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Alcohol & Health
Helping Alcoholics
Where Does My Call Go?
Updated on September 14, 2023
9 min read

What is Alcoholism & How to Recognize its Symptoms?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), or “alcoholism,” is a condition where a person craves or needs to drink alcohol. Excessive alcohol use is an extreme health hazard, and it can cause significant damage to a person’s life.

Alcoholism can lead to the following:

  • Physical health problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Social isolation
  • Legal troubles
  • Financial problems

A person with AUD doesn’t know when or how to stop drinking. They have a strong physical need to consume alcohol regardless of its adverse effects.

How Common is Alcoholism?

Nearly 50% of adults in the U.S. have drunk alcohol in the past month. The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported:12

  • 5.2 million people aged 18 to 25 have an alcohol use disorder
  • 17.7 million U.S. citizens aged 12 and up are heavy alcohol users

DSM-5 Definition of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Clinicians and psychiatrists use the DSM-5 to diagnose mental disorders. It provides a common language and framework for diagnosis.

DSM-5’s definition of AUD is a pattern of alcohol consumption that often leads to clinically significant distress. The DSM-5 uses a set of criteria to determine the severity of AUD.

These criteria come in the form of questions. It asks, in the past year, have you:

  1. Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
  2. More than once, wanted to cut down or stop drinking or tried to, but couldn’t?
  3. Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
  4. Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
  5. Found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  6. Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  7. Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you to drink?
  8. More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  9. Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  10. Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  11. Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?

Meeting two to three of these criteria is mild alcoholism. Moderate AUD meets four to five criteria, and severe alcoholism is six or more.


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Warning Signs of Alcoholism

Unlike meth or cocaine, alcohol isn’t considered dangerous. Because regular alcohol use is widely accepted, it can be challenging to recognize the symptoms of alcoholism.4

It’s difficult to differentiate someone who drinks for fun from someone with a severe drinking problem. However, several identifiable symptoms of AUD can help you confirm the latter. Symptoms include:

  • Frequent drinking 
  • Drinking at inappropriate times
  • High tolerance for alcohol
  • Finding reasons to drink
  • Going into isolation
  • Dependence on alcohol for everyday functionality 
  • Depression and emotional issues
  • Lack of professionalism

Failure to detect a person’s alcohol addiction early on can result in worsening symptoms. For instance, that person could greatly suffer from mental and physical health problems.

It’s best to seek help as early as possible to increase the chances of successful addiction recovery.

Behavioral and Mental Signs of Alcoholism

People suffering from AUD tend to follow specific behavioral patterns when influenced by alcohol.5 Alcoholics tend to behave differently when trying to hide their drinking problems from their family and friends. Behavioral signs of alcoholism may include:

  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, home, or school
  • Drinking in secret or hiding alcohol
  • Lying about drinking habits
  • Experiencing financial problems due to excessive drinking
  • Drinking despite negative consequences (losing a job, legal issues, etc.)

Mental signs of alcoholism may include:

  • Obsessing about alcohol and when the next drink will be available
  • Experiencing blackouts or memory loss due to drinking
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol, needing more and more to get drunk
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as anxiety, shaking, or sweating

Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism

The physical symptoms of alcoholism can vary depending on how much and how often someone drinks. Some people may only experience mild symptoms, while others may develop serious health complications.

Common physical symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Memory problems
  • Impaired coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Vision problems

Why Do People Develop Alcoholism?

There is no one cause for alcoholism. Many biological, psychological, environmental, and socioeconomic risk factors are attributed to this condition.

Many factors can increase someone’s risk of developing alcoholism. Some of these, like our genes and family history, are out of our control. But we can also reduce our risk, like choosing not to drink alcohol or drinking in moderation.

Here are some of the most common risk factors for developing alcoholism:

Family History

If you grew up in an alcoholic household, you’re at a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Early exposure to alcohol at a young age can increase the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic.

Aside from the environmental factor, there are also genetic factors. Studies have shown that biological children of alcoholics are at risk of becoming alcoholics themselves.


There is no gender-based difference regarding AUD.6 Both men and women are prone to developing alcoholism at the same rate. However, some studies suggest that men have a higher risk factor.7

Women are also more likely to feel the effects of alcohol much faster than men. This is because women have less body water than men, which means they receive higher concentrations of alcohol.

Mental Health Disorders

Having a mental health disorder can be a risk factor for alcoholism. Many people with psychological illnesses use alcohol to cope with their conditions.

This can cause a co-occurring disorder where the mental health disorder feeds into alcoholism. Mental health disorders that can risk alcoholism include:

  • Anxiety
  • Social anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Stressful Life Events

High-stress levels can often lead people to drink alcohol as a coping mechanism. This is especially true for high-risk professions like the military. By affecting the brain’s reward system, alcohol can be used to suppress negative emotions and stress.

Who Should Avoid Drinking Alcohol?

Research also shows that kids are more prone to developing AUD as adults if they grew up with one parent who struggled with it.8

The people who should drink cautiously or shouldn’t drink at all are:

  • Minors
  • Pregnant women
  • People on certain medications
  • People who show signs of withdrawal symptoms9

You should also avoid drinking if you’re planning on doing something that requires high attentiveness. This includes activities like sports, driving, or intense exercise.

Occasional drinks might not seem like a big deal. However, those more prone to developing alcoholism and having higher risk factors should avoid drinking at all costs.


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Short-Term Risks of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a progressive disease. This means that the symptoms and effects of drinking alcohol get worse over time. 

Although the short-term risks don’t seem that bad, they can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening. Some of the most common short-term effects of alcoholism include the following:

  • Blackouts
  • Memory problems
  • Mood swings
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness and loss of coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Frequent urination

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Long-Term Risks of Alcoholism

Over time, the damage caused by heavy drinking causes chronic or severe health problems. Many also deal with non-health problems in their lives.

Most people who have been dealing with AUD for a long time experience one or more of the following:

  • Emotional health issues, such as Hyperkatifeia10
  • Physical problems, including liver disease, heart disease, and cancer
  • Brain damage 
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of accidents and injuries
  • Failure to meet social obligations
  • Failure to complete work obligations
  • Financial problems due to spending a lot of money on alcohol
  • Legal issues due to the risky behavior

Treatment Options for Alcoholism 

Treatment options are more likely to work when the person is committed to bettering themselves. Here are a few treatment options for alcoholism.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is one of the most recommended and effective ways to treat alcoholism. The individual will have to admit themselves into a rehab center, undergo regular treatments, and remain at the facility for a specific period.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

A partial hospitalization program is a semi-inpatient treatment. The individual would visit a facility 6 days a week and undergo a strict treatment plan. They don’t have to check in the hospital for this treatment method.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is another available treatment for people suffering from AUD. This treatment allows the individual to remain involved in their daily activities and professional responsibilities while attending a daily program recommended by their doctor.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment for alcoholism involves using various therapies, medications, counseling sessions, and other necessary programs.

Alcohol Support Groups and Aftercare Programs

Aftercare programs revolve around relapse prevention and maintenance like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART recovery. There are also support groups for your loved ones, like Al-Anon.

When Should You Get Treatment?

Getting proper treatment for alcoholism is essential for recovery. Healthcare professionals can help you detox safely and provide assistance in maintaining your sobriety.

If you start to notice that your alcoholism is causing significant damage to your health and well-being, then it’s time to get treatment. The long-term risks of alcoholism are a good indicator of whether or not you need help.

If you have an alcoholic friend or relative, consider a direct heart-to-heart conversation about their problem. Approach them with sympathy and compassion to encourage them to seek treatment.


Alcoholism is a condition where a person cannot stop drinking. They have a strong need to drink alcohol despite the adverse effects.

Alcoholism has many detrimental effects on your life. This includes consequences to your finances, physical health, mental health, and social life.

Severe alcohol use can cause long-term side effects such as liver and heart disease. If you or someone you know suffers from AUD, seek treatment as soon as possible.

Updated on September 14, 2023
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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