Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (Addiction)

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic relapsing brain disease. It affects your physical and mental health and actually changes the way that your brain works.

The symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD), vary widely. There are physical symptoms as well as psychological symptoms. An important part of recovery is understanding the different signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction.

Not all symptoms of alcohol addiction are physical, and many alcoholics become good at hiding alcoholism-related symptoms.

The DSM-5 (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders—the gold standard for mental health disorders in the United States) defines AUDs as substance use disorders where an individual displays two of the following 11 symptoms in a year:

  1. Drinking more or for longer than was intended
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop alcohol use
  3. Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol consumption
  4. Cravings for alcohol
  5. Failure to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home due to drinking alcohol
  6. Continuing to drink despite having social problems caused by the effects of alcohol
  7. Important social, work, or recreational activities are stopped or reduced because of alcohol use
  8. Drinking in physically dangerous situations
  9. Continuing to drink even though it is known to have negative effects on your health.
  10. Developing a tolerance
  11. Having withdrawal symptoms

Physical Symptoms of AUD

Physical symptoms associated with AUD occur due to the effects of alcohol on the body and brain. When you drink, you may experience slower reaction times, blackouts, a lack of coordination, impaired judgment, memory loss, and slurred speech. This can impair daily activities, such as working or driving.

Heavy drinking can wreak havoc on the body, resulting in a wide array of physical symptoms. These can include:

In cases where someone consumes an excessive amount of alcohol at one time, a loss of consciousness, coma, and even death is possible.

Alcoholics may experience intense cravings for alcohol, as well as a strong compulsion to continually drink. As the body develops a tolerance for alcohol, more alcohol is necessary to achieve the desired levels of intoxication and its perceived benefits.

withdrawal

Withdrawal Symptoms

When alcohol is not available, alcoholics may experience the withdrawal symptoms. With regular, excessive drinking, the brain adjusts its chemistry to try and balance out the depressant effects of alcohol by increasing the production of stimulating chemicals. When alcohol is not available, these increased chemical levels essentially overstimulate the brain, resulting in symptoms such as tremors, insomnia, and anxiety. 

In severe cases, delirium tremens, or DTs, occur. This happens because the brain is unable to rebalance, causing confusion in the brain that can result in normal body function regulation. In addition, this can affect your heart rate and blood pressure, which can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Withdrawal occurs during detox, which is the first step of virtually all alcohol treatment programs.

Mental & Behavioral Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

Behavioral symptoms are often what cause people to recognize that their friend or family member has an AUD. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Binge drinking
  • Replacing normal activities with drinking
  • Inability to stop drinking or reduce drinking
  • Loss of interest in previous hobbies or activities
  • Increased absences from work/school
  • Unexplained changes in mood
  • Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, aggression/irritability, paranoia, etc.
  • Money problems 
  • Legal problems

When Addiction Causes Major Health Problems and Symptoms

Many people with alcohol problems, especially functional alcoholics, do not notice symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD) until it is too late. Often, medical complications from alcohol are the first signs to an alcoholic that something is wrong.

Excessive alcohol use comes with many risk factors such as the liver, heart, and digestive system. When alcohol damages these organs, a variety of different medical conditions and symptoms can occur, including:

medical emergency

Liver Disease

Excessive drinking on a regular basis can lead to a variety of different medical conditions involving the liver. Fatty liver disease, or hepatic steatosis, occurs when alcohol damages the cells within the liver, resulting in a buildup of fat in the liver. This is often the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease and can progress to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is the late stage of liver disease where the liver becomes scarred, impairing liver function. Symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease include:

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss.
  • Swelling in the legs and abdomen.
  •  A yellowish tone to the skin and eyes (jaundice).
  • Redness on the palms of the hands.
  • Easy bruising and abnormal bleeding.
  • Confusion and problems with thinking and memory.
  •  Changes in stool color (pale or light color).
sideeffects

Digestive Issues

Alcohol is very caustic to the stomach and digestive system. So, excessive drinking can lead to a variety of digestive issues. This includes gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), stomach and esophageal ulcers, and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). In addition, regular alcohol use can affect the absorption of vitamins and nutrients necessary for normal body function. Symptoms of digestive issues can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Regurgitation of food
  • Acid reflux and heartburn
aftercare

Heart Problems

Alcohol negatively affects your heart rate and blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. Alcohol addiction also leads to a condition known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy. This condition occurs when long-term alcohol abuse weakens and thins the heart muscle and affects its ability to pump blood. Untreated, this can lead to congestive heart failure. Symptoms of alcoholic-related heart complications include:

  • Rapid and irregular pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Swelling in the legs, feet, and ankles
  • A cough that produces a frothy, pink mucus

Resources

“Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243.

“Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis Symptoms and Signs.” Alcohol.org, https://www.alcohol.org/comorbid/pancreatitis/.

“Alcoholic Gastritis: Stomach Pain, Bloating, Regurgitation, Vomiting.” Alcohol.org, https://www.alcohol.org/comorbid/gastritis/.

“Alcoholic Liver Disease: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000281.htm.

“Fatty Liver Disease.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 19 Nov. 2019, https://medlineplus.gov/fattyliverdisease.html.

Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” Harvard Health, https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/alcohol-withdrawal-a-to-z.

Solan, Janet Barwell and Matthew. “Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 8 Feb. 2018, https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/cardiomyopathy#symptoms.

Updated on: September 22, 2020
Author
Michael
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Medically Reviewed: June 3, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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