7 Signs of Alcoholism
From TV commercials to IG reels of friends clinking cocktail glasses, drinking seems to be everywhere we look. In fact, the United States is regarded as having a drinking-positive culture.
While few of us pick up our first drink anticipating it will become an issue, problematic drinking and alcoholism are prevalent, with the latter affecting an estimated one in eight Americans.1 Spanning from mild to moderate to severe, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is characterized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a pattern of unhealthy drinking behaviors, despite social, professional, economic, physical, and psychological complications.
Despite alcoholism’s ubiquity, it can be tricky to draw a distinction between “overindulging here and there” and a legitimate disorder. Yet, identifying and addressing the signs of alcoholism—in yourself or a loved one—is the first, crucial step towards receiving help for alcohol addiction recovery.
What is Alcoholism?
Many people are under the impression that alcoholism is a matter of willpower and personal choice, despite its classification as a medical condition. This compares to treating diabetes and cardiovascular disease as choices—when, in fact, they’re clinical issues.2
Fortunately, enormous strides have been made to extinguish the stigma attached to alcoholism and present it for what it is: A chronic brain disorder that can afflict anyone, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, education, wealth, or life experiences.
While some people may be more predisposed to alcoholism than others (post-traumatic stress disorder and a family history of alcohol use disorder can heighten your risk, for example) alcoholism knows no bounds.
Today, alcohol abuse plays a part in more than 3 million deaths across the world per year.3
What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcoholism, the colloquial term for alcohol use disorder, is primarily defined by:
- An inability to stop drinking or curb alcohol consumption in the face of health, relational, financial, and legal consequences.
- A preoccupation with drinking that may interfere with work, school, relationships, and obligations.
- A need to increase alcohol consumption to achieve the desired effects, which can lead to alcohol tolerance and dependence, wherein an individual may become physically reliant upon alcohol.
Alcoholism isn’t just a matter of managing hangovers and having difficulty with your partner, boss, or family. Left untreated, it can increase your vulnerability to complex health issues, up your risk for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, and psychosis, and lead to issues ranging from domestic violence to suicide.4
Thankfully, quality alcohol addiction treatment is widely available, and recovering from alcoholism is possible.
7 Signs of Alcoholism
Given that you can purchase alcohol just about anywhere—from corner markets to a seat on a flight—it’s easy to forget the fact that alcohol is a drug. This alone can blur the distinction between socializing with alcohol and alcohol use disorder.
That said, there are a number of signs that can point to AUD. Some of them include:
#1 Drinking Every Day
Drinking may start off innocuously enough—a few pints at a college soiree, a martini at Happy Hour with your colleagues, or a glass of wine with dinner.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with the thought of skipping a day of drinking, or find it virtually impossible to attend a social event without alcohol, it may be a sign that you’re veering into dangerous territory.
Drinking on a daily basis might also be accompanied by:
- Hiding evidence of your drinking from your friends, family members, and colleagues, such as stopping at a bar on your way home or to a work event, or getting rid of your bottles while your partner or family sleeps.
- Concealing the effects of a hangover or alcohol withdrawal symptoms from those closest to you.
- An inability to not drink on a daily basis, even if you tell yourself time and again to cut back or quit.
- An incapacity to stop drinking once you’ve started, or frequent episodes of binge drinking and alcohol misuse.5
- A preoccupation with drinking and impulsivity, such as driving to the liquor store late at night even if you have to work early in the morning.
#2 Getting Sick From Drinking Too Much
Alcohol abuse can wreak havoc on your brain and body, from the health of your major organs to your perceived age.6 And while getting ill from alcohol may appear like reason enough to stop drinking, the physical and psychological symptoms of alcoholism and withdrawal can perpetuate alcohol use.7
You (or your loved one) may become sick while drinking, such as vomiting or experiencing a crushing headache. But alcohol abuse also affects your health as it leaves your body, typically upon waking. This may include:8
- Alcohol shakes (tremors)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cold sweats
- Racing heartbeat
- Elevated blood pressure
In the event of alcohol poisoning—which may occur after drinking a great deal in a short period of time—you or your loved one may experience confusion, seizures, slow or irregular breathing, pale skin, hypothermia, or loss of consciousness.9 This requires immediate medical attention.
#3 Experiencing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
The presence of alcohol withdrawal symptoms is one of the biggest and most telltale signs of alcoholism. This occurs in the hours and even days after drinking has come to an end. The different stages of alcohol withdrawal can run the gamut from subtle to life-threatening.
In addition to the symptoms outlined above, alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Feelings of anxiety and depression
- Sleep disturbances, including vivid nightmares and insomnia
- Difficulty concentrating
- Dry heaving
- Pins and needles in your legs and feet
In some cases, the sudden cessation of prolonged, excessive alcohol dependence may manifest as delirium tremens—a severe form of withdrawal, often paired with hallucinations and psychosis, that has a high rate of fatality if left untreated.10 For this reason, it’s important to seek medical supervision when you start down the path of recovery and learn how to detox from alcohol safely.
#4 Inappropriate Behavior
Alcohol misuse and the loss of inhibition go hand-in-hand. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons you or your loved one began drinking in the first place—it’s the reason alcohol is considered a “social lubricant.”
That said, one of the signs of an alcoholic is inappropriate behavior that’s misaligned with the person you know your loved one to be—or yourself. This may include:11
- Increased aggression – Anger or aggression can surface in a variety of ways, from yelling at your loved one for a small mistake to starting a fight with someone at a bar.
- Poor judgment – With decreased inhibition, poor judgment often follows. This can lead to drinking and driving, especially as one’s tolerance increases and they “feel” sober despite drinking more than the legal limit.
- Changes in work performance – Intoxication and its negative effects can take a major toll on your mental health, motivation and your ability to perform your work duties. In fact, alcoholism is linked to work absenteeism and job loss.
Why does this inappropriate behavior happen? Intoxication (and alcohol withdrawal) may numb you to the recognition of negative consequences.
#5 Obvious Physical Effects on the Body
Harmful alcohol use can have immediate and long-term effects on the body to the point that they become noticeable to others. Some of the most obvious signs include:
- Weight loss or gain – Weight gain or loss may be a sign of alcohol addiction. Alcohol brims with “superfluous” calories (and may cause you to eat more than you’d intended, or foods you normally wouldn’t), or it may lead to alcohol ketoacidosis, a condition chiefly characterized by the inability to tolerate oral nutrition and weight loss.12
- Skin changes – Research indicates a connection between heavy drinking and skin changes, such as the development of psoriasis and eczema.13 You might also experience, or note in your loved one, broken capillaries and bruises and other skin injuries that may be the result of falls or accidents.
#6 Increased Tolerance to Alcohol
As noted above, prolonged or heavy drinking can result in alcohol tolerance—meaning, you or your loved one must drink more to experience the original rewards alcohol provided.
You may notice yourself reaching for another drink faster than you once did, or a loved one ordering more alcohol at a restaurant than normal but showing no indication of intoxication. This is one of the key signs of a functioning alcoholic’s tolerance and alcohol dependence.
#7 Financial Problems
The relationship between finances and alcoholism is complex. Economic crises can prompt problematic drinking, while problematic drinking can result in financial problems, whether it’s due to a job reduction or loss, overspending while intoxicated, or the cost of alcohol.14
In short, finances and alcoholism can quickly become a negative spiral when left untreated.
What is a Physical Dependence on Alcohol?
Alcohol dependence is inherently a progressive disease. The more you drink, the higher your tolerance becomes, and the greater your desire to feel the “rewards” of alcohol. This is called “neuroadaptation.” With it, you may need alcohol for both stimulation (such as happiness) and sedation (or sleep).
A physical dependence on alcohol means that you have trouble functioning without alcohol in your system. This may become visible in numerous ways, such as:
- Increased cravings for drinking alcohol
- Spending a great deal of time drinking, recovering from drinking, or planning how, where, and when you’ll drink next
- Trouble thinking about anything besides drinking
- Continuing to drink, even if you realize it is causing you anxiety, guilt, shame, and feelings of depression, as well as an inability to cope in the major domains of life like work and romantic relationships
If any of this sounds familiar, rest assured that you are not alone—and that help is amply available. From holistic rehab and intensive outpatient programs to 12-step meetings and alternative alcohol addiction treatment therapies, there are many effective ways to reclaim your life or help your loved one achieve an alcohol-free existence.
Reaching Sobriety with Support
The signs of alcoholism can vary from sly to blatant—in yourself and in others. The heart-lifting news is that alcoholism doesn’t need to be a life sentence. Sobriety can be obtained, and with it, you can restore your health, well-being, happiness, and sense of purpose.
Elevate Rehab offers empathetic support in two ultra-healing settings: Santa Barbara and Lake Tahoe. With a talented, compassionate staff of therapists and doctors, we can help you identify the root causes of your addiction and develop healthy, sober strategies that will see you through the trials and joys in the years to come.
Reach out to us today for a consultation at one of our drug rehabs in California.
- JAMA Psychiatry. Prevalence of 12-month alcohol use, high-risk drinking, and DSM-IV alcohol use disorder in the United States. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2647079
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Understanding alcohol use disorder. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
- World Health Organization. Alcohol. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/alcohol
- National Library of Medicine. Alcohol dependence and harmful alcohol use – alcohol-use disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK65500/
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The cycle of alcohol addiction. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/cycle-alcohol-addiction
- Journal of Epidemiology and Community. Alcohol consumption, smoking and development of visible age-related signs: a prospective cohort study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29114032/
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh314/348-361.htm
- Drugs. Identification and management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4978420/
- Mayo Clinic. Alcohol poisoning. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386
- National Library of Medicine. Delirium tremens. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482134/
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Alcohol and social behavior: the psychology of drunken excess. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3981386/
- National Library of Medicine. Alcoholic ketoacidosis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430922/
- Alcohol and Alcoholism. Alcohol and the skin. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1292432/
- Social Science and Medicine. How economic crises affect alcohol consumption and alcohol-related health problems: a realist systematic review. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25771482/
Alok Krishna, MD
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