Symptoms of Alcoholism: What to Look For
Drinking alcohol, even excessively, is seen as commonplace in many cultures, and certainly in much of the United States. Additionally, drinking problems (i.e., alcoholism) are not always public affairs, and drinkers can often go years—if not decades—hiding the extent of their consumption.
In cases of alcoholism, denial is often a common symptom and can be part of what keeps the addiction alive. In that sense, simply not acknowledging the truth is the only way to continue making excuses for drinking. According to research, excessive alcohol consumption is associated with higher mortality rates and is a clear risk factor for alcohol use disorder (AUD).1
Signs of Alcoholism
For a person to continue to use or engage in compulsive behaviors related to addiction, they often have to hide this behavior from their loved ones.
If you suffer from an addiction, you know that your loved ones only want what is best for you. It might even be clear to you that excessive drug or alcohol use is not in your best interest.
It is completely natural to want to hide addictive behaviors in order to protect the addiction so that others will not try to intervene or force you to quit. Because alcohol use is so commonplace, and addiction fosters secrecy, it’s no wonder that alcoholism symptoms are so difficult to detect, even within oneself.
To determine if you or your loved one may have a drinking problem, reflect on the following behaviors, which are considered signs of alcoholism:
- Hidden bottles of liquor, or finding the need to hide bottles in order to conceal the amount of consumption from others.
- The frequent use of mouthwash, gum, or mints to cover the scent of alcohol.
- Blackouts due to excessive alcohol consumption.
- Frequent hangovers.
- Increased alcohol usage over time.
- Binge drinking behavior (often, binge drinking is defined as five drinks per sitting for men and four drinks for women).2
- Legal consequences faced due to drinking behavior, such as a DUI charge.
- Drinking behavior that causes tension or arguments with close friends and loved ones.
- Daily alcohol consumption.
- Needing a drink first thing in the morning.
- Several trips to the liquor store per week.
- Drinking until passing out.
You may also want to consider how significantly your life is impacted by alcohol use, as this will be part of the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder described below.
The Diagnostic Criteria
According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), alcohol use disorder can be associated with several symptoms related to drinking behavior.3
In order to meet the criteria, you must experience clinically significant distress due to alcohol consumption, and this behavior must occur over at least a one-year period. If you are wondering if you or someone you care about may have an alcohol use disorder, look for the following symptoms:
- More alcohol is consumed than was intended, either per occasion or over time.
- Repeated efforts to abstain from drinking without success.
- Much time is dedicated to finding and consuming alcohol, as well as participating in activities related to alcohol consumption.
- Alcohol use has repeatedly caused problems in significant areas of your life, such as school, work, or family.
- Developing a higher tolerance to the same amount of alcohol, over time.
- Experiencing cravings for alcohol when it is not being consumed.
- The experience of withdrawal symptoms.
- Alcohol use has been associated with another psychological or medical condition, where alcohol use is the cause, and yet alcohol consumption still occurs.
If you are struggling with alcoholism, you will experience withdrawal symptoms, when you suddenly stop drinking. These symptoms usually only occur when:
- Significant amounts of alcohol have been consumed over time
- Your alcohol consumption is significantly decreased or stopped completely
When going through withdrawal, you may have a combination of some of the following physiological symptoms:
- Increased nervous system activity, as evidenced by physical symptoms like sweating or increased heart rate.
- Shaky hands, or having tremors in the hands.
- Sleeplessness or insomnia.
- The presence of perceptual hallucinations.
- Restlessness, or increased body movements.
- Nervousness or anxiety.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will vary in presence and severity from person to person. For some, hand tremors can be mild and present for only a short time. For others, tremors can be experienced for years, if not indefinitely.
Keep in mind that in instances of alcohol withdrawal more than 90% of seizures (if they happen) will occur within two days of you abstaining from alcohol.4
Also after years of drinking, you may develop delirium tremens (DTs), when you experience extreme nervous system activity as well as hallucinations.5 Of those who have exhibited DTs, the estimated fatality rate is between 5 and 25%.5
Despite the many dangers associated with alcohol, society continues to treat alcohol as a safe substance, so many are completely unaware of any real risks. It’s even possible that you won’t recognize the physical symptoms you are experiencing stem from alcohol withdrawal.
In order to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder or alcohol withdrawal, a qualified mental health or medical professional will need to assess your symptoms carefully. This is done in order to ensure that the symptoms are not related to another psychological or medical condition.
Alcoholism: A Result of Accessibility
Compared to other substances of abuse, alcohol is usually extremely accessible. Alcohol is legal, and many people will report having their first sips or drinks of alcohol in their childhood years. Because of the minimal stigma around alcohol use, it’s socially accepted to consume it publicly, even to excess.
Alcohol may be associated with celebrations and happy occasions, like weddings and birthday parties. It is often available at social events and even consumed around children. Alcohol exists readily in so many lives, yet the dangers associated with it often go unchecked altogether.
For some, alcohol consumption may be associated with certain religious ceremonies or rites of passage, like coming of age. In Catholicism, adolescent churchgoers will attend their First Communion and often will drink alcoholic wine as part of the ceremony.
Alcohol is seen by many as benign, much like caffeine. In truth, for many adults, alcohol is a safe drug to consume in moderation. But for others, alcohol use can lead to a progressive and sometimes fatal substance use disorder.
From Casual Drinking to Alcoholism
Alcohol is prevalent enough socially that even daily use may go unnoticed by those close to the drinker. A person with an alcohol use disorder may consciously or subconsciously decide to disguise or hide drinking behavior altogether. This kind of decision-making may happen slowly over time, so the alcohol consumption and behavior surrounding the drinking may not be viewed as a cause for concern.
If you or a loved one begins to introduce lifestyle changes that are made slowly and over a period of time, the changes might be less detectable to loved ones and friends. This is often how a drinking problem will go years without being properly addressed.
To begin addressing the problem, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol must first be acknowledged. Although loved ones can help guide self-awareness, coming to terms with a drinking problem often takes some self-reflection.
Get Help for Alcoholism Today
Asking for help takes courage and motivation. Maybe this is the sign you need to take the next step. If you are worried about the drinking habits of a loved one, consider passing along this article. Often, drinking problems develop to the point where a person will feel “stuck” as if they have no option of getting better.
The truth is, there is hope for those with drinking problems or other substance use disorders, and it begins with asking for and accepting help from others. For so many people, treatment is the way to ensure success in addressing an alcohol problem. If you or a loved one feels that they have alcohol use disorder, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to discuss treatment options today.
- Kranzler, H. R., & Soyka, M. (2018). Diagnosis and Pharmacotherapy of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Review. JAMA, 320(8), 815–824.
- Chung, T., Creswell, K. G., Bachrach, R., Clark, D. B., & Martin, C. S. (2018). Adolescent binge drinking: Developmental context and opportunities for prevention. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 39(1), 5–15.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
- Victor, M., & Brausch, C. (1967). Role of abstinence in the genesis of alcoholic epilepsy. Epilepsia, 8(1):1–20.
- Trevisan LA, Boutros N, Petrakis IL, Krystal JH. (1998). Complications of alcohol withdrawal: pathophysiological insights. Alcohol Health and Research World, 22(1):61-66.