Can You Get Disability Benefits for Chronic Alcoholism?

You can't get disability benefits for alcoholism alone, but you might be able to get disability for alcohol-related medical conditions.

By , Attorney · Willamette University College of Law
Updated 3/16/2023

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 29.5 million people were classified as having an alcohol use disorder (about 10% of the population). Some of those people have qualified for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). But Social Security can't find you disabled based solely on a diagnosis of chronic alcoholism.

So how can you get disability for alcoholism? Many people who suffer from alcoholism have physical or behavioral changes that are caused by their chronic use of alcohol and that limit their ability to work. If you can't work because of a physical or mental impairment, you might qualify medically for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits.

Social Security won't treat your claim any worse because your impairment is a result of chronic alcoholism. But if you're still drinking, and the SSA believes that if you stopped drinking your medical conditions would improve enough that you'd no longer be disabled, you won't get disability benefits.

Read on to learn how Social Security views alcohol abuse and how you can get disability for conditions related to alcoholism.

Is Alcoholism a Disability That Qualifies for Social Security?

Alcohol addiction can cause a host of other serious health conditions that Social Security recognizes as disabling—both physical and mental impairments. Many of these conditions are included in Social Security's listing of impairments, called the "Blue Book."

Below are some medical conditions that can be caused by chronic alcohol abuse. If you have one of these conditions, and you meet the requirements of a listing, Social Security will find you disabled—but only if your impairment would still meet the listing requirements if you quit drinking alcohol.

Neurocognitive Disorders Caused by Alcoholism

Neurocognitive disorders (previously called organic mental disorders) are marked by a decline in mental functioning. Often the decline is caused by damage to the brain, either through injury or degenerative disease.

An example of a neurocognitive disorder that's frequently caused by alcohol use disorder is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is caused by not getting enough vitamin B1 (thiamine). Symptoms include confusion, loss of muscle coordination, vision trouble, and eventually, damage to the part of your brain that handles memory.

The listing for neurocognitive disorders requires you to have a cognitive deficit such as:

  • memory loss
  • distractibility
  • decreased judgment
  • difficulties with language
  • a decrease in coordination, or
  • poor social ability.

And you must be able to show how your deficit limits your functional abilities—both physical and mental abilities. Learn more about satisfying Social Security's disability listing for a neurocognitive disorder.

Alcohol-Induced Depressive Disorders

Depression can be caused by or exacerbated by alcohol use. All depressive disorders are evaluated under the disability listing for "depressive, bipolar and related disorders" (listing 12.04).

To qualify for disability for your depression, you'll need to show you have several symptoms of the disorder, such as:

  • loss of interest in your usual activities
  • changes in your appetite or sleep patterns, or
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

And you'll need to show that your mental functioning is limited by your condition (or has been in the past). Learn more about what it takes to qualify for Social Security disability for depression.

Chronic Alcoholism and Anxiety Disorders

Contrary to the belief that alcohol is a relaxant, alcoholism can cause long-term anxiety. To qualify for SSDI or SSI disability benefits, you'll need to show that your anxiety has a severe, negative impact on your ability to work and function socially. Learn more about Social Security disability and anxiety disorders.

Peripheral Neuropathies Caused by Alcoholism

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when there's damage to your peripheral nervous system (the nerves located outside your brain and spinal cord). These nerves are involved in transmitting information between your brain and the rest of your body.

Alcoholism can cause peripheral neuropathy, often because many alcoholics also have a thiamine (B1) deficiency. This deficiency can cause pain, weakness, and numbness in your extremities (hands and feet). For more information, see our article on getting disability for neuropathy.

Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Most liver disease in the United States is caused by chronic alcohol consumption. And many disability applicants list liver damage due to alcohol abuse on their disability applications. But your liver damage needs to be fairly severe to qualify you for SSDI or SSI disability benefits.

To meet the Blue Book listing, you'll need to show that you have both of the following:

  • end-stage or chronic liver disease, and
  • at least one serious complication.

Learn what it takes to meet the disability listing for chronic liver disease.

Gastritis From Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of gastritis, which occurs when the stomach lining becomes inflamed. Social Security evaluates gastritis under its disability listings for the digestive system.

When Alcoholism Causes Pancreatitis

Alcohol has a toxic effect on the pancreas. Prolonged, heavy alcohol abuse will cause chronic pancreatitis—inflammation of the pancreas (permanent damage). But you won't meet the listing requirements for pancreatitis unless you can show that your symptoms, like abdominal pain and weight loss, are prolonged and severe.

For more information, see our article on how to get disability benefits for pancreatitis.

Alcoholic Seizures

Heavy drinking can cause seizures (sometimes called "rum fits"), even if you don't have epilepsy. But Social Security will evaluate this condition under its epilepsy listing.

For your seizures to qualify for disability benefits, you'll need to prove that:

  • you're taking your seizure medication(s) as prescribed
  • your use of alcohol isn't making your medication less effective, and
  • your condition isn't likely to improve if you stop drinking.

Learn more about Social Security's criteria for getting disability for seizures.

Can You Get Disability for Alcoholism?

There was a time when you could have gotten disability for chronic alcoholism. Today, you can only qualify for disability benefits based on impairments associated with alcohol abuse—neurocognitive disorder, liver damage, and so on. If you don't meet a listing, Social Security looks at how the associated impairment limits your ability to work.

How Past Alcohol Use Affects Your Residual Functional Capacity

If your alcohol-related mental or physical impairment is serious but doesn't meet the listing criteria for any of the above impairments, Social Security will look at your "residual functional capacity" or "RFC." Social Security uses your RFC to determine what you're still capable of doing in an employment situation, taking into account the limitations caused by your medical condition.

For example, if you have liver disease, the kind of work you can perform might be limited because you:

  • get tired easily
  • have shortness of breath, and
  • have severe abdominal pain.

Or if you have seizures, your RFC might be limited in areas like:

  • driving and operating heavy machinery,
  • handling dangerous chemicals, or
  • working in high places.

If Social Security finds that, with your RFC, there are no jobs you can do, you'll be awarded disability benefits under what is called a "medical-vocational allowance." Learn more about qualifying for a medical-vocational allowance based on your physical RFC or mental RFC.

How Social Security Evaluates Drug and Alcohol Abuse (DAA)

Again, it's important to note that if stopping drinking would make your impairment improve to the point where you'd no longer be considered disabled, Social Security won't grant your application for benefits. The SSA might require you to stop drinking for 30 days to see if your symptoms would improve. Learn more about how Social Security determines if you'd still be disabled if you quit using alcohol.

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