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Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

There are many signs and symptoms related to drinking problems. Alcoholism is a progressive disease, so the symptoms and negative effects of drinking become exponentially more serious as time goes on.

For those who use alcohol, they may begin to show signs of a problem early on, and then progress to some of the more serious symptoms of alcohol abuse. Should their drinking continue to escalate, increasingly more symptoms of alcoholism will appear. Drinking alcohol does not necessarily equate with the development of alcoholism, however for those with a history of addictive disease and mental health disorders in their family, vigilance is important.

Here are twenty questions commonly asked by many chemical dependency counselors of those who think they may have a problem. By answering three or more of these affirmatively, it is advised the person seek help sooner rather than later:

  1. Do you lose time from work due to your drinking?
  2. Is drinking making your home life unhappy?
  3. Do you drink because you are shy with other people?
  4. Is drinking affecting your reputation?
  5. Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
  6. Have you gotten into financial difficulties as a result of your drinking?
  7. Do you turn to lower companions and an inferior environment when drinking?
  8. Does your drinking make you careless of your family’s welfare?
  9. Has your ambition decreased since drinking?
  10. Do you crave a drink at a definite time daily?
  11. Do you want a drink the next morning?
  12. Does drinking cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
  13. Has your efficiency decreased since drinking?
  14. Is drinking jeopardizing your job or business?
  15. Do you drink to escape from worries or troubles?
  16. Do you drink alone?
  17. Have you ever had a complete loss of memory as a result of your drinking?
  18. Has your physician ever treated you for drinking?
  19. Do you drink to build up your self-confidence?
  20. Have you ever been in a hospital or institution on account of drinking?

Early signs of alcoholism can include regular and consistent intoxication, heavy drinking and risky drinking, such as while driving. Other sure signs of alcoholism include frequent blackouts and extreme mood swings while under the influence – the “Jekyll-Hyde Effect.”

Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

One of the first symptoms of alcohol abuse is when an individual continues to drink even though it has caused problems many times. To persist in this behavior even after consistently missing work, driving while intoxicated, getting in trouble with the law and abrogating one’s responsibilities to oneself and loved ones indicates serious alcohol abuse.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, IV (DSM IV), defines alcohol abuse as continuing “to consume alcohol despite the knowledge that continued consumption poses significant social or interpersonal problems for them (e.g., violent arguments with a spouse while intoxicated, child abuse).”

Symptoms of Alcoholism

For someone who is an alcoholic, the symptoms can include all of those associated with alcohol abuse (above). But alcoholics also continue to drink in spite of those problems.

When alcohol abuse reaches the alcohol dependence stage, the person also experiences at least three of seven other symptoms, including neglect of other activities, excessive use of alcohol, impaired control of alcohol consumption, persistence of alcohol use, large amounts of time spent in alcohol-related activities, withdrawal symptoms and tolerance of alcohol.

If an individual consumes alcohol simply to feel good, or to avoid feeling bad, their drinking has already become problematic. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse is, in the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, “cunning and baffling,” and sneaks up on its victims. This is why it’s important to know the warning signs and immediately take stock of the situation if they become apparent.

Most substance abuse experts make a distinction between alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Unlike alcoholics, alcohol abusers have some ability to set limits on their drinking. Nevertheless, their alcohol use is still self-destructive and dangerous to themselves or others. 

Common Signs and Symptoms of Abuse

  • Repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of drinking.
  • Using alcohol in situations where it’s physically dangerous, such as drinking and driving, operating machinery while intoxicated, or mixing alcohol with prescription medication against doctor’s orders.
  • Experiencing repeated legal problems on account of drinking.
  • Drinking as a way to relax or relieve stress. Many drinking problems start when people use alcohol to self-soothe and relieve stress. Getting drunk after every stressful day, for example, or reaching for a bottle every time you argue with your spouse or boss.

The Path from Alcohol Abuse to Alcoholism

Not all alcohol abusers become full-blown alcoholics, but it is a huge risk factor. Sometimes alcoholism develops suddenly in response to a stressful change, such as a breakup, retirement, or another loss. Other times, it gradually creeps up as the tolerance to alcohol increases. If one is a binge drinker or drinks every day, the risks of developing alcoholism are even greater.

Alcoholism is the most severe form of problem drinking. Alcoholism involves all the symptoms of alcohol abuse, but it also involves another element: physical dependence on alcohol. When an individual relies on alcohol to function or feel physically compelled to drink, that person is an alcoholic. There are two major warning signs of alcoholism:

Tolerance: The First Major Warning Sign of Alcoholism

There are two sure signs of alcohol tolerance:

1. When an individual needs considerably more alcohol than when they first started drinking to get high or even feel relaxed.

2. When the individual can drink everyone else in the room “under the table,” often without even getting drunk themselves.  

These signs of tolerance are pretty good indicators of early alcoholism. Tolerance simply means that, over time, more and more alcohol is required to feel the same effects.

Withdrawal: The Second Major Warning Sign of Alcoholism

Withdrawl from anything can be uncomfortable. With alcohol it can be painful and extremely dangerous. For example, getting the shakes the morning after is a sign of withdrawal and needing a drink to calm oneself only reinforces that fact.  Drinking to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms is a sign of alcoholism and a huge red flag. When you drink heavily, your body gets used to the alcohol and experiences withdrawal symptoms if it’s taken away. These symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety
  • The shakes
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache

In severe cases, withdrawal from alcohol can also involve hallucinations, confusion, seizures, fever, and agitation. These symptoms can be dangerous, even fatal, so it is important for the heavy drinker who wants to quit to consult their doctor and consider checking into a medical detoxification program where they can be safely monitored by trained professional personnel.

Five Myths About Alcoholism

Myth #1: The alcoholic can stop drinking anytime they want to.

Maybe they can; more than likely, they can’t. Either way, it’s just an excuse to keep drinking. Telling oneself they can quit makes the alcoholic feel in control, despite all evidence to the contrary and no matter the damage it’s doing. 

Myth #2: “My drinking is my problem. I’m the one it hurts, so no one has the right to tell me to stop!”

This is true in that the decision to quit drinking is up to the individual. But the alcoholic is engaging in self-deception if they think their drinking hurts no one else but them. Alcoholism affects everyone around the alcoholic, particularly the people closest to them. The alcoholic’s problem is their problem as well.

Myth #3: “I’m not a daily drinker, so I can’t be an alcoholic! Plus, I only drink wine or beer – no hard liquor”  

What one drinks, where they drink it and how much they drink is not what defines an alcoholic. Rather, it is the result of their drinking that defines whether or not it is a problem. If drinking is causing problems in the home or workplace, a drinking problem exists and one is most probably an alcoholic.

Myth #4: I’m not an alcoholic because I have a steady job and am good provider!”

Just because an individual isn’t homeless and lying in a gutter doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not an alcoholic. Many alcoholics are able to hold down a job, finish school and function at a reasonable level of subsistence. Some even become successful in their field. But that doesn’t mean they’re not putting themselves or others at risk as a result of their dangerous and self-destructive behavior. Ultimately, the effects of alcoholism always catch up to the individual – unfortunately for some, it is often too late.

Myth #5: Drinking is not a “real” addiction like drug abuse.  

Alcohol is a drug, and alcoholism is equally as damaging as hard drug addiction. The body and brain are severely damaged by alcohol addiction and, over time, the effects on one’s health are overwhelming, catastrophic and often fatal if gone unchecked. Plus, alcoholics go through physical withdrawal, just like drug users do, when they quit.

Identifying and Ending Alcoholism

In summation, alcoholism and alcohol abuse seriously affects all aspects of a person’s life.  Long-term alcohol use causes serious and debilitating health complications and adversely affects literally every organ in the body, including the brain. Problem drinking also can devastate one’s emotional stability, finances, career, and the ability to build and sustain satisfying relationships. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse also destroys relationships with friends, co-workers and, especially, one’s family, putting an incredible strain on all the people closest to the alcoholic.

Often, family members and close friends feel obligated to cover for the person with the drinking problem. So they take on the burden of cleaning up their messes, lying for them, or working more to make ends meet. Pretending that nothing is wrong and hiding away all of their fears and resentments can take an enormous toll. Children are especially sensitive and can suffer long-lasting emotional trauma when a parent or caretaker is an alcoholic or heavy drinker. Co-dependence and enabling run rampant in families and relationships involving alcoholics and alcoholism.  Once again, it bears repeating that alcoholism is a progressive disease. As such, it is important to take action as soon as any of the preceding signs and symptoms is identified. However, unless the alcoholic truly wishes to do something about his malady, the chances for success are very limited.