Most of us have probably had an alcoholic drink at some point. The consumption of this drug is so normalized in our society that we forget what alcohol really is: a legalized drug. In fact, the long-term consumption of alcohol has been linked to more health consequences than some illicit drugs, like marijuana.

When taken in moderation, alcohol isn’t likely to have serious or long-term consequences, although some people do experience harmful effects from mild or moderate use. The problem with alcohol addiction (also referred to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder) is that one drink snowballs into many more. This type of heavy drinking over a long period of time has devastating consequences on our bodies, brains, and lives.

In this guide, we’ll guide you through the warning signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction, as well as its serious and harmful effects.

What Is Alcohol?

You’re probably familiar with alcoholic beverages, but many of us don’t know what exactly alcohol is and what makes it so harmful.

Alcohol is a substance that’s created by yeast that ferments the natural sugars found in foods like fruits, grains, and potatoes.

Alcohol contains ethanol, which is the ingredient that’s been found to cause the most damaging effects to our bodies, especially to organs like the liver. Every type of alcohol, including wine and beer, contains ethanol, and it’s been shown that it’s the ethanol, not the type of alcoholic drink, that causes damage.

Alcohol Use Statistics

  • Around 85 percent of U.S. adults have used alcohol in their lifetimes.
  • Over half of all adults have had an alcohol drink in the past month.
  • Almost 15 million people over the age of 12 in the U.S. struggle with alcohol addiction.
  • Almost half a million teens between 12 and 17 have alcohol use disorder.
  • Around 25 percent of people have engaged in binge drinking (drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time) in the last year.
  • Only about 7 percent of people with alcohol use disorder have received treatment in the past year.
  • Alcohol is involved in around 18 percent of all emergency room visits.
  • Almost 100,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year.
  • Around a third of all driving fatalities are because of alcohol.

“Am I an Alcoholic?”: Warning Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Having a glass of wine with dinner or going out to happy hour with colleagues is a normal part of most adults’ lives. Many people can and do have a healthy relationship with alcohol, but for some people, an occasional drink quickly becomes an addiction.

When you think of someone struggling with an addiction to alcohol, what do you picture? Many people imagine a destitute individual, unable to keep a job or a long-term relationship, drinking cheap vodka during their morning shower and maybe even living on the street.

The reality, though, isn’t so black-and-white: alcohol addiction comes in multiple shades of gray. Even people who are able to keep up some semblance of a healthy, successful life could be suffering from alcohol addiction.

So, how can you tell if your alcohol consumption is within “normal” or healthy levels? We’ll go over the official symptoms of alcohol use disorder in the next section, but here are some warning signs that your or a loved one’s alcohol use may be becoming a problem:

  • You drink to cope with the stresses of everyday life.
  • You drink until you’re heavily intoxicated or experience blackouts.
  • You spend a lot of your time drinking or hungover.
  • You always find yourself drinking more than you originally intended.
  • People around you have expressed worry or concern about your drinking habits.
  • You’ve tried to quit or cut down on your drinking, but haven’t been successful.
  • You find yourself trying to keep your drinking habits a secret.

Keep in mind that an online resource will never be able to tell you whether or not your drinking has become a problem. These warning signs are things to watch out for, but if you’re concerned about your or a loved one’s drinking, consult with a professional as soon as possible.

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

In the Diagnostic Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (more commonly known as the DSM-V, this the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual of recognized mental health disorders and their symptoms), alcohol addiction is categorized as “alcohol use disorder.” The DSM is the tool that’s used to give someone an official diagnosis of alcohol addiction.

The following are the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder listed by the DSM-V. Medical language can be hard to navigate and understand, so we’ve also described each symptom in layman’s terms (in italics).

  1. “Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended;” you find yourself drinking more than you set out to; even if you told yourself you’d stop after one drink, it is difficult or nearly impossible to stay within your own limits.
  2. “There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use;” you’re aware that your drinking is problematic, and you’ve tried to cut down or quit before—but you haven’t been successful
  3. “A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects;” you spend a lot of your day drinking, hungover, or figuring out how you can get drunk.
  4. “Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol;” when you’re not drinking, you’re thinking about drinking and wanting to drink.
  5. “Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home; your drinking is starting to cause problems in your life—maybe you’re missing work, or you’re not showing up for your family.
  6. “Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol;” Even though your family, friends, and loved ones have expressed concern about your drinking (and maybe your temper even gets out of control when you’re drunk) you keep drinking anyway
  7. “Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use;” if your drinking starts causing problems for you, you’d rather change jobs or end relationships with people who express concern than quit drinking.
  8. “Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous;” even if you know it’s dangerous, you still can’t keep yourself from drinking—for example, you drink when you need to drive.
  9. “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;” your doctor or therapist has told you that your drinking is harming your body or your mind, and you believe them—but you still can’t seem to stop
  10. “Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: a. A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect or b. A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol;” you seem to need more and more alcohol to get the same buzz as before.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: a. The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol (refer to DSM-5 for further details). or b. Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms;” when you stop drinking, you feel the physical effects of it—you might find yourself experiencing tremors, excessive sweating, nausea, or insomnia, and maybe you even keep drinking just to avoid feeling that way.

Your healthcare provider will ask you questions to determine if you are experiencing the symptoms of alcohol use disorder, and to what severity. You must have experienced at least two of these symptoms within the past 12 months to meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, and have at least six of them to qualify for severe alcohol use disorder.

With the information that they gather from asking you about your symptoms, your medical provider can diagnose you correctly and help you to find the appropriate treatment.

Alcohol Addiction: Effects and Consequences

dangers of alcoholism chart

Usually, when we eat or drink something, it gets digested; our body takes the nutrients it needs and turns the rest into waste. With alcohol, our body reacts differently; instead of getting digested, alcohol travels very quickly into our bloodstream. From there, it reaches our brains, and then moves on to other organs.

That’s the reason most people drink alcohol to begin with: its effects on the brain make you feel drunk, less inhibited, and maybe even “happy” at first. However, alcohol is a toxic substance, and long-term alcohol addiction leads to serious and sometimes even fatal consequences.

Alcohol’s Effects on Physical Health

Alcohol addiction can be devastating to your body. Alcohol is a known human carcinogen, and becoming addicted to it can cause damage to almost every organ you have. Some of the most serious and harmful physical health effects of alcohol addiction include:

Liver Damage

One of the most well-known ways that alcohol harms your body is by damaging your liver. The liver is responsible for filtering out toxins. When you drink large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time, your liver can become inflamed and even scarred (which is referred to as cirrhosis). It stops functioning as it should, which can lead to toxins like ammonia accumulating in our bloodstream.

Serious liver disease like cirrhosis can be irreversible and fatal.

Cancer

Alcohol is a known human carcinogen and increases your risk for many different types of cancer. 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths are attributed to alcohol. On top of liver cancer, alcohol addiction is a key risk factor for pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, mouth cancer, and even breast cancer.

Even a small amount of alcohol use increases your cancer risk by a small amount, so the safest course of action, if you’re already at risk for cancer, would be to avoid alcohol altogether.

Heart Disease

Drinking large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. On top of that, binge drinking (drinking an excessive amount of alcohol over a short period of time) can lead to heart arrhythmias.

Alcohol is also high in calories and can increase your risk for obesity, which can lead to heart problems. Especially if you’re already at high risk for heart disease, alcohol addiction can be deadly.

Gastrointestinal Problems

Many of us are familiar with drinking too much and feeling sick to our stomachs. Alcohol use irritates your digestive system, which can lead to symptoms like acid reflux, diarrhea, and nausea or vomiting. Some heavy drinkers even experience ulcers and bleeding in the digestive tract and.

Alcohol also damages the esophagus, which is part of the digestive tract; this damage can sometimes lead to esophageal cancer.

Epilepsy and Seizures

Some scientific studies have found a link between chronic alcohol addiction and the development of epileptic seizures. Often, what directly causes the seizures are the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol when someone has been addicted to it for a long time. However, binge drinking can also cause serious seizures that can be fatal.

Those are only some of the endless health consequences that alcohol addiction brings with it. Having a drink every now and then isn’t likely to lead to these diseases. But heavy drinking, especially over a long period of time, has been scientifically linked to these types of serious health problems, time and time again.

Alcohol’s Effects on Mental Health

Not only does alcohol addiction have serious—and sometimes even deadly — consequences for your physical health, it causes painful mental health symptoms as well. Alcohol use disorder on its own is considered a mental health disorder, but when co-occurring with other mental illnesses like mood or anxiety disorders, the effects can be disastrous.

Alcohol addiction has been known to increase the risk of developing mental health symptoms, including:

Depression

Many people drink to try to escape their depression symptoms, but in reality, alcohol is one of the worst substances you can consume if you’re depressed.

Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it’ll only worsen any symptoms of depression you’re already experiencing. Studies have shown that people who drink alcohol have more severe depressive episodes and are also more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Anxiety

Anxiety is another common mental health problem that many of us face; in fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the world.

But drinking alcohol won’t make your anxiety better, either; even if you think you feel better while you’re drunk, alcohol interrupts the way important neurotransmitters like serotonin are supposed to work. When you sober up, your anxiety will be much worse.

Dementia

Dementia is the memory loss and cognitive dysfunction that often comes along with old age, and Alzheimer’s disease is often the culprit. But there is another class of dementia called alcohol-related dementia, which is entirely preventable.

Long-term heavy drinking can cause permanent damage to the brain; one study found that people who binge drink are three times more likely to have dementia by the time they’re 65.

Psychosis

Many drugs have been linked to the development of psychosis, including alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal, acute intoxication, and chronic alcohol addiction have all been shown to contribute to psychosis in some people.

Especially for people who are already predisposed to a psychotic disorder, this can be an extremely dangerous consequence.

Alcohol addiction and mental illness have an interesting, cyclical relationship. People with mental health problems are more likely to become addicted to alcohol, but the reverse is also true: people who have an alcohol addiction are more likely to develop symptoms of a mental health disorder.

If you have or are at risk for a mental illness, alcohol addiction is a dangerous contributing factor you should be aware of.

Lifestyle Consequences of Alcohol Addiction

It’s clear that heavy alcohol use has serious consequences for your physical and mental health, especially over a long period of time. If that weren’t harmful enough, alcohol addiction can also have devastating effects on our lifestyle and relationships.

Although “high-functioning alcoholism” is possible, in one way or another, this addiction finds a way to wreak havoc on the things that are most important to us.

That’s because alcohol impairs our cognitive functioning—to put it simply, that means that we don’t think as clearly when we’re drinking. This leads us to engage in impulsive behaviors and make bad choices that we wouldn’t normally make; that could include driving under the influence, gambling, cheating on our partners, getting into fights, and other risky behaviors.

Effects on Relationships

Obviously, this has a serious effect on work and family life. Alcohol plays a factor in a significant percentage of violent altercations, including domestic disputes. That’s partly because alcohol lowers your inhibitions and makes you more impulsive, but the alcohol use itself can be cause for argument, too.

Remember that people with alcohol addiction often continue using despite their relationships suffering; it’s only natural that their loved ones feel upset watching their alcohol use continue, even after they’ve expressed their concern.

Effects on Work and Finances

Work and financial troubles caused by alcohol abuse play a part in relationship problems, as well. Research shows that drinkers double their risk for workplace accidents compared with non-drinkers. People who use alcohol have more absenteeism (skipping work) and lower productivity, which might lead to lower wages and even job loss.

On top of the money that the addicted person spends on alcohol itself, the cognitive impairment that alcohol causes might lead them to impulsively spend money on other things, like gambling or excessive shopping.

Sometimes, the serious ways in which alcohol use disorder affects your life and relationships can be even more devastating than the health consequences.

Alcohol Addiction Resources

At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on RehabAid.com

About the Author

Saya Des Marais, MSW

Saya is a mental health content writer with over a decade of experience working as a mental health professional. She's trained in practices like EMDR and Motivational Interviewing, and worked with people battling addiction and co-occurring disorders in her former life as a clinical social worker. Addiction is also a personal matter to her - many people very dear to her are in recovery. The most important thing to her as a writer is creating mental health content that is helpful, and not confusing - the last thing you need when you're trying to beat mental illness or addiction is bad information.

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