Alcohol is a legal drug, but one that carries a significant risk of addiction.
Some of the most common physical, psychological, and behavioral signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse are:
When a person who regularly abuses alcohol stops drinking or significantly reduces the amount of intake, withdrawal symptoms will emerge. Such symptoms can begin as soon as two hours after the last drink and continue for weeks. Symptoms can include shaking, anxiety, and the desire for a drink. Delirium tremens (DTs), a severe withdrawal symptom, can include confusion, fever, and rapid heartbeat. There is a general advisement that alcohol withdrawal should occur under the care of a doctor specialized in addiction treatment, as some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening.
The term alcoholism is clinically ambiguous and out of use. Per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the new term is alcohol use disorder, which is explained in the Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders section of the book. In order to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, a person must meet the specific criteria delineated in the DSM-5.
Alcohol use disorders are more common than may be imagined. Notes Psychology Today, studies have revealed that 29.1 percent of the US population (or 68.5 million) has experienced an alcohol use disorder (of varying grades) at some point in their lifetime. Within a 12-month period, approximately 13.9 percent (32.6 percent) of the US population experiences an alcohol use disorder. About 19.8 percent of the adults who have experienced an alcohol use disorder in their lifetime seek treatment or ask for help at some point.
As Psychology Today points out, about 75 percent of the alcohol that Americans drink occurs in the form of binge drinking. The symptoms of binge drinking include blackouts and memory lapses. Over time, a chronic binge drinker can develop serious liver damage and/or brain damage.
A lesser-known but just as severe consequence is cardiovascular disease. This disease can arise because a high volume of alcohol causes stress on the heart, leading to heart attack or stroke.
Alcohol has immediate effects, as the American public clearly knows. The immediate impact of alcohol use on the body includes but is not limited to:
An alcohol use disorder, especially at the more severe end of the spectrum, can lead to permanent and debilitating health conditions that may require care for a lifetime. Some of the most acute problems relate to the indirect problems that an alcohol use disorder causes.
A tipoff that a person’s behavior has progressed to an alcohol use disorder concerns their nutritional habits. As alcohol abuse takes firmer root, people often neglect their nutritional health. The person may show signs of malnutrition, such as a gaunt appearance, hair loss or thinning, and dark circles under the eyes. These may be symptoms of a general condition known as thiamine deficiency. The brain and all the tissue in the body need thiamine (B1) for healthy functioning. Individuals with an alcohol use disorder may be suffering from a thiamine deficiency, among other nutritional deficits.
The psychological effects of alcohol are immediately recognizable after a person drinks. Individuals may repeat themselves (due in part to memory lapse) and not show their familiar level of good judgment. Over time, individuals may develop sleep troubles and/or mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. Cognitive problems include a diminished attention span and problems with motor coordination, such as asterixis, a condition that causes a person to involuntarily flap or shake their hands. In severe cases, hepatic encephalopathy can develop and, for some, cause them to slip into a fatal hepatic coma.
As the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence explains, the behavioral signs of an alcohol use disorder will usually be apparent. People who experience alcohol abuse may become increasingly secretive about their activities because they may not want to hear people’s concerns or get advice to stop. The individual may also drink in secret, either in a private place or out in public but away from concerned friends and family.
As a result of drinking, people may become more prone to accidents and show signs of injury, which they may try to cover up. An individual who is experiencing an alcohol use disorder may also hide alcohol around the house or at work. A person may become fearful of running out of alcohol, which in turn means that they keep a ready supply nearby.
Alcohol abuse can also lead people to show a diminished level of care for their hygiene and physical appearance. As alcohol abuse progresses, the individual may look increasingly as if they have not been showering, have stopped shaving, and are no longer washing or changing their clothes. Alcohol abuse often leads to problems in the person’s relationships across the full spectrum of life. A person who has a rather calm affect when sober may shift into moodiness, depression, or irritability when intoxicated.Additional behavioral signs of alcohol abuse include:
One of the most troubling behavioral signs of an alcohol use disorder is drunk driving. The well-known nonprofit organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving publishes reliable statistics on drunk driving.