A Guide to the Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Signs of Severe Drinking Problems and Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcoholism
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There are many signs and symptoms related to drinking problems. Alcoholism is a general term rather than the clinical term, which is alcohol use disorder. It is considered a progressive disease, meaning that effects of drinking alcohol become increasingly more severe over time.

Those who use alcohol may begin to show early signs of a problem, then progress to showing symptoms of alcohol abuse. If drinking continues, they may later show signs of alcoholism or alcohol dependence. Taking an alcoholism screening quiz can help you determine whether you have the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder.

Early Signs of an Alcohol Problem

Early signs of alcoholism include frequent intoxication, an established pattern of heavy drinking and drinking in dangerous situations, such as when driving. Other early signs of alcoholism include black-out drinking or a drastic change in demeanor while drinking, such as consistently becoming angry or violent.

Progressive symptoms of alcohol abuse occur when you continue to drink after your drinking reaches a level that causes recurrent problems. Continuing to drink after it causes you to miss work, drive drunk, shirk responsibilities or get in trouble with the law is considered alcohol abuse.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition," (DSM-5) published in 2013 lists 11 symptoms of alcohol use disorder. If you have two to three symptoms, you could be diagnosed with a mild disorder. If you have four to five symptoms, you are likely to have a moderate alcohol use disorder. If you have six or more of the symptoms, you have a severe alcohol use disorder, and it is likely that you would be considered to be an alcoholic under the common use of the term.

Here are the 11 symptoms:

  1. You often drink alcohol in larger amounts or over a longer period than you intend.
  2. You want to cut down or control your alcohol use but your efforts may be unsuccessful.
  3. You spend a lot of time getting alcohol, using it, and recovering from the effects of your drinking.
  4. You have alcohol cravings.
  5. Your use of alcohol results in failing to meet your obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. You continue to use alcohol despite it leading to recurrent problems socially or in your relationships.
  7. You give up or reduce your participation in important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of your use of alcohol.
  8. You use alcohol in situations in which it is physically hazardous (such as driving, operating machinery, performing surgery).
  9. You continue to use alcohol even knowing that you have a physical or psychological problem that is caused by or made worse by alcohol.
  10. You experience alcohol tolerance, either by needing more alcohol to get intoxicated or you feel diminished effects when drinking the same amount of alcohol.
  1. You experience withdrawal syndrome or you use alcohol or other substances to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Previous definitions of alcohol dependence and alcoholism included having three of seven symptoms that included neglect of other activities, excessive use of alcohol, impaired control of alcohol consumption, the persistence of alcohol use, large amounts of time spent in alcohol-related activities, withdrawal symptoms, and tolerance of alcohol.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

Alcohol use can have physical effects. These are some of the physical signs that can develop:

  • Frequent smell of alcohol on the breath, which can continue for hours after heavy drinking
  • Weight loss due to neglect of eating in favor of drinking
  • Dry skin and brittle hair and nails from the dehydrating effects of alcohol, which can result in an increased appearance of aging and wrinkles.
  • Broken capillaries on your face and nose
  • Yellow eyes and skin due to liver damage
  • Poor hygiene.

A Word From Verywell

Alcoholism is a treatable disease, with many treatment programs and approaches available to support alcoholics who have decided to get help. Getting help before your problem drinking progresses to severe alcohol use disorder can save your life.

View Article Sources
  • Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders.
  • Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5 NIH Publication No. 13–7999. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  November 2013. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/dsmfactsheet/dsmfact.pdf.
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. 
  • Gitlow S. Commentary: DSM-5: New Addiction Terminology, Same Disease. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. June 2013. https://drugfree.org/learn/drug-and-alcohol-news/commentary-dsm-5-new-addiction-terminology-same-disease/.