Symptoms of Alcoholism
If you suspect you or someone you love may be developing an addiction to alcohol, it’s important to understand some of the symptoms of alcoholism earlier than later.
This will ensure you can identify a potentially life-threatening health issue that needs attention.
This article will discover some of the more common symptoms of alcoholism.
Symptoms of Alcoholism
If left unchecked, those early warning signs can progress into the full list of symptoms associated with alcoholism. These symptoms include physical, mental, social, and even legal consequences of alcohol use. A person with AUD is likely to experience some or all of the following symptoms of alcoholism.
A person who has become physically dependent on the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream will experience physical, mental, and emotional discomfort when transitioning to being sober. These withdrawal effects can occur anywhere from several hours to a couple of days after the last drink and typically include headache, shaking, anxiety, and irritability.
A person with AUD may swear off drinking on Monday, only to be back at it come Wednesday. What is happening, in this case, is that once the alcohol has been fully purged from the system, the desire to refuel it creeps back in. The intensity of the craving to consume alcohol can make any previous resolutions seem inapplicable.
A hallmark of a substance abuse disorder is the stubborn persistence of continuing to use the substance, regardless of the potential for negative consequences. The nature of addiction is that it overrides common sense and good intentions and prompts a person to forego all else in pursuit of the high. An addicted person will ignore the consequences even if it means drinking once more.
Alcohol addiction is a tricky problem in our society. On the one hand, the use of alcohol is glorified in the media as a sign of having a good time. On the other side of the equation is that over 14 million adults in the United States suffered from an alcohol use problem in 2019. While the science of addiction is an ever-increasing field of study, there is yet no concrete evidence of what it is that determines whether a person will go on to develop a problem with alcohol.
Early Warning Signs
Most often, signs of an alcohol problem will be noticed long before a person goes for an official screening. One of the first things to watch out for is a pattern of excessive drinking behavior. There is a difference between enjoying the occasional drinks with friends and needing to consume alcohol every night before bed. The severity of intoxication during pattern drinking should also be closely monitored, as there tends to be a gradual slide into consuming more alcohol than was initially intended.
Paying attention to how you feel and behave during and after the drinking is another way to determine if you are heading for a problem. Waking up with hangover symptoms, even after only drinking what you consider a moderate amount, can be the body’s way of alerting you to the fact that the drinking is not for you. Spending time going over what you said and did while drinking the night before is also a warning sign that you are in danger of developing the negative mental health effects of anxiety and guilt associated with problem drinking.
Variability of Risk Factors
One of the factors which may play a role in developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is the age of first use. Whether it has more to do with changing the developing brain chemistry or with initiating habits that will persist into adulthood is unclear, but studies have shown that over 70% of adults with a substance abuse problem began their use while under the age of 17. Setting the stage for alcohol addiction during youth can make it difficult to manage as an adult.
The arrangement of chromosomes can also play a role in determining response to alcohol use. Genetic studies have revealed that those carrying the Y chromosome have a special enzyme in the stomach that can better process and eliminate alcohol from the body. Without that enzyme, more alcohol remains in the bloodstream, and higher levels of intoxication occur. It may not seem fair, but XX folks cannot get away with drinking as much.
Researchers are finding that genetics may go even further regarding risk factors in developing a drinking problem. Scientists have isolated certain gene variations that not only play a role in developing alcohol dependence but may also influence the desire to drink in the first place. Certain genes decrease the risk of alcohol addiction, and the absence of certain genes increases that risk.
While the previously mentioned risk factors are still in a constant state of analysis, experts in the study of risk factors have overwhelmingly determined that underlying mental health disorders are at the core of many substance use disorders. Poor mental health–including mood and personality disorders – can influence the desire to engage in addictive behaviors and the ability to escape the addiction. Addictions that include both substance abuse and a mental health disorder are known as co-occurring conditions. Successful treatment in such cases often depends on the alcoholism and the mental health problems being addressed simultaneously.
Degrees of Severity
The line between acceptable – and unacceptable – alcohol use can be difficult to discern. For this reason, determinations can range from simple use to abuse to dependence and addiction. While one person can express drinking a few beers every night without a problem, another can experience negative consequences. The risk factors involved will play a part in what behaviors are determined to be problematic, as will the person’s level of honesty with self and others.
To qualify for an official diagnosis of AUD, a screening list of questions is administered. As noted, the nature of the questioning is highly dependent upon the subjective experiences of those involved. A person will be asked whether they believe drinking to be a problem, whether those around them have indicated that drinking is a problem and whether there have been any tangible consequences surrounding the alcohol use. If the drinking is determined to be a cause of concern for the drinker or for those around the drinker, a diagnosis can be provided. The qualifiers for the diagnoses can range from mild to severe, depending on the questions answered in the affirmative.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Facts and Statistics | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Published March 2022. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Published April 2021. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
- SAMHSA. The TEDS Report: Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30. Published online July 17, 2014:6.
- Yang P, Tao R, He C, Liu S, Wang Y, Zhang X. The Risk Factors of the Alcohol Use Disorders—Through Review of Its Comorbidities. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:303. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00303
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5 | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Published April 2021. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-use-disorder-comparison-between-dsm
Last medically reviewed October 12, 2022