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The Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
Updated On

The disease of alcoholism is one of the most prevalent diseases in the entire world. America in particular has quite a drinking problem. In fact, around 33 million US citizens are addicted to alcohol. That’s more than one out of ten! On a global scale, estimates suggest there are close to one billion alcoholics. Because alcohol is legal almost everywhere is perhaps why its abuse is so prevalent. Perhaps that’s why about 700,000 US citizens seek treatment for alcohol every year, and another 88,000 die from alcohol-caused circumstances.

Because alcohol is extremely dangerous, and extremely available, it’s important to know both the signs and the symptoms of alcoholism. But first, let’s take a look at the six levels of drinking and see how alcoholism, (the sixth level), compares.

Alcoholism Defined, and the 6 Levels of Drinking

Signs and symptoms of alcoholism

Physically, the definition of alcoholism is the state of being addicted to alcohol. Mentally, alcoholism takes on a different and deeper meaning. It is an illness of the mind and brain that results in dependency on alcohol, yes, but alcoholism also encompasses a wide range of behaviors and/or symptoms. Many people ask what the difference is between a ‘heavy drinker’ and an alcoholic – or if there is one. Well, there is a difference. In fact, there are six levels of alcohol consumption:

  1. Non-Drinker

At absolutely no risk for any of alcohol’s many effects, non-drinkers either do not drink alcohol at all, or not with any regularity. For example, those who consider themselves ‘holiday drinkers,’ consuming alcohol a few times a year, would fall under this category.

  1. Moderate Drinker

For this level and those that follow, there is differentiation between male and female drinkers. Male moderate drinkers, according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, consume no more than 2 drinks per day. Female moderate drinkers consume no more than 1 drink per day. [This difference arises due to the average body size of both genders]. Those who call themselves ‘social’ or ‘holiday’ drinkers fall under this category.

  1. Low-risk Drinker

A large number of non-alcoholic American drinkers are considered to be at low-risk for developing alcoholism. For males, this means “no more than 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week,” and for females, the amount is no more than 3 drinks daily and no more than 7 weekly. Being a low-risk drinker is a minor warning sign of alcoholism. This is because it only takes just a few more drinks in order to qualify for the next level, binge drinking, which is a large issue in this country.

Many folks believe themselves to be low-risk drinkers, but are in fact binge drinkers. As you read the next section, bear this in mind alongside your own drinking habits.

  1. Binge Drinker

In order to qualify as binge drinking, an individual must be legally drunk and reach a blood alcohol content of .08 grams per deciliter. There is slightly less than half a cup in one deciliter, whereas there are nearly 115 grams in half a cup. The point is that it honestly doesn’t take much in order to binge drink. For males, this means 5 or more drinks in one sitting and 4 for females. This must happen once a month or so. Someone who drinks a six-pack in two hours, but only every Christmas, is not a binge drinker, for instance.

  1. Heavy Drinker

If you binge drink 5 times or more per month, consider yourself a heavy drinker. This means you get drunk more than once a week, on average. If every Friday you find yourself drunk at the bar with your friends, and then on top of that you find yourself drunk a few times in between, you are a heavy drinker. This is a major warning sign of alcoholism. Drinking to excess this often is essentially training for alcoholism. If a heavy drinker does not either cut back or stop, chances are an alcohol addiction will develop.

  1. Alcoholic

Here’s the big one, and the hardest to define, believe it or not. There is no drink-count associated with alcoholism. Once addicted to alcohol, the brain needs it in order to function, but not healthily… to function on an impaired, addicted level. Essentially, an alcoholic needs to drink in order to feel normal. However, what has become ‘normal’ for an alcoholic is in reality abnormal.

Excess amounts of neurotransmitters and endorphins are released in the brain each time someone drinks alcohol. Over time, this can cause a long list of potential health issues. Also, the brain becomes used to this excess amount of chemicals, and begins to adapt. Eventually, once someone is an alcoholic, they will not feel overall balance until they are drinking. This is the addiction.

Signs of Alcoholism

Maybe you’re still not sure if you qualify as an alcoholic. Maybe you’re trying to determine if a loved one has an alcohol problem, and you’re just not at a decision yet. This section should help. We have broken down some of the more prevalent warning signs of alcohol addiction into three categories: physical, emotional and social.

Physical Warning Signs

Blacking out, or experiencing any memory loss due to drinking, means two things. One is that you have consumed enough alcohol to give yourself temporary amnesia. Two is that you are well on your way to becoming an alcoholic. Memory loss is an extremely common symptom of alcoholism.

Drinking more than intended is a sign of alcoholism. Those in control of their drinking are able to set limits and not exceed them. Alcoholics are usually incapable of sticking to such limits.

Acquiring a tolerance to alcohol is a definite sign. This means your brain is so used to the presence of alcohol that it requires more just to achieve the same feeling. The higher one’s tolerance, the more likely one is an alcoholic.

Most people feel a hangover after a night of drinking. This is normal after such substance abuse. However, alcoholics can sometimes feel hungover without having recently drank. If you tend to feel slummy, achy, and/or over-tired without having drank recently – and drinking helps – then watch out because you might be an alcoholic.

If you find yourself drinking alcohol in dangerous situations, or at times when drinking is inappropriate, this is a warning sign. This can mean something as risky as drinking and driving, or simply sneaking a vodka flask into your child’s graduation. If you are drinking where unacceptable, you may have an alcohol addiction.

Emotional Warning Signs

The first emotional sign of alcoholism actually has nothing to do with the (possible) alcoholic. It involves those the alcoholic knows. If your family or friends or coworkers are concerned with your drinking, you may be an alcoholic. Sometimes it’s easier for other to see your problem.

Feeling depressed when not drinking is another major alcoholic warning sign. It is not normal to feel sad or upset without booze. Alcoholics tend to crave drinking so much that without it, they feel depressed. This is because the brain is malfunctioning. Another emotion associated with alcoholism is defensiveness. If you find yourself defending your drinking to others, especially to the point of arguing, this is a sign.

Irritability and having mood swings also occurs in alcoholics. These emotions flare when unable to drink. If you feel your emotional balance being disturbed when not drinking, chances are you are developing an addiction.

The last noteworthy emotional sign of alcoholism is shame. If you feel ashamed by your drinking, you have crossed the line. This applies to all substance addictions. Shame brought on by consuming a substance is a strong indicator of addiction.

Social Warning Signs

The foremost social sign of alcoholism is legal trouble. This is whether it’s a DWI, an arrest for public intoxication, or anything in between. Even a non-alcohol-related legal issue being affected by your drinking qualifies as a social warning sign. If the law is aware of your drinking, you may be an alcoholic.

If and when drinking alcohol outweighs your responsibilities in life, consider it a sign. Responsible drinking occurs only after all other things are taken care of. Alcohol should never be a top priority and should never stand in the way of fulfilling your duties.

Making excuses to drink is similar to alcohol becoming a top priority. If you find yourself justifying getting drunk with illegitimate excuses, alcoholism may have a hold of you. For instance, your favorite sports team winning a game is not a reason to grab a 12-pack. Surrounding yourself with other heavy drinkers/alcoholics is another social warning sign. First of all, if any of your friendships are based solely on drinking, they are not real friendships and should be reconsidered. Secondly, if you find yourself associating more and more with people who drink often, take a second. You may have a problem developing.

Drinking alone, or isolating yourself because of drinking, is a surefire warning sign. Responsible drinkers will rarely, if ever, get intoxicated alone. Safe drinking is a social event. Getting drunk alone is for alcoholics. If your personal relationships are being negatively affected by your drinking, that is a sign. If you find yourself lying about your drinking habits to others, this is also a sign of alcoholism. Those who are not at risk of developing an addiction to alcohol will feel no need to hide their drinking habits.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

We have broken alcoholism’s symptoms into the same three categories as with the signs. The symptoms of alcoholism are important in recognizing alcoholism, but also in educating on the perils of abusing alcohol. Sometimes if you understand how badly something can affect you, it helps in the process of ridding it from your life. Here are some of, but not all of, the physical, emotional, and social symptoms of alcohol addiction:

Physical Symptoms

  • Blacking out from excess drinking
  • Increasingly stronger tolerance
  • Experiencing tremors, shakes, or convulsions without alcohol
  • Unusual distress or tension
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite and/or extremely unhealthy eating
  • Spider angiomas (tiny, overly red blood vessels)
  • Unexplained illnesses or accidents
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Liver problems, such as inflammation or cirrhosis
  • Loss of hygiene upkeep
  • Sweating and nausea, even when not drinking

Emotional Symptoms

  • Unpredictability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbness
  • Crying bouts
  • Hysteria or panic
  • Tendency to be abusive, whether physically or emotionally
  • Unusual anger
  • A newfound untrustworthiness
  • Unusual unreliability

Social Symptoms

  • Drinking alone and/or attempting to hide it from others
  • Not being able to place a limit on consumption
  • Missing family-based and/or business-related events
  • Acting irritable when unable to have a drink
  • Relationship trouble stemming from alcohol use
  • Run-ins with the law, such as driving under the influence or public intoxication

In Conclusion

Obviously these are in list form, and that’s because to get into the medical aspects of these symptoms calls for another article itself, perhaps one for each symptom. If you feel as though you or a loved one is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, paired with excessive and/or heavy drinking, please seek help for yourself or for your loved one immediately.

Alcoholism is a deadly disease, one of the deadliest on the grand scale. Alcohol is not only readily available to the public; it’s cheap, it’s advertised heavily, and peer pressure doesn’t stop till you’re dead. Still this is no excuse or reason to not be a sober person. Drink responsibly if you choose, but know the difference. It could save your life.

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