Alcohol Addiction Signs, Symptoms, Effects And Help

Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):

  • 1 in 12 American adults is an alcohol abuser or alcoholic.
  • 41% of young adults aged 18 to 25 indulge in binge drinking.
Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Slurring of speech.
  • Talking loudly.
  • Inability to walk a straight line.
  • Glassy eyes.

As a CNS depressant, alcohol abusers may also experience a period of depression after a night of heavy drinking.

Users may experience emotional ups and downs that can put them at risk of self-harming behaviors.

Additionally, alcohol users are at an increased risk of making impulsive decisions, such as:

  • Driving drunk.
  • Getting into fights.
  • Engaging in sexually promiscuous behaviors.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), alcohol abuse is a drinking pattern that results in significant and recurrent adverse consequences.

Alcohol users can be diagnosed according to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) with an Alcohol Use Disorder.

This disorder is diagnosed on a spectrum that indicates mild, moderate and severe use patterns.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Nausea.
  • Sweating.
  • Irritability.
  • Restlessness.

Detoxing alone without medical supervision can be deadly.

Severe dependence can lead to morbid consequences in withdrawal. These include:

  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Convulsions.
  • Hallucinations, also known as delirium tremens (DTs).

The detoxification process for heavy and prolonged alcohol use can be deadly, so it’s important one does not try to detox on their own. Medical supervision is extremely important.

Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Short-Term Effects

  • Memory loss Prolonged alcohol abuse can affect your heart and liver and can even cause death.
  • Blackouts
  • Confusion
  • Motor impairment
  • Difficulty concentrating

Long-term Effects

Long-term alcohol abuse affects the heart, causing:

  • Irregular heartbeats.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Stroke.
  • Cardiomyopathy, where it is harder for the heart to pump and deliver blood to other areas of your body.

Alcohol abuse also affects the liver and pancreas, leading to conditions such as:

  • Fatty liver.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Fibrosis.
  • Cirrhosis.
  • Pancreatitis.

According to the Mayo Clinic, heavy and prolonged drinking, when it affects the liver, can cause esophageal varices, which are abnormal, enlarged veins in the lower part of the esophagus.

This can be life threatening as the large volume of blood that is trying to flow through smaller blood vessels can leak or rupture.

Alcohol-Related Fatalities

  • Car accidents
  • Violent behavior
  • Suicide
  • Homicide

Combining Alcohol and Other Substances

Alcohol users who mix alcohol with other drugs place themselves at greater risk for serious adverse symptoms and effects.

CNS Depressants Icon

Central Nervous System Depressants

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), it is dangerous to combine alcohol with other central nervous system (CNS) depressants, like prescription pain medications and benzodiazepines such as Valium or Xanax.

These CNS depressants are symbiotic with alcohol and can affect a user’s heart rhythm and slow down the respiration rate.

Cocaine Icon


Alcohol combined with cocaine is also dangerous as the two mix to produce a psychoactive substance known as cocaethylene.

Cocaethylene has an 18- to 20-fold increase over cocaine for risk of immediate death. Cocaethylene has also been associated with increased risk of seizures, liver damage and compromised immune system functioning.

Anti-Depressants Icon


Combining alcohol with prescription anti-depressants decreases the effectiveness of the anti-depressant.

In many cases, psychiatrists may refuse to treat symptoms of depression if the patient continues to drink and it becomes difficult to determine if the patient is clinically depressed or experiencing the depressing effects of alcohol use.

Users who combine alcohol with CNS depressants are also at increased risk of:

  • Experiencing blackouts.
  • Memory loss.
  • Increased emotional instability.
  • Violence.
  • Possible death from choking vomit or extremely slowed breathing.

However, it is important to note that benzodiazepines are used during medical alcohol detoxification to decrease the risk of seizures, DTs and death.

How is Alcohol Use Disorder Diagnosed?

Under the DSM-5, the presence of at least 2 of the following criteria during the same 12-month period is classified as an alcohol use disorder:

  • A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol or recover from its effects.
  • Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  • Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school or home.
  • Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  • Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  • Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  • Drinking causes the individual to miss recreational activities like meeting friends, playing sports or spending quality time with family.
  • Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  • Developing a tolerance for alcohol such that one needs a larger amount to achieve the same effect.
  • Development of withdrawal symptoms after abstinence.

Sub-Classifications of Alcohol Use Disorder

According to the DSM-5, the sub-classification of mild alcohol use disorder is indicated by the presence of a number of the above symptoms:

  • Mild: 2-3 symptoms.
  • Moderate: 4-5 symptoms.
  • Severe: 6 or more symptoms.

Who is at Risk for Alcohol Addiction?

According to the American Psychological Association (2012), problem drinking can be caused by genetic, physiological, psychological and social factors.

Psychological traits can include low self-esteem and a need for approval, and some people drink alcohol to alleviate negative emotions.

Heavy drinking may make a user more at risk for dependence as it can cause physiological changes in the body.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a 2013 national survey on drug use and health indicated that 16.6 million adults aged 18 and older had an alcohol use disorder.

Of the 16.6 million, 10.8 million were men (9.4% of men in this age group) and 5.8 million were women (4.7% of women in this age group).

The survey also noted that 1.3 million adults 18 and up received treatment for an alcohol use disorder.

Teen Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Find a Meeting Alcoholics Anonymous has helped many people recover from alcohol abuse. Search for a local AA meeting for you or your loved one. The same 2013 SAMHSA survey showed that roughly 697,000 youth between the ages of 12-17 had an alcohol use disorder.

This age group included 3.2% females and 2.5% males. Also noted in the survey, 73,000 adolescents ages 12-17 received treatment for an alcohol problem.

It can be difficult to determine if an adolescent abusing alcohol is addicted to alcohol, as some heavy users experiment with alcohol and don’t become dependent on it.

However, alcohol use during these years can affect the way a normal adolescent brain develops, which can increase their risk for an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol and/or drug abuse can be a very painful experience for a parent. If you have a teen that needs help, call us at 1-888-993-3112Who Answers?.

When to Seek Help for Alcohol Addiction

There are several ways to determine if you or someone you know has a problem with drinking:

  • If friends or family members express concern, this may be reason for seeking help.
  • If the drinker becomes defensive when their drinking is criticized or expresses guilt about their drinking by vowing to drink less, these are additional indications it may be time to seek help.

Because alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, heavy drinkers and those dependent upon alcohol need to seek immediate medical help.

It would not be wise to try to detox on your own or with the help of unqualified friends or family members.

Help Addicted Friends and Family

If you have a friend or family member who suffers from alcohol abuse or alcoholism, it will be important to express concern and ask for them to get help.

If the alcohol user denies seeking help, you may need to organize an intervention or find an

experienced member of Alcoholics Anonymous to share their experience and offer help.

It can help to remove barriers to the alcohol user getting help by setting boundaries and consequences if the user does not get help.

Alcohol Rehab and Treatment Options

There are several treatment options available throughout the US for adolescent and adult alcohol users. As noted earlier, heavy and prolonged drinkers should seek medical detoxification to assure safe and effective treatment through the withdrawal process.

Alcohol is highly available, and since the goal of treatment is for the drinker to abstain from drinking, it is important for users to learn how to cope with life without using alcohol.

  • Inpatient Treatment

    Inpatient treatment involves living on the premises of a treatment center. The patient participates in treatment anywhere from 28-90 days. Treatment includes a cognitive-behavioral approach to target problematic thoughts and may be held in groups and individual sessions.

  • Partial Hospitalization

    Partial hospitalization (PHP) is where a patient lives at home or another sober environment and goes to the treatment facility during the day. This can be beneficial for patients who work at night or are unable to sleep at the treatment facility.

  • Intensive Outpatient Program

    An intensive outpatient program (IOP) is where a patient lives at home or another sober environment and attends treatment at an outpatient facility for three days a week, a few hours each day. This schedule can be beneficial for patients who do not require detoxification or residential treatment or who have work schedules that do not allow them to miss several days of work.

  • Individual Therapy

    Individual therapy is conducted by an addictions counselor who can provide individualized and in-depth CBT treatment. Group therapy has also been found to be an effective form of therapy, and individual and group therapy may include family participation.

  • Continuing Care Groups

    Continuing care groups typically meet one hour every week to discuss commonly occurring issues. These issues can include anything from stress, to drug-related triggers and environmental factors, to family issues group members may be having.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    A 2009 article published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs identifies that CBT is extremely effective in treating adults diagnosed with alcohol use disorders.

    This form of therapy is based primarily on a model of relapse prevention, teaching users how to cope and identify relapse-related warning signs and triggers.

  • 12 Steps

    Many treatment facilities are 12-step based and seek to integrate patients in the therapeutic process into a self-help program such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

    Some moderate drinkers can enter into Alcoholics Anonymous to get and stay sober without entering into treatment.

    It is important to remember that while 12-step programs of recovery can be healing and therapeutic, they are not substitutes for professional help, especially in cases of co-occurring mental illness or when medical detoxification is necessary.

    Combining long-term therapy with family support and Alcoholics Anonymous can increase a person’s chances of maintaining abstinence from alcohol.