Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a “medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences”. While AUD can vary in severity, it’s important to treat it with the help of trained medical professionals. Left untreated, AUD may lead to physical and psychological health problems, relationship difficulties, financial problems, job loss, and even death.1

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2020 shows that 50% of American citizens older than 12 (almost 139 million Americans) report drinking alcohol during the past month. Out of the 139 million Americans who consumed alcohol in the month before the survey, 61.6 million have been identified as binge drinkers and nearly 18 million of them have shown signs of being heavy drinkers.2

The survey also shows that alcohol is the most popular substance among individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD). Alcohol is legal and easily accessible, which can make it more difficult for individuals with SUD to stay away from it. In addition, it has short-term effects that can be pleasant for the individual struggling with it, which can increase its appeal. As many as 7 in 10 individuals suffering from SUD have an issue with alcohol that needs to be medically treated.3

It is important to be aware of the risks of alcohol addiction and recognize the signs and symptoms on time, as it can have a devastating impact on an individual’s life. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse, the best choice is to seek help from a professional. Many resources are available to assist treatment-seeking individuals on their journey to recovery.

What Are The Warning Signs Of Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse can develop from a variety of complex causes and manifest in many different ways, and the warning signs may be different for each person. However, there are some common symptoms to look out for.4

Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can cause a wide range of short- and long-term effects. The exact effects depend on a number of factors, including how much alcohol is consumed, how often it is consumed, and the individual’s age and health. However, the one thing that all forms of alcohol abuse have in common is that they can take a toll on the body. Some shorter-term physical symptoms of alcohol addiction may include:4

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Chest pain

Long-term physical symptoms of alcohol abuse may include:4

  • Cirrhosis of the liver 
  • Pancreatitis 
  • Hypertension 
  • Cardiomyopathy 
  • Stroke 
  • Sexual dysfunction 
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome in babies

Behavioral Signs of Alcohol Abuse 

There are also behavioral signs that may be indicative of a problem with alcohol addiction. These include:4

  • Continued alcohol use in spite of negative consequences, such as problems with work, school, or relationships
  • Drinking in secret or hiding alcohol use
  • Neglecting responsibilities because of drinking
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while drinking, such as driving drunk or having unprotected sex
  • Experiencing mood swings or changes in personality when drinking

Psychological Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse 

In addition to physical and behavioral signs, there are also psychological signs of alcohol abuse. These include:4

  • Intense mood swings
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Racing thoughts
  • Insomnia
  • Increased aggression
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Poor judgment
  • Irritability

How to Diagnose Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism?  

AUD is a chronic and progressive disease that can be difficult to diagnose for a number of reasons. Since alcohol is legal and socially acceptable in most cultures, drinking does not necessarily raise red flags the way that other substance use disorders might.5

In addition, individuals suffering from AUD often develop a high tolerance for alcohol, which means that they can drink large amounts without appearing intoxicated. As a result, they may be able to hide their drinking behavior from family and friends.5

Finally, many individuals struggling with AUD may be in denial about their problem, which can make it even harder to spot the warning signs. There are, however, a few methods that can be used to help identify alcoholism.5

Medical professionals use a variety of methods to diagnose whether someone has an AUD. One of the most common methods is a clinical interview, in which the doctor asks the patient questions about their drinking habits and alcohol-related behaviors.5

The doctor may also administer a physical exam, looking for signs of liver damage or other health problems associated with heavy drinking. In some cases, the doctor may also order laboratory tests, such as a blood test to measure alcohol levels.5

If the doctor suspects that the patient has an AUD, they may refer the patient to a specialist for further evaluation. The specialist will typically perform a more comprehensive assessment, which may include additional interviews and tests. Based on the evaluation, the specialist will make a diagnosis and recommend treatment.5

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the standard reference used by mental health professionals to diagnose AUD. The DSM contains specific questions that should be used to assess an individual’s drinking patterns and determine whether they meet the criteria for a diagnosis of AUD. Some of these questions include:6

  • Do you have repeated episodes of binge drinking?
  • Do you drink more alcohol or for longer periods of time than you intended to?
  • Did you unsuccessfully attempt to cut down on or stop drinking?
  • Do you spend a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol?
  • Do you give up important activities in order to drink?
  • Do you continue to drink even though it is causing problems in your life?
  • Have you developed a tolerance to alcohol, such that you need to drink more in order to feel its effects?
  • Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms when you try to reduce your alcohol consumption?

Are Alcoholism Symptoms Reversible?  

While some of the damage caused by alcoholism may be irreversible, there are a number of ways to reverse some of the symptoms and consequences of the disease. While abstinence is not a cure-all, it can help to reverse many of the health problems caused by alcoholism.7

For example, individuals struggling with AUD who quit drinking can often reverse liver damage and improve their overall health. This can also help improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of memory loss.8

Similarly, patients with alcoholic cardiomyopathy can often improve their heart function with medication and lifestyle changes while abstaining from alcohol. Mental issues can be overcome as well with the right help and support. Working with a healthcare professional to address underlying mental health issues while participating in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous can help to reduce the risk of relapse.8

What Are the Late Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism?  

Early signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction may be more difficult to identify, but as the disease progresses, they become more apparent. Some of the late signs and symptoms of alcoholism include liver disease, brain damage, heart problems, depression and an inability to function in day-to-day life.9

  • Liver disease is one of the most common late signs of alcoholism. The liver is responsible for processing alcohol, and over time, chronic heavy drinking can damage this vital organ. Symptoms of liver disease include fatigue, jaundice, nausea, and weight loss.9
  • Brain issues are another common late sign of alcoholism. Alcohol can cause shrinkage of the brain, as well as damage to the frontal lobes, which can lead to problems with memory, judgment, and impulse control.9
  • Heart problems are also common in individuals who may have been struggling with AUD for a long time. Heavy drinking can damage the heart muscle, leading to problems such as arrhythmias and heart failure. Additionally, AUD increases the risk of developing high blood pressure and stroke.9
  • Depression is another common symptom of alcohol addiction, and it can fuel a vicious cycle of alcohol abuse. Whether the depression appears as a consequence of alcohol addiction or serves as its cause, Individuals who are depressed may turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication, which only leads to deeper levels of depression.9
  • Finally, alcoholism often leads to a general inability to function properly. While some individuals struggling with AUD may still appear functional at early and middle stages of addiction, they may start having more trouble with this later. At later stages, these individuals may start being completely absent from work or school, failing to meet important familial or personal obligations, and engaging in highly risky behaviors.9

When Should I See a Doctor for Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?  

If you or someone you know has symptoms of AUD, it is important to seek medical help as soon as possible. Symptoms that need immediate medical attention include alcohol poisoning, accidents related to alcohol use and other acute symptoms.9

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person drinks too much alcohol in a short period of time, causing them to become unresponsive or pass out. If you see someone exhibiting these symptoms, it is important to call 911 immediately.9

Alcohol-related accidents can also be life-threatening. If you or someone you know has been in an accident while under the influence of alcohol, it is important to seek medical attention right away.10 

In addition, if you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following symptoms at the moment or on a regular basis, it is also important to seek medical help:9

  • Withdrawal symptoms: nausea, vomiting, shaking, sweating, headache, anxiety, insomnia
  • Fever
  • Confusion 
  • Seizures 
  • Visual hallucinations 
  • Delirium tremens

Medical attention is no less important outside of an acute crisis. If you or your loved one are exhibiting any of the typical chronic symptoms of short or long-term alcohol abuse, help is available.9

Are you Experiencing Alcoholism Symptoms? Get Help Right Now 

If you or someone you know is displaying signs of alcohol addiction, it’s important to get help right away. There are a number of effective treatment options available at American Addiction Centers, a state-wide network of verified treatment centers, where qualified professionals can help you find the right path to recovery.

Our helpline for struggling individuals is available non-stop, making it easier for you or your loved one to reach out for help. Regardless of whether the treatment-seeking individual is high-functional or in a low-functional state, professionals at AAC’s centers are well-equipped to help them on the road to recovery

AAC offers several evidence-based treatment modalities including medication-assisted treatment, various therapeutic approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy and trauma-informed care. We also offer various support groups led by certified Addiction Counselors that provide an additional layer of support for our clients. 

The struggling individual can discuss the cost of treatment with an admissions navigator who can help them find alternative methods of payment if they have any challenges with paying for treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions