Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
It’s hard to know if you’re abusing alcohol. After all, it’s ingrained in our culture to celebrate both good times and bad. There are studies that show the benefits of drinking and others that show drinking any amount is terrible for your health. If you’re wondering if you have an alcohol abuse issue, then you might feel you’re alone. The truth is, you’re not. Millions of people suffer from alcohol abuse and, with the right kind of treatment, you can be free of this addiction.
There are a number of warning signs of alcohol abuse, but not all of them are obvious. Some people cover up their alcohol use by drinking in private and isolating themselves from others. Even more challenging to detect is mild alcohol abuse. What seems like a minor issue can quickly turn dangerous over time. While people who attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are accustomed to saying, “I am an alcoholic,” it might be a difficult fact for you to accept.
Denial doesn’t mean that alcohol isn’t playing a role in your life. It’s possible that you have the symptoms of alcoholism but can’t see them clearly. If this sounds like you, please know you’re not alone.
How Much is Too Much?
Current statistics show that alcoholism affects people in all age groups. In 2017, 26.4% of people over 18 reported drinking to excess in the past month. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a serious condition that can directly impact the quality of your life and of your relationships. When a person is diagnosed with AUD, it means that alcohol has begun to impact their life and cause significant harm.
Adults (ages 18+): According to the 2017 NSDUH, 14.1 million adults ages 18 and older (5.7% of this age group) had AUD. This includes 9.0 million men (7.5% of men in this age group) and 5.1 million women (4.0% of women in this age group).1
About 6.5% of adults (males and females) who had AUD in the past year received treatment.1
Youths (ages 12–17): According to the 2017 NSDUH, an estimated 443,000 adolescents ages 12–17 (1.8% of this age group) had AUD. This number includes 184,000 males (1.4% of males in this age group) and 259,000 females (2.1% of females in this age group).2
About 5.2% of youths who had AUD in the past year received treatment. This includes 5.8% of males and 4.8% of female with AUD in this age group. 3
Without treatment, alcohol abuse can have disastrous effects on the body. As with all addictions, each individual’s symptoms will vary. However, most alcoholics exhibit some of the following symptoms:
- Altered appearance that happens quickly.
- Becoming isolated or distant from close friends and family.
- Being extremely irritable.
- Mood swings that have no causal factor.
- Choosing to drink over handling responsibilities.
- Drinking alone.
- Feeling hungover without drinking.
- Making excuses for drinking.
- Short-term memory loss or blackouts while drinking.
How Alcohol Affects the Body
To understand the consequences of drinking, it’s important to know what experts consider one drink. A drink can be:
- 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer
- 809 ounces of 7% ABV malt liquor
- 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine
- 1/5 ounces of 80 proof (40% ABV) liquor
A person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) determines the effect alcohol has on the central nervous system. People who have a tolerance to alcohol can consume more than those who do not. Depending on your BAC, you might have a number of different side effects that range from minor to major. As BAC percentages increase, symptoms of alcohol overdose become more serious and can be life-threatening.4
Every organ in your body is affected by drinking. Some are at higher risk for damage than others.4
The effects of alcohol on the brain are felt almost immediately. Some long-term side effects are irreversible. Prolonged use of alcohol interferes with how the brain functions and how it’s structured. When damage to the brain occurs, it can impact the body’s communication pathways.
The heart may be weakened over time with prolonged alcohol use. Alcohol impacts how oxygen and nutrients are delivered to organs in the body. It can also increase triglyceride levels that contribute to the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
The liver breaks down alcohol and removes it from your blood. Heavy drinkers are at risk of developing many liver-related conditions. If you consume too much alcohol over a short period of time, you can develop fatty liver syndrome (FLS). FLS is a chronic condition that can lead to liver failure and Type 2 diabetes. Alcoholic hepatitis, along with cirrhosis and fibrosis of the liver, can also occur.
The pancreas is an integral part of the digestive system and helps regulate blood sugar levels. Drinking alcohol over many years can cause blood vessels around the pancreas to swell, leading to a condition called pancreatitis. This increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Developing a Tolerance
When you drink, you may be back to normal just a few hours after the binge is over. However, the alcohol might still be at work, and your body may come to rely on its effects. When the alcohol wears off, you may have symptoms of withdrawal such as shaking hands, sweating, or hallucinations. In order to keep these symptoms under control, you might develop habits such as:
- Drinking first thing in the morning.
- Waking up in the middle of the night for a drink.
- Stashing alcohol around your home, so you always have a drink nearby.
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol very quickly.
Over time, you might find that you can drink extremely large amounts of alcohol and never truly feel drunk. Instead, you might feel only slightly sedated at most.
If you are dependent on alcohol, you might be physically unable to stop drinking on your own. Some people who are physically dependent and try to stop drinking may have hallucinations or potentially life-threatening seizures. If you’re physically dependent on alcohol, you’ll need medical supervision to stop drinking safely.
Understanding that you have a problem with alcohol isn’t required in order to improve. In treatment, you’ll learn more about addiction, and this can make you more aware of how the disease operates in your own life. Even people who don’t admit that they are alcoholics when they enter treatment often fully admit their addictions when treatment ends. But the signs outlined here might help you begin to think about whether or not you have an addiction issue.
Alcohol abuse can lead to a number of issues that affect both your personal and professional life. Long term drinking puts you at risk for developing serious health complications and can cause other damage – like loss of friends, family, or even your profession.
One of the main reasons people don’t seek treatment is because they’re in denial about their alcohol abuse.
Blaming other people for your drinking or trying to rationalize your behavior are examples of being in denial about your addiction.
A Question of Control
Addiction is defined by compulsive use. People who are addicted are no longer in control. Instead, they are driven to feed their addictions, no matter the consequences. It might sound as though an addiction is easy to spot, but in reality, an addiction to alcohol can fly under the radar for months or even years.
While you may try to convince yourself that you don’t have a problem with alcohol, there are some compulsive behaviors that are difficult to hide. You may be a compulsive drinker if you:
- Are unable to limit the amount you drink.
- Create rituals regarding alcohol use, and become annoyed when those rituals can’t be met.
- Gulp down your drinks.
- Drink before going to parties or dinners.
- Try to get “extra” drinks at social engagements.5
Destructive Alcohol Use
As your addiction grows, there may be very few times during the day when you are not drunk. As a result, you may engage in behavior that could jeopardize your safety or the safety of others, such as driving under the influence of alcohol.
Being arrested for drunk driving substantially increased the risk of dying in an alcohol-related crash. Drinking and driving can be deadly.6
Your drinking might also land you in legal trouble. Some people engage in violent behavior while under the influence, getting in fights or resisting arrest,
These incidents can be extremely damaging, especially in the age of smartphones and social media where an arrest for drunk driving can result in instant notoriety.
The Role of Genetics
While no specific gene has been tied to an increased risk of alcoholism, it is known that the disorder tends to run in families. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), children of alcoholics are about four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, compared to children who did not grow up with alcoholics.7
If you grew up in an alcoholic household, it might be even more difficult for you to identify your own alcoholism.
Learn to Say “No, Thanks”
When you’re offered an alcoholic beverage, you’ll need to learn to say, “no.” It’s harder than you might think. Provide a halfhearted response, and you may be pressured to accept. Be too firm and you might lose a friendship.
The NIAAA offers these steps to help you navigate this challenge. When you’re offered a drink:
- Respond immediately.
- Look the person in the eye.
- Respond with a short sentence, such as, “No, thanks.”
- If this doesn’t stop the request, follow up with more information, such as, “I’m trying to cut back”, or “My doctor told me that alcohol isn’t great for my health right now.
Consider bringing your own nonalcoholic beverages to the party, so you can hold a drink in your hands at all times and deflect the question before it arises.
Why Can’t I Stop?
In a therapy program, you’ll work with a licensed counselor who knows all about how alcoholism develops and how it can best be treated. You’ll be given lessons in alcoholism, and you’ll have the chance to learn new skills and practice them on other people recovering from alcoholism. You’ll grow stronger and stronger and soon you won’t feel compelled to use alcohol in quite the same way. While your addiction might never be cured, and it’s certain you’ll never be able to drink again, therapy can help you to control your drinking and ensure that it doesn’t ruin your life.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables: Table 5.5A.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables: Table 5.5
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2017 (NSDUH-2017-DS0001).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). National Helpline.
- Brewer, R.D., Morris, P.D., Cole, T.B., Watkins, S., Patetta, M.J., Popkin, C. (1994). The Risk of Dying in Alcohol-Related Automobile Crashes Among Habitual Drunk Drivers. N Engl J Med, 331(8), 513-517.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1999). One in Four Children Exposed to Family Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism.