s not necessarily always the case. Problematic drinking can include:

  • Binge drinking (drinking enough more than 4-5 drinks in a given day) 
  • Extreme binge drinking (more than 8-10 drinks in a given day)
  • Heavy drinking (binge drinking more than 5 or more days in a 30-day period)

Ultimately, what determines if someone is a problem drinker or not isn’t necessarily the health consequences of their drinking habit. Rather, it is their relationship with alcohol that is the most telling factor. The dysfunctionality of this relationship is primarily what separates problem drinking from alcohol use disorder. 

Is Your Drinking Habit Problematic?

Alcohol consumption is so commonplace that our sense of “moderation” can be seriously skewed towards viewing excessive drinking as normal. Have you’ve found that your drinking habits might be a reason for concern? If so, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re an alcoholic. Alcoholism is a literal addiction to alcohol where your body has developed both physical and psychological dependence. 

One of the clearest signs that you might be an alcoholic is if you’ve tried to stop drinking but felt physically ill after doing so. Those aren’t hangover symptoms. They’re likely a sign of alcohol withdrawal and that you need help managing your drinking habit. Learn more about recognizing alcohol addiction and how to get treatment

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