The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have led to heavy drinking for many Americans, but at what point does that behavior become dangerous? “Stories about underage drinking, blacking out, and harmful behavior associated with alcohol use are quite common in many families around the world,” says Marcelo Campos, MD. “The rise of the opioid epidemic in the US has rightly caught our attention, but overshadowed a much more common problem. In the United States, from 2006 to 2010 alcohol-associated deaths accounted for 88,000 deaths annually, or almost 10% of all US death.” Here are five concerning signs you may be drinking too much, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Drinking to the point of frequent blackouts could be a sign of alcohol abuse. “Research among college students and other young adults has shown that the frequency of blackouts predicts other alcohol-related consequences (such as missing work or school, having a lower grade point average [GPA]being injured, ending up in the emergency room, getting arrested, or experiencing other negative outcomes),” says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Questions about blackouts during routine medical visits could serve as an important simple screen for the risk of alcohol-related harms.”
If you need to drink increasingly more alcohol to get the same effect, you might be drinking too much. “Regularly drinking a certain amount of alcohol (for example, having four pints every Friday evening after work) can lead to increased tolerance,” says Dr. Sally Adams, lecturer in Health Psychology at the University of Bath. “This is where the brain adapts to the effects of alcohol (such as relaxation and improved mood), and over time more alcohol is needed to achieve the same effects. In this scenario you may need to drink five pints to get the same initial ‘ buzz’ you got from four pints. Tolerance is a hallmark feature of addiction. But it can also develop with regular and continued alcohol use in social drinkers.”
If drinking continuously leads to risky or dangerous behavior, it could be a sign of alcohol abuse. “Difficulty saying no to alcohol, even when it could clearly lead to harm, is a defining feature of alcohol use disorders,” says Andrew Holmes, Ph.D, Chief of the Laboratory on Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Studies show that women especially have been drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has further increased rates of alcohol use in women. According to a RAND Corporation study, during the pandemic women have increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic,” say Dawn Sugarman, PhD, and Shelly Greenfield, MD, MPH. “Additional research has shown that the psychological stress related to COVID-19 was associated with greater drinking for women, but not men.”
So, how do you know if your drinking has become problematic? “In the US, 6.6% of the adult population reported heavy alcohol use, and one in four people reported at least one episode of binge drinking,” says Dr. Campos. “Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in a day for a woman and five or more drinks in a day for a man. I bet you probably know someone who binge drinks — if not daily, then at least on weekends. If you are unsure if you or someone you love may have a problem using alcohol, I would recommend asking one question: how many times in the past year have you had five (for men) or four (for women) or more drinks in a day? A response equal to or greater than ‘once’ identifies, on average, eight out of 10 people with AUD [alcohol use disorder]. A positive answer should trigger a more thorough evaluation in a doctor’s office, or at least stimulate a reflection about one’s drinking behavior.”
If you’re worried about alcohol intake, see a health professional and discuss your concerns. “We do know that the longer people are abstinent from alcohol, the better their livers get, even up to a year after stopping alcohol,” says hepatologist Christina Lindenmeyer, MD. “It may not improve to be a completely normal liver, but it can improve to the point where they may not have complications related to their liver disease.”