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Warning Signs of Alcoholism: How to Recognize the Symptoms

Warning Signs of Alcoholism: How to Recognize the Symptoms

Alcoholism warning signs can help you to identify when you or a loved one may be at risk from drinking. Learn about these warning signs here.

Drinking alcohol in moderation is generally regarded as being safe, but for some people, alcohol consumption can become a problem. When a person develops an alcohol addiction, many people refer to the condition as “alcoholism” but the politically correct diagnostic term for alcoholism is an alcohol use disorder. So, what are the alcoholism warning signs? Learn the answer, as well as information about medication assisted treatment for alcohol use, below.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is the colloquial term for an “alcohol use disorder,” which is the proper diagnostic term for an alcohol addiction. When people make reference to alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder, they are referencing a legitimate medical condition that develops in response to lasting brain changes caused by alcohol misuse. 

When a person has an alcohol use disorder, they will engage in compulsive drinking, even when alcohol consumption causes serious consequences, such as health problems, marital conflict, or job loss. This is because brain changes from alcohol consumption lead to the development of a brain disorder. Fortunately, there is treatment available for alcohol use disorders. 

Who Is At Risk Of Alcoholism?

The risk of alcohol use disorder is typically higher among people who drink heavily or engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in one sitting for a woman or five or more drinks in one sitting for a man. Regular binge drinking, as well as heavy alcohol use, which is defined as more than 14 drinks in one week for a man and more than seven drinks in a week for a woman, increases the risk that a person will develop an alcohol use disorder. 

Other risk factors for an alcohol use disorder include:

  • Drinking for the first time before the age of 15, compared to waiting until the age of 21 for the first alcoholic drink
  • Growing up with parents who drink heavily
  • Genetic factors, which are believed to be responsible for as much as 60% of the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder
  • Having a history of child abuse or trauma
  • Living with a mental health condition like depression 

Warning Signs of Alcohol Addiction 

Being aware of alcohol warning signs can help you to intervene early on behalf of yourself or a loved one, before alcohol addiction becomes more severe. Below are some of the common warning signs of an alcohol use disorder. 

Drinking To Treat Stress

One of the early signs of alcohol addiction is drinking in order to relax or improve sleep. In fact, experts often divide alcohol use disorder into four stages, and the first stage, called the pre-alcoholic stage, involves drinking in order to relax. People may not experience obvious consequences from alcohol misuse at this stage, but they are self-medicating with alcohol use, which can lead to problems down the road. 

Drinking Regularly 

Having a drink or two on special occasions or enjoying a glass of wine with dinner typically isn’t problematic. However, a person who drinks daily, especially in large quantities, may be showing alcoholism warning signs. Someone who is developing an alcohol addiction may always have a drink in their hands at social functions.

Consuming Larger Amounts Than Intended

Someone who is developing an alcohol addiction will begin to consume larger amounts than intended. They may say they are only going to have a drink or two, but they end up drinking to the point of intoxication, because they are struggling to control their alcohol use. 

Drinking Despite Consequences

Continuing to drink, even when faced with consequences, is a sign that a person is experiencing brain changes that lead to compulsive alcohol consumption. A person showing alcohol warning signs may continue to drink, even when their spouse argues with them about their alcohol consumption, or when they experience troubles at work due to drinking. They may also continue to drink when faced with health problems arising from alcohol misuse. 

Strong Alcohol Cravings

A person who is showing signs of a drinking problem is likely to have strong alcohol cravings. In more severe cases, cravings may be so strong that a person is unable to think about anything other than the desire to drink. Some people may even drink first thing in the morning to alleviate cravings. 

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Common Symptoms Of Alcohol Abuse 

When a person is misusing alcohol to the point that they develop an alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder, they are likely to show some visible signs of a drinking problem. These signs are outlined below.

Drinking Excessively 

Binge drinking and heavy drinking both, by definition, constitute alcohol misuse. Signs of excessive drinking include drinking five or more drinks in one sitting as a man, or drinking four or more drinks in one sitting as a woman. Someone who binge drinks five or more times over the course of a month is said to be a heavy drinker. Given this fact, someone who binge drinks every weekend is displaying signs of a drinking problem. 

Developing A Tolerance 

People who drink infrequently or only in small quantities are sensitive to the effects of alcohol consumption, meaning they will show some signs of being under the influence after just a drink or two. On the other hand, someone who misuses alcohol will develop a tolerance, meaning they have to drink larger quantities of alcohol to achieve the same desired effects.

A person who shows alcohol warning signs may be able to drink five or more drinks and show very little evidence of intoxication, because they are tolerant to alcohol. 

Withdrawal Side Effects When Not Drinking

Withdrawal is another sign of alcohol misuse. Someone who is addicted to alcohol will show withdrawal side effects when they are not drinking, because their body has become dependent on it. When the body is detoxing from alcohol, a person undergoes withdrawal because the body does not function the same in the absence of alcohol. 

Some common alcohol withdrawal side effects include sweating, tremor, elevated heart rate, sleep problems, gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or vomiting, anxiety, and hallucinations. More severe cases of alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures. 

Spending A Significant Amount Of Time Drinking 

A person who spends most or all of their free time drinking, or recovering from the effects of drinking, is likely struggling with alcohol misuse. When a person becomes dependent upon alcohol, they may even give up all other activities in favor of drinking, or neglect to care for their families, because alcohol takes precedence over other areas of life. 

Dangers of Alcoholism

Some people convince themselves that because alcohol is a legal substance, there are no dangers associated with alcohol misuse and addiction. This could not be further from the truth. Alcohol misuse comes with both short-term and long-term negative effects, which are described below. 

Short-Term Effects

Over the short-term, heavy alcohol consumption comes with several risks, including:

  • Increased risk of injuries from automobile accidents, falling, burns, and drowning
  • Greater likelihood of violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and domestic violence
  • Alcohol poisoning, which is a serious medical emergency associated with excessive drinking
  • Higher likelihood of engaging in unprotected sex, which leads to unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections 

Long-Term Effects

Beyond the immediate risks that appear with alcohol misuse, long-term, heavy alcohol consumption comes with a number of negative consequences:

  • Cardiovascular problems like heart disease and high blood pressure 
  • Reduced immune system functioning
  • Increased risk of various cancers, including colorectal, breast, cancer of the mouth, and esophageal cancer
  • Difficulty with learning and memory
  • Risk of dementia 
  • Unemployment
  • Family problems 

Recognizing Alcohol Addiction 

If you notice alcoholism warning signs, you may be wondering if you meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. While only a doctor or mental health professional can diagnose an alcohol use disorder, there are some self-assessment questionnaires that can help you to determine if it’s time to reach out for help.

Self-Assessment Questionnaire

The following four questions, which are a part of the CAGE Questionnaire, can serve as a self-assessment for alcohol addiction. Answering “yes” to two or more of the questions below suggests that you may have an alcohol use disorder and should reach out for professional treatment:

1.Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

2. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

3. Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (eye-opener)?

The questions above can help you to determine the answer to, “Do you have a drinking problem?” but they should not take the place of medical advice and treatment from a doctor or addiction treatment professional.

Treating Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder is often treated with a combination of medication and behavioral treatments like counseling. When medications and counseling are combined, this modality is referred to as medication-assisted treatment.

Medications called naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram are often used in medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use. In addition to attending counseling, people who are receiving medication-assisted treatment may also participate in mutual support group meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

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Alcoholism FAQs

If you’re searching for information related to alcoholism warning signs, the answers to the following questions may also be of interest.

What Are 3 Factors That Contribute To Alcoholism?

There are numerous risk factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Three common risk factors are heavy drinking, family history of alcohol problems, and environmental factors like child abuse.

How Can You Tell If Someone Is Drinking Again?

If you’re looking for alcohol warning signs that suggest a person has returned to drinking, you might look for signs such as the smell of alcohol on their breath, or changes in behavior. For instance, the person may start withdrawing from others, being secretive about how they’re spending their time, or disengaging from treatment.

When Does Drinking Become A Problem?

Drinking in moderation, which is defined as up to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women, is typically regarded as low-risk. Drinking heavily, which is described as more than 14 drinks in one week for a man and more than 7 in one week for a woman, is considered high-risk and increases the likelihood that someone will develop an alcohol use disorder.

Both heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder represent problem drinking. While not everyone who drinks heavily has an alcohol use disorder, they are at increased risk of developing one if they do not cut back on their drinking. A person who has developed an alcohol use disorder has a diagnosable medical condition that leads to compulsive drinking and makes it difficult for them to stop on their own.

Is Day Drinking A Sign Of Alcoholism?

Drinking during the day is not necessarily a sign of alcoholism or alcohol use disorder. A person who drinks during the day on occasion, perhaps to celebrate a holiday or wedding, likely does not have an alcohol use disorder, especially if they only have a drink or two and do not regularly drink during the day.

On the other hand, day drinking could be a sign of an alcohol use disorder if it occurs out of necessity, to avoid withdrawal symptoms. People who are dependent upon alcohol may begin to drink early in the day, because their body starts to withdraw from alcohol after going all night without drinking.

For some people, day drinking can also be a sign of compulsive alcohol consumption. If a person drinks throughout the day most days, they have likely lost control of their alcohol use. 

Can Alcohol Make You Cough?

Research has found that alcohol intoxication doubles the risk of chronic coughing and bronchitis, and heavy drinking is linked to reduced lung functioning. Coughing can be an alcohol warning sign in some cases.

Contact Confidant Health For Alcohol Addiction Treatment

If you’ve struggled to cut back on your drinking, Confidant Health is here to help. We provide virtual medication assisted treatment for alcohol use, so you can consult with our doctors right from home. Our app is available both on the App Store and the Google Play store. Download it today to begin medication assisted treatment and start on the path toward recovery.

This article has been medically reviewed by
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Nurse Practitioner

Erin is a Nurse Practitioner with 8 years of experience in midwifery and women's health. She has spent the past 5 years specializing in the treatment of opioid and alcohol use disorders.

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