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Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol is one of the most used substances in the United States with 50% of people aged 12 and older reporting drinking alcohol in the past month according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).1

When a person is unable to control their drinking despite alcohol use leading to negative health, occupational, and social consequences, they may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), sometimes referred to as alcohol addiction.2 The 2020 NSDUH found that 28 million people met the diagnostic criteria for an AUD in the past year.1

While only a qualified healthcare professional can diagnose problematic drinking or an AUD, if you are concerned that you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol misuse, it may be important to take note of the several physical and behavioral signs and symptoms. Learn more about the potential signs of alcohol addiction below and how to get help.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

In clinical settings, healthcare professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM–5) to assess and diagnose the presence of an alcohol use disorder.3

AUD is diagnosed based on a person presenting at least 2 of the following criteria:

  • Drinking more alcohol or continuing to drink for a longer time than intended.
  • Wanting to lessen or stop alcohol consumption but being unable to do so.
  • Spending a great deal of time obtaining, drinking, or recovering from alcohol.
  • Craving alcohol or experiencing strong urges to drink alcohol.
  • Failing to meet expectations or fulfill obligations at home, school, or work due to alcohol consumption.
  • Experiencing persistent interpersonal and social problems caused or worsened due to alcohol consumption.
  • Forgoing occupational, recreational, or social activities due to alcohol consumption.
  • Consuming alcohol in situations where it is hazardous to do so (e.g., driving under the influence).
  • Consuming alcohol despite persistent physical and psychological problems caused or worsened due to alcohol consumption.
  • Developing a tolerance (e.g., needing more alcohol to feel the intoxicating effects).
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption is lessened or stopped.

AUD severity is determined by the number of symptoms present. If a person exhibits 2–3 symptoms, this indicates a mild AUD, 4–5 indicates a moderate AUD, and 6 or more indicates a severe AUD.3

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse

In addition to the DSM–5 criteria above, there are other physical and behavioral signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse you may recognize if you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol use.

If you recognize any of the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse below, that does not necessarily mean that you have an alcohol use disorder. Only a qualified healthcare professional can make diagnoses; people cannot formally diagnose themselves. If you suspect you might have an issue with problematic drinking, speak openly and honestly with your doctor.

Physical Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse

The physical signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication can vary greatly depending on a person’s tolerance and blood alcohol concentration (BAC), ranging from reduced coordination to serious decreases in vital signs or cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin and lips caused by a shortage of oxygen in the blood).4 These more serious instances of lowered vitals and cyanosis from alcohol may also be signs of alcohol poisoning. While being intoxicated does not necessarily mean that a person has a problem with alcohol, recurrent intoxication may be an indicator of possible alcohol misuse or an alcohol use disorder.5

Alcohol misuse can affect nearly every organ system, leading to several physical signs and symptoms.3 For example, a person who drinks heavily on a regular basis may experience bloating, indigestion, hemorrhoids, and ulcers as a result of alcohol-induced changes in the liver.3

Other physical signs and symptoms of possible alcohol misuse include:3, 5

  • Unsteady gait.
  • Tachycardia (fast heart rate).
  • Sweating.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Insomnia.
  • Jaundice.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Memory backouts.
  • Erectile dysfunction.
  • Irregular menstrual periods.
  • Tremor.
  • Seizures.

Alcohol withdrawal can occur when a person who is physically dependent on alcohol abruptly reduces or stops drinking.2 Signs of alcohol withdrawal may include anxiety, agitation, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, sweating, hallucinations, and seizures.3, 4

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Misuse

A person may exhibit several behavioral signs and symptoms of possible alcohol misuse, including regular, heavy alcohol consumption.5 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.7

People who misuse alcohol often experience negative consequences in several areas of their life, such as school, work, and interpersonal relationships.3 Those with an alcohol use disorder may also be at an increased risk of accidents, violence, and suicide.3

Other behavioral signs of alcohol misuse include:3, 5

  • Using other substances.
  • Unexpected drug interactions.
  • Poor nutrition and personal hygiene.
  • Frequent accidents or falls.
  • Absenteeism from school.
  • Absenteeism from work, which may contribute to financial strain.

Getting Yourself or a Loved One Help

You may be wondering what help is available for yourself or someone you care about who is showing signs of alcohol addiction. Most people can benefit from treatment regardless of the severity of their alcohol use.8

Alcohol detox is an important first step in recovery for many people. The goal of detox is to clear alcohol from the body in a safe and supervised setting while alleviating any withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol detox can help a person achieve a substance-free state, mitigate or relieve immediate withdrawal symptoms, and address any co-occurring medical or mental health conditions.9 This can help a person more easily transition into ongoing treatment such as inpatient or outpatient rehab.9

Recovery looks different for everyone, but alcohol addiction treatment may include:8, 10

  • Behavioral treatments: Behavioral treatments can help a person modify their attitudes and behaviors related to alcohol use while learning healthy life skills. Behavioral treatments include a range of programs in group and individual settings such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational incentives and interviewing, and multidimensional family therapy.
  • Medication: Medication is an important part of treatment for many people and may be used to help reduce withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse.
  • Mutual-support groups: Mutual-support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provide a network for people who want to reduce or stop drinking or are in recovery for alcohol use.

If you are considering treatment, help may be available at a rehab center near you or out of state. You can use the FindTreatment.gov tool or learn more about treatment options by contacting your doctor or a mental health practitioner.

You can also contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at . AAC has rehab centers across the U.S. and is a leading provider of evidence-based addiction treatment. Our team of admissions navigators can answer questions you have about alcohol addiction treatment options, verify your insurance, and help you with the admissions process once you’re ready.

More resources about Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction: