Open a PDF version to print this topic

HealthInfo Canterbury

Overview of alcohol addiction or abuse

This page has links to information in te reo Māori.


Three important features are present in people with addictive or abusive patterns of drinking alcohol. These are dependence, tolerance and compulsion to drink.

Dependence means they can't stop drinking without unpleasant effects. This makes cutting down, or having alcohol-free days, very challenging or impossible.

Tolerance means they need to drink more alcohol over time to get the same effect. This means the daily amount of alcohol they drink gets higher and higher.

Compulsion to drink means that drinking alcohol starts to take over their life.

If a person starts to break the usual rules of drinking, they're likely to be addicted to alcohol. Signs of alcohol addiction include:

When this happens, alcohol starts to take priority over other activities in their life. They choose to drink even when they see and experience damaging consequences.


Operating machinery or driving a car while drunk can result in serious accidents and fatalities. Never drink and drive.

If you think someone is about to drive while drunk, call the police immediately on 111.

With long-term alcohol addiction people may notice physical effects on their bodies.

Finding out if your drinking is OK

You can find out if your drinking is OK by doing the AUDIT test. Also see Alcohol & reducing your risks from drinking for information about how to drink alcohol safely.

New Zealand has a binge drinking culture. This means that many people accept unhealthy or abusive patterns of drinking. But this doesn't change that fact that our bodies can only cope with a certain amount of alcohol before it starts to cause us problems.

If you're addicted to alcohol you may need to cut back or totally quit to get well.

When someone is addicted to alcohol, their brain chemistry changes. The changes in the brain make quitting or cutting down very hard. They develop a need for alcohol that is both mental and physical.

When an addicted person craves alcohol, they think things like "I can’t cope without it" or "It isn't a problem, it makes me feel good". Also, their body sends them messages telling them they need to drink. Drinking usually takes away the physical symptoms of craving.

The physical symptoms of craving can be very unpleasant. For heavy drinkers, stopping or reducing alcohol results in withdrawal symptoms. This can be quite dangerous. It can include symptoms like tremors, fainting, seizures and rarely hallucinations. In severe cases it can cause death.

Most people who are heavily addicted to alcohol need help from health professionals. They also need support from family or friends to withdraw and become sober.

Getting free of alcohol addiction

Getting free of alcohol addiction is extremely hard. You need determination and must commit to doing the hard work. Before anything else, you need to acknowledge that you have a problem and commit to change.

See Helping myself with my alcohol or drug addiction or abuse for ways you can help yourself. This page also tells you about community support groups who can help.

If this doesn't help, see your GP. Your GP is likely to encourage you to try self-help programmes and join community support groups. They may refer you to a support agency that specialises in addiction. In some cases, they might offer you medication. See Treatment & medications for alcohol or drug addiction or abuse for more details.

Most people who try to give up alcohol need to try several times before becoming permanently sober. It's part of the normal cycle of recovering from addiction.

  HealthInfo recommends the following videos

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2020.


See also:

Alcohol in pregnancy

Alcohol-related harm

Alcohol use in teens & young adults

Liver failure & cirrhosis

Medicines, alcohol, drugs & breastfeeding

Physical health with a mental illness or addiction

Reading in Mind book scheme

Page reference: 520821

Review key: HIADG-47857