Problematic alcohol use

Alcohol Use Disorder is a medical condition characterised by problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to significant impairment or distress. It can be mild, moderate or severe based on the number of symptoms experienced. 

What is the difference between alcohol dependence and Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol can cause dependence due to it’s ability to create tolerance. Alcohol dependence refers to the inability stop drinking or the need to drink more to get the same effect. A person who is dependent on alcohol will feel a strong need or desire to drink alcohol before any other commitments.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorders 

A doctor can diagnose an Alcohol Use Disorder when someone experiences at least two of the following symptoms:1

  • Alcohol taken in larger amounts or over a longer time than intended
  • Persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts at cutting down
  • Large amount of time spent obtaining, using or recovering from alcohol use
  • Craving for alcohol
  • Important commitments given up due to alcohol use
  • Continued drinking despite knowledge of harm
  • Failure to fulfil major roles or obligations at work, school or home
  • Continued drinking despite alcohol-related interpersonal or social problems
  • Recurrent drinking in hazardous situations
  • Develop higher tolerance towards alcohol use
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms or using alcohol to avoid withdrawal

A doctor or healthcare professional can look at the number, pattern, and severity of symptoms to help you decide the best course of action. Contact your GP.

Assess your risk

Take our quick, confidential assessment to see if your current alcohol use is putting you at risk of harm. 

5 Minute Drinking Audit

Long term risks

Long-term risks

People who experience alcohol use disorders are significantly greater risk of long-term health risks from alcohol, including:2,3,4

In addition to physical and mental health risks, the person’s alcohol use can lead to family problems, negatively affected work performance, social relationships, or financial stability.

How does alcohol cause dependence? 

Alcohol can cause dependence due to its ability to create tolerance. Tolerance is when the brain adapts to the effects of alcohol and a person requires more alcohol to get the same feeling. As a result, they have an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. 

1 in 10 people who drink may be experiencing alcohol dependence.

Alcohol withdrawal

For most people, taking a break from drinking is not risky or harmful. But heavy or long-term drinkers may experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when they cut back or quit using alcohol.5 

Alcohol withdrawal can be a life-threatening event. Anyone who drinks daily and is considering stopping should speak to a doctor (GP) or a health care professional about how to go about this.

Symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe and depend on the individual on their circumstances. Symptoms usually begin 6-24 hours after the last drink and continue for 5-7 days.6

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:6

  • headache
  • sweating
  • nausea and vomiting
  • anxiety and agitation
  • shaking, fast or irregular heartbeat
  • high blood pressure
  • seizures

Where to get help?

If you or someone you know might need help about alcohol use there, speak to your GP or a health care professional. 

Alcohol and Drug Support Line - confidential, non-judgemental telephone counselling, information, support and referral service.

The service is free of charge and available 24/7 by calling (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (toll-free for country callers).

Learn more

Frequently Asked Questions

If you don't have any symptoms, staying within the Australian Alcohol Guidelines can help reduce your risk. 

The Guidelines recommend that healthy men and women should have no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. 

  • Regular and high risk of alcohol use
  • Drinking at an early age
  • Family history of alcohol use disorders
  • Mental health conditions 

One size does not fit all and a treatment approach that may work for one person may not work for another. Your GP will be best placed to provide help including:

  • withdrawal planning
  • symptom management
  • prescribing medication
  • medical tests
  • connecting you with specialty programs, counselling services

  1. BMJ Best Practice.Alcohol use disorder. 2023.
  2. Rehm, J. The risks associated with alcohol use and alcoholism. 2011. Alcohol Research & Health, 34 (2), 135-143.
  3. Carguilo, T. Understanding the health impact of alcohol dependence. 2007. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 64 (1), S1-S17.
  4. Whitney, E., & Ebook Library. Understanding nutrition (2;2nd; ed.). 2013. Melbourne: Cengage Learning Australia. Pg 225.
  5. Pers. Comms., Richard O’Regan. 2019.

  6. Quigley, A., Christmass, M., Vytialingam, R., Helfgott, S., & Stone, J. A brief guide to the assessment and treatment of alcohol dependence (3rd ed.). 2018. Perth, Western Australia: Mental Health Commission. Retrieved from:

Page last updated13 June 2023