Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

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Alcoholism is a medical condition characterized by a pattern of frequent or heavy alcohol use, despite negative occupational, social, physical, and emotional consequences. Also known as alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder, it can range from mild to severe.

If you suspect that you or someone you love has alcoholism, you’re not alone. This condition affects approximately 18 million adults in the United States.

Alcoholism is a brain disorder that can make it hard for you to simply stop drinking, even if you may want to. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of alcoholism and seek treatment for it as soon as possible. 

This article explores the symptoms, stages, and complications of alcoholism.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

These are some of the signs and symptoms of alcoholism:

  • Experiencing a strong need to drink 
  • Drinking more or for longer than you were planning to
  • Needing to drink more in order to feel the effects of the alcohol
  • Spending a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from the aftereffects of drinking
  • Blacking out or being unable to remember what happened while you were drinking
  • Wanting to cut down on your drinking or trying to give it up, but being unable to
  • Getting into trouble with your friends and family members due to drinking
  • Finding that drinking or being sick after drinking is interfering with your job or school, making it hard for you to fulfill your responsibilities at home, or getting you into trouble with the authorities
  • Getting into dangerous situations or engaging in risky behavior while drinking, such as driving, swimming, climbing, or using heavy machinery
  • Continuing to drink even if it makes you feel anxious or depressed, or worsens other health problems you have
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the effects of the alcohol start to wear off. Withdrawal symptoms can include nausea, dry heaving, racing heartbeat, fever, insomnia, sweating, hand tremors, seizures, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, delirium tremens, or coma.

You may have alcoholism if you experienced two or more of these symptoms in the past year. The severity can depend on how many symptoms you have.

Your healthcare provider will determine whether your symptoms meet the diagnostic criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Per the DSM-5, alcoholism may be diagnosed as:

  • Mild, if your symptoms meet 2-3 of the diagnostic criteria
  • Moderate, if your symptoms meet 4-5 of the diagnostic criteria
  • Severe, if your symptoms meet 6 or more of the diagnostic criteria

Complications and Comorbidities

Alcoholism may be accompanied by other mental health conditions, known as comorbidities, or may lead to complications.

Comorbidities

According to a 2020 study, alcoholism often co-occurs with other mental health conditions such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, thought disorders, or substance use disorders.

Having another mental health condition in addition to alcoholism is referred to as dual diagnosis, and it can happen because:

  • Alcohol use disorder and mental health conditions have similar risk factors, including genetics, trauma, and stress.
  • Mental health conditions can lead to alcohol consumption. For instance, someone with a mental health condition may self-medicate with alcohol to try to feel better. Or, the mental health condition may alter their brain in ways that make them more likely to get addicted to alcohol.
  • Alcoholism can lead to mental health conditions, as it can change the brain in ways that make the person more likely to develop a mental health condition.

Alcohol-Related Complications

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol consumption is a causal factor in over 200 different types of health conditions and injuries.

These are some of the short-term complications of alcohol use:

  • Violent or aggressive behavior, or increased chances of being a victim of violence
  • Injuries or accidents, which may require emergency care or hospitalization
  • Loss of personal items such as keys, wallets, or cellular phones
  • Unprotected sex, which can lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unplanned pregnancies
  • Alcohol poisoning, which can cause nausea, vomiting, seizures, and loss of consciousness

Over time, chronic alcoholism can lead to health conditions such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Pancreatitis 
  • Liver diseases, including liver cirrhosis and fatty liver disease
  • Cancers, such as liver cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer, or bowel cancer
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome, in the case of pregnant people

In addition to health complications, alcoholism can also lead to other difficulties, such as:

  • Relationship issues or divorce 
  • Domestic abuse
  • Unemployment
  • Financial difficulties
  • Homelessness 
  • Legal problems or imprisonment

Stages of Alcoholism

The symptoms of alcoholism may progress according to the following stages:

  • At-risk stage: During this stage, you may drink socially or drink to reduce stress and feel better. In this stage, you also may start to develop a tolerance to alcohol.
  • Early-stage alcohol use disorder: You may start to secretly drink alone, think about alcohol often, and experience blackouts when you drink.
  • Mid-stage alcohol use disorder: You may not have control over your alcohol consumption anymore and may start to experience issues with work, school, relationships, and your health. Lab tests and scans may reveal organ damage.
  • End-stage alcohol use disorder: In the final stage, drinking may become the primary focus of your life, having eclipsed food, relationships, health, and happiness. You may start to experience severe complications of organ damage, which can be fatal.

A Word From Verywell

Alcoholism is a medical condition that can cause harm and distress to the person, their loved ones, and the community. Recognizing the symptoms of alcoholism can help you identify the condition and get help for yourself or a loved one.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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