Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

Oasis Behavioral Health Hospital helps individuals in Chandler, AZ diagnose and treat their mental health & addiction disorders.

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Learn about alcohol and substance abuse

Because alcohol is legal for adults over the age of 21 and is a common fixture at parties and events, it can be particularly difficult to determine when drinking alcohol has crossed the line from casual drinking to problematic alcohol usage. Alcoholism is a disease characterized by a pattern of extreme drinking despite negative effects on the person’s academic, occupational, medical, legal, and/or social life. People who abuse alcohol may experience a variety of symptoms, including the need for more alcohol to achieve the desired effects (tolerance), withdrawal symptoms if the alcohol use is abruptly cut down or stopped, using more alcohol for a longer period of time than planned, and trouble reducing the amount consumed.

It is worth noting that a person may have a problem with alcohol even if the disease has not become full-blown alcoholism. Binge drinking, for example, is a practice popular among the teenage and college-aged population that involves a male drinking five or more drinks in a row, or a female drinking at least four drinks in a row. While not considered to be full-blown alcoholism, binge drinking can lead to the same health and interpersonal problems as alcoholism. While alcoholism is a chronic disease, with the right treatments and therapies, people can successfully recover and learn the skills needed to build a happy, successful, sober life.


Alcohol addiction statistics

Despite the focus upon illegal drug usage in the United States, alcohol remains the number one drug problem in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 51.3% of individuals aged 18 years and over admitted to being current drinkers. Nearly 18 million adults in the U.S. are dependent upon alcohol and in teens, alcohol is the most commonly abused drug; 14% of teens report having been intoxicated. In 2010, the number of alcohol liver disease deaths were close to 16,000, while the number of alcohol-induced deaths (excluding accidents and homicides) was nearly 26,000. Nearly 2,000 people under the age of 21 die each year in motor vehicle accidents in which underage drinking was involved.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for alcohol addiction

Researchers who specialize in the treatment of addiction do not believe that alcohol abuse and addiction is caused by a single factor. Rather, it is believed that alcoholism is a complex problem caused by a variety of environmental, genetic, and physical risk factors working together. The most commonly cited causes and risk factors for alcoholism include:

Genetic: Addiction has a known hereditary component as people who are born to parents or who have siblings with addiction problems are at a higher risk than others to develop alcoholism.

Physical: Over time, and with repeated use, alcohol may actually change the structures and pathways of the brain that are associated with pleasure, judgment, and the ability to exercise control over behaviors.

Environment: The influence of environmental factors can increase the chances that a person will develop alcoholism. The earlier the age at which a person began to experiment with drugs and/or alcohol, the greater the likelihood of developing an addiction down the road.

Risk Factors:

  • Starting to drink at a younger age
  • Depression and other mental health concerns
  • Having friends or a partner who drinks regularly
  • Inadequate coping skills
  • Being male
  • History of childhood physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction

The symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol abuse vary vastly from person to person based upon one’s genetic makeup, one’s individual temperament, the amount of alcohol consumed, the frequency of use, and/or the presence of other drugs. The most common symptoms of alcohol abuse and alcoholism include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Drinking alone
  • Forgetting conversations and commitments
  • Reduced pleasure in previously-enjoyed activities
  • Stashing alcohol in a number of places around the house
  • Irritation and agitation when unable to procure alcohol
  • Inability to fulfill obligations at home, work, school, or with friends
  • Intense preoccupation with obtaining alcohol, consuming alcohol, and recovering from the negative effects of alcohol
  • Violent, aggressive behaviors
  • Increase in risk-taking behaviors while intoxicated, such as driving while drunk

Physical symptoms:

  • Alcohol smell on breath or skin
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is abruptly stopped or drastically reduced
  • Flushed skin
  • Red, bloodshot eyes
  • Deterioration in physical appearance
  • Poor hygiene
  • Impaired coordination
  • Damage to all organ systems
  • Decreased immune functioning; increased infections

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Decreased attention span
  • Memory loss
  • Challenges with cogitation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Psychosis
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Emotional labiality


Effects of alcohol addiction

Alcohol damages every part of an addict’s life. The long-term effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism differ depending upon the amount consumed, length of alcohol addiction, presence of other drugs or alcohol, and the frequency of consumption. The most common effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism include:

  • Job loss or academic failure
  • Consequences of risky behaviors
  • Legal problems and incarceration
  • Increased violent crimes, including domestic and child abuse
  • Divorce
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Increased risks for cancer
  • Weakened immune system
  • Severe negative health consequences
  • Dementia and confusion
  • Stroke
  • Suicide
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of alcohol withdrawal and overdose

Withdrawing from chronic alcohol abuse can be very dangerous. Withdrawal from alcohol should always be done under the careful watch of trained medical personnel in a hospital or addiction treatment center to prevent complications as symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal tend to begin within 12 to 24 hours following the last drink and include:

  • Mild anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DT’s) – a life-threatening condition characterized by confusion, rapid heartbeat, and high fever. The DT’s lead to death in approximately 1% to 5% of affected individuals.

Symptoms of alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, can quickly lead to serious and deadly consequences if not promptly treated – call 911 immediately if alcohol poisoning is suspected. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning may include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty maintaining consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Trouble breathing
  • Dangerously reduced heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Dulled reflexes
  • Hyperthermia
  • Coma
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorders

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse rarely occur in the absence of other, co-occurring mental health disorders. The most common co-occurring, co-morbid mental health disorders include:

  • Other substance abuse
  • Depression
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
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