Alcohol is a legal drug, but one that can still be addictive. However, sometimes recognizing the early signs of alcoholism is challenging. To better understand alcohol abuse, we must know how to recognize the warning signs of alcoholism and how to seek help.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
The term alcoholism is not a clinical diagnosis. In reality, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the correct term is alcohol use disorder (AUD). To be diagnosed with AUD, a person must meet the specific criteria expressed in the DSM-5:
- Feeling powerless to control their level of alcohol use
- Declining to engage in social activities or past enjoyable activities
- Having a desire to stop or decrease their drinking but have been unsuccessful
- Using alcohol in high-risk situations
- Devoting a significant amount of time and resources to drinking and recovering from drinking
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol, needing more to experience the same effects from earlier use
- Experiencing cravings for alcohol when not drinking
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking
- Facing problems at work, home, school, or life because of alcohol use
- Continuing to use alcohol even when it leads to physical, psychological, and personal problems
Alcohol use disorders are among the most common substance abuse disorders in the country. About 14.5 million people ages 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder in 2019. Estimates say that close to 10% of U.S. children ages 17 and younger live with at least one parent with alcoholism. In 2019, almost 414,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 had AUD in the year 2019. In the United States alone, over 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually.
Physical and Psychological Signs of Alcoholism
Alcohol use causes immediate effects. Having an alcohol use disorder is not necessary to experience the direct impacts of alcohol on the body, which might include:
- Slowed reaction times
- Motor coordination difficulties
- Impaired judgment
- Memory impairment
- Slurred speech
Alcoholism can lead to debilitating and permanent health conditions, like a wet brain, that may need lifetime care. Alcohol use disorder doesn’t happen overnight. One of the first things people neglect is their nutritional health. Look for symptoms of malnutrition, such as hair loss, dark circles under the eyes, and a worn appearance. These symptoms may be related to a thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B1). Individuals with alcohol use disorder often have low vitamin B levels and other nutritional deficits. In addition, in the late stages of alcoholism, some people might develop cirrhosis of the liver. Without treatment, a damaged liver can lead to hepatic encephalopathy, leading to coma and even death. The psychological effects of alcohol abuse are immediately recognizable. When someone is drunk, their inhibitions lower, they have memory lapses, and they lower good judgment levels. Over time, people with alcohol use disorders develop sleep troubles. They have a higher risk of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. As well as cognitive problems, such as diminished attention span and problems with motor coordination.
Behavioral Signs of Alcohol Abuse
The behavioral signs of alcoholism will be apparent and more people can recognize these symptoms from a mile away. People who have an alcohol use disorder will tend to be more secretive about their activities to avoid raising concerns. People are often more prone to accidents and show signs of injury they’ll try to hide. Alcohol addiction can also lead people to show a diminished level of care for their hygiene and physical appearance. Their demeanor might change, and their overall personality will shift.
- Some common behavioral symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Increasing legal troubles
- Showing up intoxicated to a family function, work, or school
- Drinking and then stopping in a repeated pattern
- Overreacting to perceived criticism about their drinking habits
- Increasing financial problems
- Stealing and likely lying about it to purchase alcohol
- Engaging in risky activities such as driving under the influence or having unprotected sex
Take Our “Am I an Alcoholic” Self-Assessment
Take our complimentary and private “Am I an Alcoholic?” self-assessment quiz below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with an alcohol use disorder. The assessment includes yes or no questions meant to be used as an informational tool rather than a medical diagnosis. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the results.
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Stages of Alcoholism
Alcoholism doesn’t develop overnight. Most experts can pinpoint different stages of alcoholism.
Early Alcohol Abuse
Early alcohol abusers display at least 2 of the 11 symptoms previously discussed. At this stage, it’s challenging to differentiate from social drinking or the development of an alcohol use disorder. Early alcohol abusers will experiment with different types of alcohol and alcohol combinations. Most often, experimenting individuals are high schoolers and young adults. Their drinking experiences occur in social events, and they might be struggling with social peer pressure. Although they might not be regular alcohol drinkers, they binge drink, putting them at risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Binge drinking occurs when a person reaches a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or greater within two hours of drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it is about four drinks for women. In men, it requires about five drinks in 2 hours. Yet, most binge drinkers will surpass the 0.08 blood alcohol content within the estimated two hours.
Moderate Alcohol Abuse
Moderate alcohol abuse is linked with the frequency of consumption, as well as the intentions around drinking. Problem drinking, someone starts to lose control over their alcohol intake at this stage. Following the criteria from the DSM-5, problematic drinkers show 3-5 of the 11 symptoms previously discussed. A person may or may not be physically dependent on alcohol at this stage. Yet, most will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop drinking. At this stage, drinking patterns begin to interfere with life’s activities.
Severe Alcohol Abuse
By this stage, someone is already experiencing six or more symptoms from the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria list. However, at this stage, some people might become what’s known as high functioning. A highly functioning person with a substance use disorder can complete daily tasks and expectations. Estimates believe that at least 20% of people with alcohol use disorder can be classified as high functioning. Continued drinking will result in all the negative consequences associated with heavy drinking. Someone with a severe drinking problem is very likely dealing with addiction. They will need professional addiction treatment and rehab to recover and find long-term sobriety.
End-stage alcoholism happens when someone’s already dealing with conditions resulting from alcohol abuse. By then, people are struggling with severe health and mental health problems. Many of them are even in danger of death. Unlike alcoholism, end-stage alcoholism is a combination of physical and mental health conditions. The most common symptoms include:
- Liver cirrhosis
- Liver damage and failure
- Itchy skin
- Fluid retention
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Heart failure
- Alcohol dementia
Treatment for Alcoholism
Alcohol abuse can have life-threatening side effects at every phase. However, each stage of alcohol abuse is treatable. It’s paramount that we all recognize the early signs of alcoholism and take action immediately. Even if someone’s dealing with chronic alcohol abuse, they can still find abstinence and achieve sobriety. Addiction specialists know that alcohol abuse is rarely only about alcohol. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we offer alcohol addiction rehab programs. We help patients connect with members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for their continued care. And our specialized treatment facility offers comprehensive rehab solutions designed for each individual. If you or someone you know is abusing alcohol and drugs, please reach out for help today. Lighthouse Recovery Institute is an industry leader in addiction treatment. Our team of addiction experts specializes in dual diagnosis treatment. Call us today at 866-308-2090; we’re available 24/7.