Signs, Effects & Symptoms of Alcoholism

Understanding the Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Understanding the signs of alcohol abuse

Alcohol abuse is characterized by a pattern of drinking that causes an individual to have difficulties fulfilling work, school, or home obligations. Someone who abuses alcohol may put themselves in risky situations, may have a number of legal issues surrounding alcohol, and will continue to drink despite having relationship problems that are caused or made worse by the effects of alcohol. After a while the alcohol abuse will gradually become an addiction or dependency. Once you have reached the point of alcohol addiction and dependency, your days are completely focused on obtaining and consuming alcohol. You may have come to feel you are no longer able to function without drinking.

Alcohol addiction is a chronic, progressive illness that is diagnosed when someone’s use of alcohol leads to distress that prevents them from functioning normally. Men and women who are struggling with an alcohol addiction have cravings for alcohol that cause them to lose the ability to control their drinking, causing them to constantly engage in alcohol-seeking behaviors. After a period of time, a tolerance will build up and the individual will need to increase the amount of alcohol they consume in order to achieve the desired effects. Eventually, addiction will lead to physical dependence, which will lead to withdrawal symptoms if the abuser abruptly stops drinking.


Statistics for addiction

The 12 month prevalence rates for alcohol addiction for adults in the U.S. have been estimated at 8.5%. These rates differ by gender, and surveys indicate that men suffer from alcohol related disorders at far higher rates (12.4%) than women (4.9%). The highest rate of the disorder is found in individuals between the ages of 18 to 29 (16.2%). From early adulthood through middle age, the rates of alcohol abuse decrease. Estimates suggest that as many as 10% of seniors in this country may suffer from alcohol-related problems.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes & risk factors for alcohol abuse

Alcohol abuse and addiction are the result of many interconnected factors, such as genetics, how you were raised, social environment, and your emotional health. Some of the most common causes include:

Genetic: Genetic factors have been shown to play a significant role in the development of alcoholism and account for about half of the total risk. Currently, no one gene has been discovered to be responsible; it is more likely that a combination of many different genes is involved in causing the development of an alcohol addiction. Research suggests that substance addictions may be associated with genetic variations in 51 different chromosomal regions.

Physical: When you drink a significant amount of alcohol over a prolonged period of time it leads to chemical changes in the brain. These changes are what emphasize the pleasurable feelings you get when you drink, causing an increased desire to drink. The cravings for alcohol, brought on by these chemical changes, that lead to the development of addiction have been linked to specific brain structures. The amygdala, the region of the brain responsible for the emotional aspect of craving, has been shown to be smaller in individuals with a family history of alcoholism. Additionally, certain brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine may play a role in addiction. Abnormal serotonin levels are associated with high levels of tolerance for alcohol. Dopamine is thought to help inhibit behavioral responses to alcohol and protect against alcoholism.

Environmental: Some individuals exposed to chronic, unpredictable life stress may begin to feel desperate to numb their emotions. They may use alcohol as a means to self-medicate because they don’t have any better coping mechanisms. Additionally, some individuals may live in a family or culture where alcohol use is common and accepted. The more often they drink, the higher the chance for an alcohol addiction to develop.

Risk Factors:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Presence of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety
  • Antisocial behaviors
  • Associating with heavy drinkers
  • Having high levels of stress
  • Being American Indian or Native Alaskan
  • Having first drink between the ages of 11-14


Symptoms of alcohol abuse

Since drinking is so common among many cultures and the effects vary widely from one person to the next, it can be difficult to determine when the line between social drinking and problem drinking has been crossed. There are a number of different signs and symptoms that may be present when an individual is using and abusing alcohol. Some of the most common symptoms include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Frequently getting in trouble
  • Drinking alone
  • Becoming violent or hostile when drinking
  • Drop in attendance or performance at work or school
  • Borrowing or stealing money
  • Making excuses to drink
  • Trying to hide alcohol use
  • Need to use alcohol on most days to get through the day
  • Engaging in secretive behaviors
  • Sudden changes in friends, hangouts, and hobbies
  • Angry outbursts

Physical Symptoms:

  • Blood-shot eyes
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Pupils larger or smaller than usual
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Deterioration of physical appearance
  • Sexual problems
  • Blackouts
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Tremors

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Changes in personality or attitude
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation, appearing to be spaced out
  • Paranoia
  • Impaired judgment

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Irritability
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Unusual hyperactivity or agitation


Effects alcohol abuse can have

If alcohol abuse and addiction is not properly treated and stopped, it will greatly impact not only the individual, but the lives of those around them. Continued use of alcohol is associated with many negative health consequences, as well as a variety of other adverse effects. The long term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Liver disease
  • Increased family problems and broken relationships
  • Loss of job or expulsion from school
  • Unintentional injuries (car crash, falls, burns)
  • Social isolation
  • Legal problems or incarceration
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Apathy and disorientation
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Cancer of the mouth and throat
  • Ulcers
  • Malnutrition
  • Inflammation of the stomach walls
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Nerve damage
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Death due to overdose or suicide

Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

Withdrawal: If an individual has become physically dependent on alcohol, once they stop drinking they will experience a number of withdrawal symptoms. Some of these symptoms may include:

  • Delirium
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Psychological and physical cravings
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Flushing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Anxiety
  • Jumpiness
  • Depression

Overdose: An alcohol overdose is a very serious medical emergency and can occur when the amount of alcohol in your body increases quickly in a short period of time. This can occur by drinking more alcohol than your body can handle. If you suspect that someone has overdosed on alcohol call 911 immediately. Some of the most common symptoms may include:

  • Changes in mental state
  • Passing out
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Decrease in body temperature
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Pale or blue skin

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol addiction & co-occurring disorders

Almost any mental health or other substance abuse disorder can co-occur with alcohol use disorders. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Other substance abuse disorders
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Insomnia
  • Schizophrenia
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Thank you for helping me realize that I can do it - I can get better. You got me where I am today.

– Molly J.