Footprints to Recovery

The Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC

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Alcohol is often seen as harmless because it’s legal, but just because it’s legal doesn’t mean alcohol is safer than illicit drugs. Just like other forms of substance abuse, people can become dependent on alcohol, resulting in a dangerous and sometimes deadly addiction. Heavy alcohol use has many negative effects on a person’s health, mental health, and lifestyle. In fact, people with alcohol use disorder have an average lifespan that’s 24 to 28 years shorter than people without alcohol addiction. It’s important to understand the signs of alcoholism.

Alcoholism can also include binge drinking, which is defined as more than five drinks for men or more than four drinks for women within a two-hour period. Binge drinking is often done at parties or while at bars. And while people who binge drink may not meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, they can suffer the same short- and long-term consequences of alcoholics.

If you suspect a loved one is abusing alcohol, it’s important to look out for tell-tale signs. Some of the signs of alcoholism are obvious, while others are subtle. Take a look at many common ones below and consider whether any apply to your loved one. If so, it may be time to have a conversation about treatment options.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

It’s usually easy to recognize that someone has been drinking, if they have a severe alcohol dependence, they’re likely to need significantly higher amounts of alcohol before showing the telltale signs of alcoholism. People with long-standing alcoholism may be able to have several drinks before appearing intoxicated.

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
  • Liver damage, including cirrhosis of the liver
  • Brain damage, particularly among adolescents
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Anemia (a condition caused by a lack of red blood cells, often from a vitamin or iron deficiency)
  • Seizures
  • Gout (a buildup of acid in the joints causing severe pain and swelling)
  • Dementia
  • Poor hygiene
  • Increased risk of cancers
  • Weakened immune system
  • Osteoporosis (a condition that slows new bone growth, resulting in bone fractures)

Behavioral Signs of Alcoholism

People who are addicted to alcohol show certain behaviors while intoxicated. These short-term signs generally aren’t exclusive to alcohol abuse. This is important to keep in mind when ruling out other potential causes, like mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder. While drinking alcohol is considered socially acceptable, long-term addiction to alcohol is not. People who are addicted to alcohol behave differently as they start to try to hide their drinking from loved ones.

Short-term behavioral signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Risk-taking
  • Belligerent or aggressive behavior
  • Having risky sex
  • Driving recklessly

Long-term behavioral signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Drinking alone
  • Drinking before socializing or engaging in other anxiety-producing situations
  • Denying they have a problem with alcohol
  • Secretiveness
  • 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
  • Legal problems resulting from public intoxication, assault, drunk driving, or other crimes commonly committed while using alcohol

Mental and Emotional Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse changes and damages many areas of the brain, such as the dopamine receptors (or feel-good chemicals). It can cause damage to such an extent that the children of an alcoholic are more likely to suffer from alcoholism. Inheriting a likelihood to become an alcoholic from a parent decreases with each generation. This shows how harmful the irreversible effects of alcohol addiction are.

Short-term mental and emotional signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Blackouts
  • Memory impairments
  • Impaired judgment

Long-term mental and emotional signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Building up a tolerance for alcohol, or needing more over time to get drunk
  • Cravings
  • Shorter attention span
  • Needing to drink alcohol to prevent withdrawal symptoms 

Other Features of Alcohol Abuse

There are other risks associated with heavy drinking aside from the common symptoms. Alcohol abuse can cause indirect but devastating effects on yourself and others.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Using alcohol during pregnancy can cause the baby in utero to have fetal alcohol syndrome. Effects include:

  • Brain damage
  • Growth problems
  • Developmental delays
  • Poor balance and coordination

Any amount of alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, and there are no treatments for it. Alcohol can affect babies before their mothers even know they are pregnant.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawing from alcohol is notoriously dangerous. Symptoms of withdrawal can begin hours or days after the last drink. They include:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Problems sleeping

Delirium tremens (DTs) refers to a group of withdrawal symptoms experienced by people with severe alcoholism and includes confusion, hallucinations, and seizures.

Self-Assessment: Am I Addicted?

Talk to Your Loved One About Your Concerns

While it’s legal and common to drink alcohol, addiction to alcohol may be among the deadliest drug addictions there is. Its potential for abuse, withdrawal, and long-term health consequences means you have every reason to present your concerns to your loved one and offer to get them help. Don’t mistake their alcohol abuse for something normal.

Alcohol addiction treatment should always begin with medical detox. It’s extremely dangerous to try to quit alcohol cold turkey. In a medical setting, doctors and nurses are ready to treat whatever symptoms you experience and help make you as comfortable as possible.

After detox, it’s highly recommended to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. This will help identify and treat underlying reasons for the addiction. Many people turn to alcohol to cope with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. When a mental health and a substance abuse condition occur at the same time, it’s called a dual diagnosis. Left untreated, dual diagnosis comes with a high risk for relapse.

A few options for addiction treatment, depending on the level of care you need, are:

If you would like more information about any of these programs, contact Footprints to Recovery treatment center. Over a free and confidential phone call, we’ll help you decide which program may be right for you or your loved one. We’ll also guide you through the next steps of enrolling and getting started toward a bright future free of addiction.

The Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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