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The Signs of Alcoholism

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Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction, is essential for the health and well-being of yourself and your loved ones. In 2023, a reported 1 in 10 people over the age of 12 had Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), with prevalence increasing during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Seeking help for alcoholism has become even more crucial over the past few years.

Alcohol is often seen as harmless because it’s legal, but it’s no safer than illicit drugs. Just like other forms of substance abuse, people can become dependent on alcohol, resulting in a dangerous addiction cycle. Heavy alcohol use has many adverse effects on a person’s health, mental health, and lifestyle.

If you suspect a loved one is abusing alcohol, or you feel you may be struggling, becoming familiar with tell-tale signs is helpful. Some of the signs of alcoholism are obvious, while others are subtle. Continue to read to learn some common signs and symptoms of alcoholism.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

Significant alcohol use comes with some clear signs, particularly after a person has consumed enough alcohol to be impaired. Short-term physical signs may be what you notice in the minutes or hours after alcohol is consumed, while long-term physical signs can show up over time, usually years after alcohol addiction has started.

Short-term physical signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination or inability to walk properly
  • Slow reaction times
  • Blurry vision
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Hangovers

Long-term physical signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies
  • Liver damage
  • Cognitive issues
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Weakened immune system and other medical issues

Behavioral Signs of Alcoholism

In addition to physical signs, people who are addicted to alcohol show specific changes in behavior. These changes aren’t exclusive to alcohol abuse, which is helpful to keep in mind when ruling out other potential causes, like mental health conditions involving behavior changes. People who are addicted to alcohol may also be trying to cover up their drinking in various ways.

Behavioral signs of alcoholism to look for include:

  • Risk-taking behaviors (e.g., risky sexual activity)
  • Belligerent or aggressive behavior
  • Avoiding social gatherings with no alcohol
  • Drinking alone or before socializing to reduce anxiety
  • Denying they have a problem with alcohol
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Not engaging in activities they once enjoyed
  • Problems in relationships, work, or school
  • Drinking at unusual times, such as first thing in the morning
  • Driving drunk/reckless driving
  • Legal problems resulting from public intoxication, assault, or drunk driving

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Symptoms of alcoholism are somewhat different than signs because they are based on subjective reports of the person drinking and can be hard to measure. Symptoms of alcohol addiction include mental and emotional concerns and may include the following:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Blackouts
  • Memory impairments
  • Impaired judgment
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Building up a tolerance for alcohol (requiring more to get drunk)
  • Intense alcohol cravings
  • Shorter attention span
  • Needing to drink alcohol to prevent withdrawal symptoms
woman exhibiting depression, a sign of alcoholism

Stages of Alcoholism

Alcoholism can occur in different stages based on the severity of the addiction. It can be challenging to recognize addictive behavior until later in the stages, even if you know a person (or yourself) well.

Not everyone battling with alcoholism will progress through the stages linearly, and some may experience periods of remission or relapse. Additionally, not everyone will experience every stage, and the severity and progression of alcoholism can vary widely from person to person.

Early Stage: Experimentation

This stage typically begins with social drinking or experimentation. Alcohol is consumed occasionally and in moderate amounts. There may not be any significant adverse consequences at this point, and the person may not even recognize they have a problem.

Middle Stage: Problem Drinking

In this stage, drinking becomes more frequent and starts to interfere with daily life. The person may experience cravings for alcohol and may drink alone or in risky situations. They may begin to neglect responsibilities, experience mood swings, and encounter relationship problems. Despite negative consequences, they may continue to drink.

Late Stages: Dependence and Addiction

Later stages involve a clear physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. The person may experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking, such as tremors (also known as the DTs), sweating, anxiety, or nausea. Tolerance to alcohol has increased significantly, leading them to drink more to achieve the desired effects. Other areas of life, such as work, relationships, and health, may dramatically deteriorate.

If alcohol dependence continues without intervention, alcohol can begin to dominate the person’s life. They may prioritize drinking above all else, leading to severe consequences such as job loss, financial problems, legal issues, and health complications. Despite the negative impact on their life, they may find it extremely difficult to quit or cut down on drinking without professional help.

Effects of Alcoholism: Secondary Consequences

Alcoholism affects more than the individual who is addicted; it can have profound secondary consequences rippling through families and communities. Here are some additional ways alcoholism impacts other facets of life:

  • Family dysfunction – Alcoholism often leads to strained relationships within families and increased impact on the behavior and mental health of children who are directly involved
  • Financial and legal problems – Alcoholism can drain financial resources with the cost of alcohol itself, coupled with potential legal fees, medical bills, and lost wages
  • Workplace challenges – Alcoholism can impact job performance and impaired decision-making, leading to disciplinary actions and job loss
  • Community burden – Alcoholism places a burden on communities in terms of healthcare costs, law enforcement resources, social services, and lost productivity
man facing legal troubles, a sign of alcoholism

Self-Assessment: Am I Addicted?

What to Do About Alcoholism: Next Steps

Alcohol addiction is serious and often requires intervention and professional treatment. Seeking help for yourself or your loved one is a bold step; however, with the right tools, you can feel better equipped with a plan to move forward.

Alcohol addiction treatment typically begins with medical detox, where medical staff provide 24/7 supervision to monitor for safety. After detox, ongoing treatment for alcohol addiction can help identify and treat the underlying reasons for the addiction. Many people turn to alcohol to cope with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety or to escape the effects of a traumatic past; being able to address the root causes of alcoholism is another step on the path toward recovery.

There are multiple options for alcohol addiction treatment at Footprints to Recovery to address the specific needs of you or your loved one. For more information about these programs, call Footprints today. We are ready to help you decide which program may be right for you or your loved one. Hope and help are waiting for you with a future free of alcohol addiction.

Symptoms of Alcoholism image

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Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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