Alcoholism Symptoms, Signs, and Warnings

Questions about treatment?
  • Access to licensed treatment centers
  • Information on treatment plans
  • Financial assistance options
We're available 24/7
Solutions Recovery - help information

Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition that manifests as difficulty or inability to stop or control alcohol use, despite its adverse effects on social, occupational, physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. Left untreated, AUD can lead to a host of health problems and, in the most severe cases, even death.1

However, despite its adverse effects, alcohol remains the most abused substance in the United States and the rest of the world. In 2020 alone, more than 28 million US citizens aged 12 or older were affected by AUD to some degree.1,2

The reason for this is that alcohol and its effect are often misunderstood and underestimated, due to it being widely available, affordable, and legal, as well as drinking being socially acceptable. In fact, its use is often viewed in a favorable and positive light and even encouraged in many social circles as it is considered (mostly) harmless.3

The combination of the factors mentioned above is why alcohol misuse is so dangerous and why so many people succumb to alcoholism on a daily basis. As such, learning to recognize symptoms and early warning signs of Alcohol addiction in yourself or someone close to you is absolutely essential for everyone’s well-being, as early alcoholism diagnosis can greatly improve a person’s chance of recovery.1

What are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism?

AUD manifests in many different ways. However, the symptoms can vary on a per-person basis and emerge during different stages of alcoholism. Some signs are easy to recognize, while others may remain hidden for prolonged periods. Alcoholism symptoms can be sorted into three categories:4

  • Physical;
  • Behavioral;
  • Psychological.

Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcohol consumption can take a great toll on the body, even if it is only a one-time episode of binge drinking. Due to the body’s limited ability to process it, as well as the fact that it rapidly spreads through the bloodstream means that alcohol can put a severe strain on virtually every major organ, including:4,5,6

  • Brain;
  • Nervous system;
  • Hearth;
  • Immune system;
  • Lungs;
  • Stomach;
  • Liver;
  • Kidneys;
  • Pancreas.

Negative effects of alcohol can be short-term and long-term and vary in intensity from mild to severe, depending on which stage of alcoholism the person is currently at.4

Short-term physical effects of alcohol

A person can experience negative effects of alcohol, even if they do not drink on a regular basis. Some short-term effects of alcohol are quick to show, usually within 15-45 minutes of consumption, although this can vary on a per-person basis, depending on a number of factors (age, weight, gender, etc.).1,4

In most cases, these adverse effects are a result of a single episode of heavy alcohol use (binge drinking). Even so, the ramifications may persist for a long period after intoxication. Short-term physical symptoms of alcohol abuse may include:1

  • Blurred vision;
  • Distorted hearing;
  • Headaches;
  • Hangover;
  • Blackouts;
  • Unconsciousness;
  • Impaired speech (slurring);
  • Nausea;
  • Vomiting;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Dehydration;
  • Impaired coordination (reduced dexterity);
  • Alcohol poisoning;
  • Breathing difficulties;
  • Coma;
  • Death.

Alcohol poisoning is one of the most dangerous short-term effects of alcoholism. It can cause a drastic drop in blood pressure and body temperature, inconsistent heart rate, and breathing difficulties. In the most severe cases, alcohol poisoning can lead to a coma or even a fatal outcome. 7,8

Long-term physical effects of alcoholism

Overindulging in alcohol on a regular basis (alcohol abuse) can have severe and irreversible effects on a person’s body. Direct consequences of prolonged alcohol abuse may involve:8,9,10,11,12

  • Heart diseases: high blood pressure, increased chance of suffering cardiac arrest or stroke, anemia;
  • Liver diseases: fatty liver, cirrhosis;
  • Brain damage: memory loss, a greater chance of developing dementia;
  • Pancreas diseases: pancreatitis (pancreas inflammation) that can lead to diabetes and increase the chance of developing pancreatic cancer;
  • Nerve damage: sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia) or nerve pain (allodynia), and muscle spasms, tremors, or cramps;
  • Compromised immune system: increased chance of contracting various diseases;
  • Stomach issues: gastritis;
  • Bone diseases: osteoporosis;
  • Sexual problems: erectile dysfunction, infertility;
  • Various types of cancer: increased chance of developing cancer (colon, throat, liver, etc.)

Behavioral Symptoms of Alcoholism

Individuals who suffer from AUD often start acting differently than they usually do. This change in behavior is in part due to the social stigma that surrounds alcoholism and in part because of alcohol’s effect on the brain.14

Of all the signs of alcohol abuse, behavioral ones are the easiest to spot, since they cause the greatest amount of distress to individuals closest to the person. Behavioral signs of AUD may include:13,14

  • Taking unnecessary risks (driving under the influence, having unprotected sex, etc.);
  • Reckless or aggressive behavior (fighting, stealing, etc.);
  • Drinking alone and at unusual times (such as first thing in the morning);
  • Difficulty or inability to deal with problematic and/or stressful situations without being intoxicated;
  • Secretive or suspicious behavior (e.g. locking the door to their room without apparent reason);
  • Isolation from family and friends;
  • Sudden and inexplicable change in social circles;
  • Legal problems (as a result of common crimes committed during inebriation, such as drunk driving);
  • Constant and increasing financial issues;
  • Abandonment of previously enjoyed activities (such as hobbies or sports);
  • General neglect of responsibilities and obligations at work, school, and/or home;
  • General neglect for appearance and personal hygiene;
  • Lashing out when others criticize their drinking.

Do note that said symptoms aren’t specific to AUD but, rather, to SUDs in general. Also, they share some common traits with certain mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder (BD). Therefore, if you notice these signs in a person close to you, it is important not to rush to conclusions. Rather, turn to a mental health or addiction treatment specialist to help you assess the situation and for further advice and guidance.13,14,15

Psychological Symptoms of Alcoholism

In addition to physical and behavioral signs, a person may exhibit a variety of psychological symptoms of alcoholism. Similarly to physical, psychological signs can be short-term or long-term and vary in intensity. Short-term symptoms may include:10,16

  • Intense and unpredictable mood swings (angry outbursts, apathy, etc.);
  • Impaired judgment;
  • Lowered inhibitions;
  • Cognitive impairment (inability to focus, memorize or remember information);
  • General confusion;
  • Possibility of developing temporary alcohol-induced psychiatric disorders (bipolar disorder, psychotic disorder, depressive disorder, etc.).

Alcohol overuse can also leave a lasting mark on a person’s psyche. Long-term effects can be as harmful as physical ones and may include:5,10,16

  • Development of permanent mental illness (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.)
  • Impeded brain development in teens and young adults;
  • Development of tolerance to alcohol, which can progress to dependency and lead to addiction forming;
  • Self-harming or suicidal behavior.

The intensity of short and long-term symptoms can vary based on how far the alcoholism progressed. However, even in the early stages, they can be detrimental. AUD hinders the person’s ability to function normally, without help, or at all in virtually every sphere of life, including personal relationships, as well as professional and academic performance. 4

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

After continuous and excessive use, the body forms a dependency on alcohol. In other words, it becomes unable to function without it. However, while limited in its capability to process alcohol, the human body does have the ability to purge itself of harmful substances. This natural process is called “detoxification” or “detox” for short.5,6

Once a person cuts down on alcohol consumption or stops using entirely, the detox process begins. However, since the body considers this altered state a “new normal”, abrupt cessation causes withdrawal symptoms to emerge.18,19

Signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may range from mild to severe and can include:19

  • Increased blood pressure (hypertension);
  • Increased heart rate (tachycardia);
  • Headaches;
  • Mild to moderate tremors (shakes);
  • Increased body temperature (hyperthermia);
  • Rapid breathing;
  • Mood changes (irritability, agitation, anxiety);
  • Insomnia;
  • Fatigue.

The most dangerous withdrawal effects result from changes in the brain chemistry caused by prolonged alcohol use. In the most severe cases, a person can develop Delirium Tremens (DT). DT is an incredibly dangerous condition, characterized by shaking, excessive sweating, very high temperatures, hallucinations, and severe seizures that can potentially be life-threatening.18,19,20

Aside from carrying great risks to a person’s health, withdrawal can also be increasingly uncomfortable, depending on the stage of AUD. Therefore, it is highly advisable to seek professional help when quitting alcohol. Today, there is a wide variety of withdrawal management treatments, including medication-assisted detoxification (medical detox) that vastly increase patients’ safety and comfort during the withdrawal process.18,19,20

How Dangerous is Alcohol Abuse?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol can be linked to over 200 diseases and health issues, many of which can have fatal outcomes. Prolonged and intensive use of alcohol can lead to a vast array of adverse effects on virtually every part of the body.21

Lastly, when alcohol abuse spirals out of control (i.e. becomes a fully-formed AUD), it can affect other areas of a person’s life, including their social, economic, romantic, academic, and professional statuses. These issues can also negatively impact individuals closest to them, causing psychological, emotional, and, in some cases, physical harm that can persist throughout their lives.22,23

When Should I See a Doctor for Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?

In general, it is better to seek treatment for AUD sooner, rather than later. However, some conditions require immediate medical attention, due to their severity and/or possibility to cause incremental and severe problems, both to the person affected and those around them.25,26

You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if drinking makes you:26

  • Put yourself at risk of hurting yourself or others;
  • Start having difficulty breathing;
  • Feel pressure or tightness in your chest;
  • Experience irregular heartbeat;
  • Feverish and shaking uncontrollably;
  • Unable to control bodily functions;
  • Feel confused and/or disoriented.

Most of these symptoms are consistent with alcohol poisoning, which is dangerous and can be fatal. Therefore, quick action by a medical professional is imperative in order to avoid further complications.27

Are You Experiencing Any Symptoms of Alcoholism? What is Next?

If you or your loved one is showing symptoms of alcohol addiction, it is essential to get help as soon as possible. At American Addiction Centers (AAC), struggling individuals can receive assistance from qualified professionals and begin their journey to recovery in a safe and meaningful way.

Our nation-wide network of verified treatment centers offers an array of proven AUD treatment methods, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and evidence-based therapies, as well as a variety of support groups led by certified Addiction Counselors.

Our helpline is available 24/7 and our experienced admission navigators will answer any questions you may have about AUD and how to overcome it. Contact us today to find out more about your options, our facilities, and different payment methods.