Symptoms and Signs of Alcohol Addiction: Am I Addicted to Alcohol?
Alcohol use is common in the United States. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly used substances in the country. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 174.3 million people (or 62.3%) aged 12 or older reported alcohol use during a 12-month period.1 Researchers found that 133.1 million of these respondents (or 47.5%) drank during the 30 days leading up to the survey.1
For many, alcohol use may lead to misuse. Nearly 60 million of these same respondents (or 45.1%) reported past-month binge drinking—defined as any pattern of drinking that raises an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher, which roughly correlates to the consumption of 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more for women in a 2-hour period.2 Additionally,16.3 million of them reported past-month heavy drinking, which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) defines as binge drinking on 5 or more days in a month.1,2
What is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction, formally diagnosed as an alcohol use disorder (AUD), refers to a medical condition that occurs when a person can no longer control their alcohol use despite the negative social, occupational, or physical or mental health consequences it causes.3
People often use terms such as “alcoholism” or “alcohol abuse” to discuss the disease of addiction. Outdated and stigmatizing, language like this can create a negative bias, perpetuate the idea that addiction is a moral failing—and not a medical condition—and prevent individuals who struggle with the disease from seeking help.4
In 2021, 29.5 million Americans aged 12 or older met the diagnostic criteria for an AUD. Only 1.4 million of them, however, received alcohol use treatment of any kind.1 While individuals provide many reasons for not seeking treatment, fear of judgement is one.5 Eliminating stigmatizing labels from our vernacular is a step in the right direction.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse
While only a healthcare provider can diagnose an alcohol use disorder, there are several physical and behavioral signs that may indicate an individual struggles with their alcohol use.
According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), problematic drinking, or alcohol misuse, includes binge and heavy drinking. A person who engages in these behaviors regularly or almost daily has a higher risk of negative consequences, like developing an AUD.2
Physical Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse
The outward signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication vary widely based on the individual’s blood alcohol level and their level of developed tolerance. Thus, signs of intoxication range from reduced coordination to more severe and dangerous symptoms, including suppressed breathing, slowed heart rate, and lowered body temperature, which can be fatal.7
While intoxication doesn’t necessarily indicate the individual has a problem with alcohol, recurrent intoxication may signify alcohol misuse—or addiction.
Misusing alcohol impacts the brain and nearly every organ in the body.7 Alcohol impairs the brain’s ability to function properly, which can impact bodily movements and functioning.8 For instance, persistent, heavy drinking can cause an inflamed stomach lining, accompanied by indigestion, nausea, and bloating.7
Other physical signs and symptoms of potential alcohol misuse may include:6,7,9
- An unsteady gait.
- Nystagmus (rapid, uncontrolled eye movements).
- Impaired attention or memory.
- Memory blackouts.
- Lack of coordination.
- Tachycardia (rapid heart rate).
- Erectile dysfunction.
- Slurred speech.
- Excessive sleepiness.
- Stupor or coma.
Chronic alcohol use can lead to a physical dependence on alcohol, meaning that a person’s brain and body have adapted to having alcohol present and need it to function. Should the individual abruptly stop drinking or drastically reduce their consumption, withdrawal symptoms will likely surface.6,10
Signs of withdrawal may include anxiety, agitation, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, nightmares, tremors, hallucinations, and seizures.7
It’s important to note that individuals can be dependent on alcohol and not have an AUD; however, dependence can increase a person’s risk for developing an AUD.10
Behavioral Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse
As previously mentioned, alcohol alters the way the brain works and functions, which can affect the way in which an individual feels and behaves.8 This, in turn, can negatively impact relationships and an individual’s work and home life.11 Immediate behavioral effects vary depending on the level of consumption; other adverse effects can develop over time as a result of prolonged alcohol use.12
Behavioral signs that may indicate alcohol misuse can include:6,7,9
- Impaired judgment.
- Inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Mood changes.
- Poor social functioning.
- Problems driving or operating machinery.
- Suicidal behavior.
- Other substance use (such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin, or sedatives).
- Neglecting personal care.
- Frequent falls or accidents.
- Recurring absences from work or school.
Treatment for Alcohol Misuse or Addiction
If you think you or someone you love might be struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction, you may wish to talk to your primary care doctor or licensed therapist about your concerns. A healthcare provider can perform an evaluation, discuss treatment options, and provide referrals to rehab.13
Treatment can help individuals stop drinking and help them take back control of their lives. No matter how bad things might seem, most people will benefit from some form of treatment.13
People with an AUD are often advised to start the treatment process with medically managed detox to help them eradicate alcohol (and any other substances) from their body safely. Depending on the severity of the alcohol withdrawal—which is dependent on several factors including how much and for how long alcohol was misused—withdrawal can cause dangerous complications, such as seizures.7 During detox, individuals receive medications, support, and supervision to monitor their condition and help them stay as comfortable as possible as they return to a medically-stable state.7
Detox alone, however, is typically not sufficient for sustained recovery. It’s often the first step in a more comprehensive treatment plan that helps individuals address and work on the underlying issues that led or contributed to the addiction.7 Treatment may involve:13
- Medications. Taking medications such as naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram can aid in curbing the desire to drink and avoid relapse.
- Behavioral therapies. Engaging in behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), fosters the facilitation of changes to the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to problem drinking and alcohol misuse.
- Mutual-help groups. Participating in mutual support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or others, allows individuals to receive support from peers who are also in recovery.
American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of treatment for alcohol misuse and AUD, with locations scattered across the United States. We offer a variety of , including detox, inpatient rehab, and outpatient care, evidence-based treatments, and customized treatment plans that are geared to your or your loved one’s unique needs. If you or a loved one are struggling, please call to speak to a caring admissions navigator about your treatment options, ask any questions you may have about rehab or the treatment process, and verify your insurance.
Take Our “Has My Alcohol Use Become a Problem?” Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute “Has My Alcohol Use Become a Problem?” self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of an AUD. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.