Are You A High-Functioning Alcoholic? | Signs & Symptoms

Kimberly Langdon, M.D.

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly Langdon, M.D.

on December 10, 2022

Signs of high-functioning alcoholism include regular covert drinking, self-medicating with alcohol, deflecting or becoming defensive when alcohol use is questioned, and denial that one’s alcohol consumption is not causing serious negative health or interpersonal effects.

According to figures published by the CDC in 2018, 17.2% of Ohio adults went binge drinking at least once in the past 30 days, consuming a median 5.7 drinks at the time.

But while most Ohio residents who occasionally drink more than the recommended amount of alcohol do not have alcohol use disorder, also referred to as alcohol addiction or alcoholism, many do.

Even if your drinking seems under control, you could be a functional alcoholic and potentially put your loved ones and yourself at risk for serious physical, mental, and behavioral consequences.

What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

The terms ‘high-functioning alcoholic’ and ‘functioning alcoholic’ are not real medical diagnoses, but rather informal descriptors for a person who has an unhealthy dependency on alcohol, but experiences few overt negative consequences as a result.

A functioning alcoholic may enjoy success in their career, a wide social circle, and healthy interpersonal relationships despite the role that heavy drinking plays in their private life. 

In fact, many with alcohol use disorders go to great lengths to keep their drinking habits private and will deny, both to others and themselves, that they have a drinking problem at all.

Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic

While different individuals will behave and drink in different ways, some common red flags that a person is a functioning alcoholic may include:

  • hiding alcohol and drinking covertly, alone, or at unusual times during the day
  • regularly binge drinking (drinking more than 4-5 standard drinks in a single occasion) or practicing heavy drinking (more than 8-15 standard drinks per week for women and men, respectively)
  • looking for reasons to have a drink, whether for stress or anxiety, or as a reward or celebration
  • experiencing blackouts or other memory issues as a result of drinking alcohol
  • making jokes about alcohol problems and becoming defensive or flippant if one’s drinking is questioned
  • becoming irritable and restless or experiencing other withdrawal symptoms after going without alcohol (likely caused by alcohol dependence)
  • engaging in high risk drinking such as driving after or while drinking (often resulting in DUIs or car accidents), drinking while at work, or drinking while caring for children

Risks Of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Some medical professionals refer to high-functioning alcoholics as currently functioning alcoholics, to stress that the effects of alcohol addiction must be considered from a long-term perspective.

In other words, the negative consequences of your drinking will likely catch up to you eventually and can include:

  • health problems and increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease/cirrhosis, digestive problems, nervous system damage, and numerous forms of cancer
  • increased risk of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, dementia, and impaired cognition and decision-making
  • increased risk of obesity, hormonal imbalances, malnutrition, premature aging, and reduced lifespan
  • immune system impairment and more frequent and severe illness
  • sleep problems including poor quality sleep, snoring, and sleep apnea
  • increasing alcohol tolerance and physical dependence, along with cravings and changes to one’s behavioral health and personality

Treating Functional Alcoholism

A functioning alcoholic, by definition, is a person who has an alcohol use disorder, or AUD. And an AUD can be treated using the same techniques and approaches developed to address other forms of substance use disorder and addiction.

This means that a participant’s physical and mental health condition will need to be evaluated and used to develop a personalized treatment plan that may include various addiction treatment options.

These treatment options often include:

Medical Detoxification

In detox an individual gives up alcohol, intentionally allowing the uncomfortable process of alcohol withdrawal to begin and receiving treatment for severe withdrawal symptoms as needed.

Inpatient/Outpatient Treatment

Alcohol rehab programs can be more or less intensive depending on a person’s needs and goals. Sometimes this can mean a long-term stay in a specialized treatment facility, or regular attendance in outpatient treatment sessions, or both in sequence.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

MAT treatment programs for AUD are designed to use certain FDA-approved medications along with conventional behavioral therapy and/or counseling.

The specific medications available for treating AUD include:

  • disulfiram
  • naltrexone
  • acamprosate


Aftercare support is provided by treatment centers after regular treatment programs have concluded, and can help participants establish better personal support systems and prevent relapse.

Along with aftercare programs like employment counseling, sober living housing, and case management, many functional alcoholics benefit from participating in peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (Al-Anon) or Smart Recovery.

Ohio Recovery Center

If you or your family members have a drinking problem and are concerned about the long-term effects of alcohol abuse, please contact Ohio Recovery Center for information on our treatment options today.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Data on Excessive Drinking
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) — Drinking Levels Defined
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) — What are symptoms of an alcohol use disorder?
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) — What are the consequences?
  5. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) Treatment

Written by Ohio Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Ohio Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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