Alcoholism: Signs and Symptoms

Effects of Alcohol Abuse - Holding Glass of Whiskey

Alcoholism is widespread in the U.S., where an estimated 14.1 million adults are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, reports the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). This number may even be higher, as it doesn’t include the number of adults who are suffering from alcoholism in silence. Knowing the characteristics of an alcoholic can help you identify someone who may be at risk.

Here are some characteristics of an alcoholic, according to the NIAAA.

Drinking More Than Before to Achieve the Desired Effect

Alcoholics often need to drink higher amounts of alcohol than they did in the past just to experience euphoria and other desired effects. They may also find that one or two drinks no longer have the same effect they did in the past because of increased tolerance.

Drinking for Longer Than Intended

An alcoholic may drink more than the amount they planned (such as 6 drinks per night as opposed to 1) or drink for a longer period of time than intended (such as drinking for 8 hours as opposed to 2 hours). This can eventually happen due to strong cravings or increased tolerance from drinking regularly.

Wanting to Reduce or Stop Drinking but Can’t

An alcoholic may try to repeatedly cut down on the amount they drink or stop drinking altogether, but cannot due to physical dependence and addiction. Physical dependence can be safely treated with alcohol detox, while psychological addiction can be effectively treated at an alcohol and drug rehab center.

Spending Too Much Time Drinking or Recovering From Drinking

An alcoholic may spend an excessive amount of time drinking or making plans to drink. An alcoholic may also spend an ample amount of time recovering from the effects of drinking, such as spending the entire day on the couch feeling ill before resuming drinking again during the late afternoon or evening.

Experiencing Strong Cravings and Urges to Drink

An alcoholic will experience strong physical and/or psychological cravings and urges to drink. These urges are usually accompanied by obsessive thoughts and preoccupation with drinking.

Drinking Is Interfering With Home, Family, Career, and Education

A person who struggles with alcoholism will usually experience multiple problems with their home life, family, career, and education that are brought about by excessive drinking and alcohol abuse. Alcohol use may trigger arguments or domestic abuse at home and lower performance at work or school.

Continuing to Drink When It Causes Problems With Loved Ones

An alcoholic will continue to drink even when knowing their drinking behavior is causing problems with friends, relatives, and loved ones. Strained relationships, divorce, and estrangement are common consequences associated with drinking.

Giving Up Important Activities to Drink

An alcoholic will often throw important activities and long-held hobbies to the wayside so they can focus more on their drinking. For instance, a person who played sports and went running every day may stop being physically active as they recover from hangovers, while a person who enjoyed volunteer work may isolate at home where they have easy access to alcohol.

Getting Into Situations Where Drinking Causes Physical Harm

Alcohol lowers inhibitions and increases the likelihood of engaging in dangerous, risky behaviors. An alcoholic will frequently find themselves in physically hazardous situations, such as driving while drunk or having unprotected sex.

Continuing to Drink When It Causes Health Problems

An alcoholic will keep drinking despite knowing that it may cause or worsen health problems. For example, a person who keeps drinking even after experiencing regular memory blackouts is most likely struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction.

Alcohol-induced blackouts affect an estimated 50% of drinkers and can lead to negative consequences including injury and death, according to a study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. In 2018, alcohol-related liver disease deaths made up 42.8% of all liver disease deaths among people aged 12 years and older, reports the NIAAA.

Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms When Effects Wear Off

An alcoholic will experience withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off and often resort to drinking more in an effort to reduce their symptoms. According to MedlinePlus, common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shaking and tremors
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Clouded thinking
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

The presence of alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually indicates a person is suffering from physical alcohol dependence. Alcohol dependence can be treated with alcohol detox at an addiction recovery center, where people can safely go through withdrawal while being closely monitored by nurses who can reduce symptoms.

If you recognize one or more characteristics of alcoholism in someone you care about, consider talking to an addiction treatment professional who can help you stage an intervention, or who can help you connect your loved one with treatment at alcohol rehab.

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