When to See a Doctor About Your Drinking

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on May 29, 2023
4 min read

For many, the line between casual drinking and alcohol misuse is thin. While drinking alcohol in moderation is OK for healthy adults, more than that can affect your life and your long-term health.

About 39 million adults in the U.S. drink too much, and 140,000 people die each year because of it.

Excessive alcohol use also can lead to more than 200 diseases.

If you think your drinking is starting to have a negative impact on your life, accepting it as a problem is the first step toward solving it. Talking with your doctor about it can be the next step.

Enjoying a drink now and then is fine. Experts define moderate alcohol use as one drink a day for women and two for men.

A "drink" is:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor

Not everyone who drinks more than the recommended amount has AUD. Alcohol affects each person differently.

But if your drinking becomes uncontrolled and starts to cause you distress, harm, or long-term health problems, a doctor will want to see if you have alcohol use disorder (AUD), what used to be known as alcoholism.

Research shows that AUD can lead to serious health problems like:

While there’s no cure for it, you can take steps to lower your chances of serious problems and improve your day-to-day life.

And treatment, when given by a health professional, can be effective.

If your drinking is taking a toll on your quality of life or prevents you from getting things done, reach out to your doctor right away. They can help you find your road to recovery.

When you decide to talk with your doctor, be open about your alcohol use and give as many details as you can. This can help them see if you have AUD or if you’re at risk for it. It will also help them choose the best care for you.

If you’re worried or embarrassed about telling your doctor about your alcohol use, it may be a good idea to bring someone with you who's close to you. They can provide details about your drinking that you might be uncomfortable sharing.

It may also help to write down any questions you have about your alcohol use and any health problems it might be causing.

Once you’ve told your doctor about your drinking, they will:

  • Ask you more questions about your drinking habits. They may also want to speak with members of your family.
  • Do a physical exam and take a detailed medical history.
  • Use lab and imaging tests to see if your drinking has caused organ damage.
  • Do a psychological evaluation to check how your drinking might affect your emotions and behavior.
  • Arrange follow-up appointments to check on your progress to help you ease your alcohol use, or stop it all together.

From there, your doctor may:

  • Talk about how drinking affects you
  • Guide you to available treatment options
  • Give you tips to use in your day-to-day life that can help you cut back
  • Discuss your outlook
  • Refer you to mental health or AUD specialists who can help you make changes when you’re ready.

Depending on how severe your symptoms are, how your doctor chooses to treat it can vary. The goal will be to get you to cut back or quit your alcohol use.

You may get personalized treatment from various specialists in different settings like:

  • One-on-one or group therapy
  • An outpatient program where you see specialists during brief visits to their office
  • A residential rehabilitation program in which you’ll stay overnight in the facility and get treatment for a period of time.

Treatment options can include:

  • Detox or withdrawal from alcohol use
  • Medication
  • Psychological counseling and behavioral treatment
  • Learning skills and making lifestyle changes that can help
  • Group support to manage relapses and adjust to the changes you'll have to make.

You may also need additional care or treatments if you have underlying health issues caused by your drinking.

It’s a good idea to reach out to your family and friends to help you stay accountable as your make lifestyle changes to cut back or quit alcohol use.

If you have side effects or allergic reactions from the medications or treatment, or if you relapse from the program and return to old drinking patterns, tell your doctor or therapist immediately. Your doctor may switch your medication or refer you to different specialists to help you stay on track.

It’s never too late to get help if you think you have a drinking problem. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor if your alcohol habits are unhealthy.