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Warning Signs & Symptoms of Alcoholism

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Each year, 140,000 people die from alcohol use in the United States.1 This leading risk factor has shortened lives by 26 years, on average. 

Alcoholism is a complex condition that can sneak up on people who succumb to it. Their loved ones, friends, and colleagues might see the occasional glass of wine or beer as harmless fun. They might also dismiss low-key drinking habits as nothing to worry about. 

When this happens, it’s often called “the invisible elephant in the room” and signals that someone may be grappling with alcohol consumption issues and the health complications that go along with it privately. 

The symptoms of alcohol use disorder vary from mental disorders to physical.3 Isolation and secrecy are the most common behavioral symptoms.4, 5 On the other hand, slow reaction times and memory loss are other apparent physical signs of alcoholism.6, 7

This article explains what alcoholism looks like with tips on how to navigate it.

DSM Definition of Alcoholism

Alcoholism refers to the inability of someone to control their binge drinking habits despite the adverse physical and mental health effects of excessive consumption. Among the most common terms for alcoholism are alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

Alcohol abuse or AUD is a long-term chronic disease that follows after an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Drinking heavily leads to alcohol abuse and can drive a person into various legal or personal woes. 

Heavy drinking of alcohol affects our health in a variety of ways. Lack of timely addiction treatment for alcoholism can result in adverse health effects and fatal outcomes. You can avoid this by catching hints of alcoholism and mild alcohol use disorder early on and leveraging treatments for the condition.8

Behavioral and Psychological Signs of Alcoholism

The behavioral effects of alcoholism are very apparent. People suffering from AUD tend to become very secretive and don’t want to hear others’ concerns.

People with AUD may drink heavily in private or go into public bars where they’re less likely to bump into friends and family members. 

Someone who frequently uses alcohol might get into a lot of accidents.9 They may also hide alcohol around the house or in their offices for fear of getting caught.

Some additional behavioral and mental effects of alcoholism are mentioned below: 

  • Losing sight of their personal hygiene and physical appearance
  • Increased legal troubles involving assault, misconduct, vandalism, and drunk driving
  • Showing up under the influence of alcohol at work or family events
  • Making rash financial decisions
  • Participating in unhealthy activities like gambling and unprotected sex
  • Extreme mood swings

Physical Symptoms of Alcoholism

Effects of alcoholism aren’t just limited to your behavioral and mental health. There are also several physical signs. 

Some of the symptoms are mentioned below:

  • Frequent drinking
  • Occasional blackouts while binge drinking
  • Slow reaction time
  • Troubles with motor coordination 
  • Poor judgment of the situation
  • Memory loss

When AUD reaches the severe stage, it can cause life-long physical effects that may necessitate addiction treatment. As alcohol abuse worsens, people tend to neglect their nutritional health and present severe hair and weight loss.

If left untreated, physical symptoms of alcoholism may lead to other severe health issues: 

  • Liver damage
  • Organ failure

Signs of Alcohol Use in Teenagers

Teens abuse alcohol, too. In addition to underage drug abuse and substance abuse, underage binge drinking in teens has become a dilemma that puts many young lives at risk. 

According to a statistics report more than 29% of students in high school drink alcohol. Among them, 19% binge drink.12

Teen alcohol use is a severe public health sector crisis in the United States and continues to grow.

Various factors play a critical role in teen substance use, including:

  • Peer pressure
  • Genetic factors
  • Unhealthy family dynamics
  • Stress
  • Bipolar disorder and other mental health disorders

Many early teenagers resort to drinking when they struggle to cope with their stress. If you know a teen who may be suffering from AUD, the best thing you can do is get them the support they need. 

Common symptoms of alcoholism in teenagers include: 

  • Frequent hangovers
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of interest in fun activities
  • Poor sleeping cycles 
  • Loss of focus and the ability to concentrate
  • Day drinking

Health Effects of Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse has immediate health effects, including ones that are very apparent and should be treated accordingly. These symptoms may appear immediately, while some take time to develop depending on how much and often the person consumes alcoholic drinks. 

Short-Term Effects

The following are examples of alcohol use’s immediate health effects:13  

  • Assaults
  • Injuries
  • Intoxication
  • STDs 
  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Poor pregnancy outcomes
  • Weakened immune system 

The negative consequences of daily drinking can range from automobile accidents and overdoses to an increased risk of violence and homicides.

Long-Term Effects

Potential long-term effects of alcohol use disorder include: 

  • Liver disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiac issues 
  • Cancer

It takes time for these diseases to take root in your body. If functional alcoholics don’t let up with their problem drinking, they’re at a higher risk of developing one of these conditions. 

Can You Reverse the Symptoms of Alcohol Use?

Most people who struggle with alcohol use disorder can reverse it in a year with consistent treatment and sobriety.14 Keep in mind that it may take longer depending on the person’s determination. 

Given that they agree not to consume alcohol and to follow a sober life and follow recommended treatments, alcoholism damage can be rectified in most cases. 

Alcoholism Treatment Options

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how long it takes to recover from alcohol use disorder. However, strict treatments are often administered to combat AUD effectively.15

A study on pharmacological treatment options given to college students revealed that 25% of the participants were receptive to taking medication. The study further suggested that naltrexone may help stop drinking in excess.16

Below are other common treatments recommended for alcohol use disorder.

Inpatient Treatment

Residential or inpatient treatment refers to the rehabilitation process of a person dealing with AUD. The duration of inpatient treatment varies by the treatment centers that offer them. In some cases, participants are advised to stay for 4-6 weeks, while others receive clearance to leave fortnightly.

Partial Hospitalization Programs

Partial hospitalization programs are the most intense outpatient treatments. They often entail the participant living primarily at home and visiting a hospital daily for limited amounts of time. The average duration of daily treatment could range from 8-10 hours.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient programs offer many of the same benefits as inpatient programs, such as clinical treatment, counseling, group or 1:1 therapy, and medical care. However, outpatient programs are usually less intensive and restrictive than inpatient treatment. 

This treatment is ideal for people who want to get better but don’t need to be in a hospital or treatment facility 24/7.

Outpatient treatment has different levels of intensity. A lot of times, people can transition from inpatient treatment to outpatient treatment depending on their progress.

Support Groups

Support groups are a form of therapy where several people come together and talk about what they’re going through. This non-intense form of treatment allows for a psychological recovery journey from AUD.

Summary 

Are you or a loved one showing hints of alcohol use disorder? It’s worth taking a moment to check. A loved one struggling with alcohol use disorder calls for immediate and active measures, including: 

  • Frequently checking in on them 
  • Regularly assessing their behaviors, especially their eating and drinking habits
  • Looking out for the development of odd behaviors
  • Finding symptoms of alcohol use disorder early on 
  • Helping them overcome alcohol abuse

If a person drinks more than they should, help is available through trusted sources such as a medical professional, a mental health professional, or a local treatment center.  

If your loved one has an alcohol problem, they can receive treatment under medical supervision at one of the many locations across the country.

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Updated on September 23, 2022
16 sources cited
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  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Strategic Plan 2017-2021.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Apr. 2017
  3. Witztum E, Ben-Zion IZ, Lerner V. “Alcoholic delirium: warning signs and diagnosis.” Harefuah, 1 Feb. 1999
  4. Canham SL, Mauro PM, Kaufmann CN, Sixsmith A. “Association of Alcohol Use and Loneliness Frequency Among Middle-Aged and Older Adult Drinkers.” J Aging Health, 16 Jun. 2015
  5. O'Hollaren P, Wellman WM. “Hidden alcoholics.” Calif Med, Aug. 1958
  6. Hernández OH, Vogel-Sprott M, Ke-Aznar VI. “Alcohol impairs the cognitive component of reaction time to an omitted stimulus: a replication and an extension.” J Stud Alcohol Drugs, Mar. 2007
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  8. Simons JS, Carey KB, Wills TA. “Alcohol abuse and dependence symptoms: a multidimensional model of common and specific etiology.” Psychol Addict Behav, 23 Sep. 2009
  9. Taylor B, Irving HM, Kanteres F, Room R, Borges G, Cherpitel C, Greenfield T, Rehm J. “The more you drink, the harder you fall: a systematic review and meta-analysis of how acute alcohol consumption and injury or collision risk increase together.” Drug Alcohol Depend, 16 Mar 2010
  10. Patel R, Mueller M. “Alcoholic Liver Disease.” StatPearls Publishing, 19. Jan. 2022 
  11. Osna NA, Kharbanda KK. “Multi-Organ Alcohol-Related Damage: Mechanisms and Treatment.” Biomolecules, 15 Apr. 2016
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Apr. 2022
  13. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Excessive Alcohol Use.” National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 6 Jun. 2022
  14. Huebner RB, Kantor LW. “Advances in alcoholism treatment.” Alcohol Res Health, 2011
  15. Antonelli M, Ferrulli A, Sestito L, Vassallo GA, Tarli C, Mosoni C, Rando MM, Mirijello A, Gasbarrini A, Addolorato G. “Alcohol addiction - the safety of available approved treatment options.” Expert Opin Drug Saf, 20 Nov. 2017
  16. Epler AJ, Sher KJ, Loomis TB, O'Malley SS. “College student receptiveness to various alcohol treatment options.” J Am Coll Health, Jul-Aug. 2009

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