Signs of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is a serious mental and physical health issue that must be treated professionally. Because the repercussions of alcohol abuse and addiction can be severe and far-reaching, it is important to know what the signs are. The earlier they are recognized the easier it is to get help and change unhealthy habits. Some signs of problem drinking and addiction include spending a lot of time drinking, drinking in spite of problems it causes in any area of a person’s life, trying to stop drinking and failing, and experiencing cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal.

Alcohol addiction is a very serious illness that can cause health problems and that can be fatal in the long run.

Problem drinking causes a number of issues in a person’s life from relationship problems to losing work and financial difficulties, to long-term health problems.

Knowing the signs of mild, moderate, and severe alcohol abuse can help recognize a developing alcohol problem in a loved one or in oneself.

Only with a professional diagnosis and treatment is it possible to change unhealthy drinking patterns.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

The terms alcohol addiction, dependence, and alcoholism are commonly used, but in the mental health profession the preferred term is alcohol use disorder. A person may be diagnosed with mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder. Mild or moderate alcohol use disorder is problem drinking that is beginning to or already causing problems in the drinker’s life. This may mean that drinking is taking up a lot of time, causing regular hangovers, triggering relationship problems, or affecting performance at work.

When alcohol use disorder is severe, it means that there are numerous issues caused by drinking. It may also mean that a person is becoming or is already physically dependent on alcohol. In the past, alcohol addiction or alcoholism referred to this state, in which a person feels physical and emotional withdrawal when not drinking. Alcohol addiction is very serious and can cause lifelong health problems, complications that affect various areas of a person’s life, and ultimately can be fatal.

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Signs of Problem Drinking

When an alcohol use disorder is mild or moderate, the signs that drinking has become a problem are not necessarily obvious. However, observing a close friend or family member can reveal some troubling signs that drinking habits are not healthy. Mild and moderate alcohol abuse can be reversed with good treatment and commitment to drinking less or not at all. These are some possible signs that a person’s drinking habits are problematic:

  • They are hiding drinking, drinking alone, or lying about drinking.
  • Drinking is leading to poor performance at work or school.
  • Self-care or responsibilities at home are sliding.
  • They are spending more and more time drinking.
  • They promise to drink less but don’t actually make any changes.
  • They insist that drinking is necessary to cope with negative emotions, like stress.
  • The amount of alcohol they drink keeps increasing.
  • They have stopped or reduced activities they normally enjoy, because of drinking.
  • They get hungover often.
  • More than once, they have been drinking in a situation that is dangerous, like before driving.
  • Their drinking is causing physical health problems or mental health issues, like depression.
  • They increasingly choose to drink alone or not to socialize because they want to drink.

Signs of Addiction

Any of the above signs and symptoms may also be seen in someone with a severe alcohol use disorder or an addiction. The signs may be more severe or a person may exhibit more of them once they have become addicted, but there are two additional signs that drinking has gone from problematic or unhealthy to addiction:

  • Tolerance. Developing a tolerance is the first big warning sign of a serious alcohol problem. This occurs when alcohol abuse is starting to become a physical dependence. Tolerance occurs with longer-term heavy drinking and means that a person needs more and more alcohol to get the same effect that they used to get from smaller amounts. In other words, over time they need to drink more alcohol to get drunk.
  • Withdrawal. The second serious sign of dependence is withdrawal, symptoms that are caused by not drinking. When the effects of alcohol wear off, someone who is addicted will start to feel shaky, irritable, nauseated, jumpy, depressed, fatigued, or sweaty. Withdrawal may also cause headaches, insomnia, or loss of appetite. These symptoms usually lead someone to keep drinking in order to feel better.

Self-Assessment for Alcohol Use Disorder

It is often easier to see signs of alcohol abuse or addiction in someone else. To see it in one’s own actions and behaviors is more challenging. But, if you are asking the question or beginning to wonder about your drinking habits and if they are problematic, it is well worth considering seriously. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction offers a series of self-assessment questions that can help anyone determine if they need to seek professional help to curb drinking:

  • Do you sometimes drink more than you meant to?
  • Have you tried, more than once, to cut back on drinking but weren’t able to?
  • Do you spend a lot of your time drinking or thinking about drinking?
  • Do you often get hungover?
  • Is your drinking ever the subject of fights with family or conflict with friends?
  • Do you ever find that your drinking, or being hungover afterwards, keeps you from going to work or school or taking care of family responsibilities?
  • Have you put yourself in a dangerous situation while drinking, like driving or having unprotected sex?
  • Do you have cravings or strong urges to drink?
  • Do you find that you need to drink more to get drunk than you used to?
  • Have you ever had a memory blackout after drinking, or other mental or physical health issues, such as depression?
  • Do friends or family members express concern with your drinking patterns?
  • Do you start to feel shaky, irritable, nauseated, or otherwise uncomfortable when you aren’t drinking?

It is important to get a professional evaluation if you are concerned about your drinking. These questions are designed to get you thinking, and to encourage you to look for professional help and treatment if the answer to more than one of them is yes.

Diagnosing Alcohol Use Disorder

A mental health professional or addiction specialist uses the criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose alcohol use disorders. Using 11 criteria, the diagnosis may be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how many are met and to what extent. Meeting just two of the criteria within a one-year period is enough to be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder. Meeting four or five criteria is considered moderate substance use disorder, and having six or more is severe. The criteria are:

  • Drinking more or for longer than intended
  • Trying but failing to stop drinking or cut back
  • Spending a lot of time drinking
  • Having strong cravings for alcohol
  • Neglecting responsibilities, or performing poorly at work or school, because of drinking
  • Drinking in spite of it causing problems in relationships
  • Participating less in activities in order to spend more time drinking
  • Drinking in unsafe situations
  • Drinking in spite of it causing health problems
  • Developing tolerance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

Alcohol Addiction Can Be Treated

For some people with only mild alcohol use disorder, treatment can help change drinking patterns. Abstinence is not always necessary. However, many people with problem drinking behaviors, especially those with moderate or severe alcohol abuse, benefit most from learning to stop drinking entirely. Alcohol addiction will not get better without interventions, so it is important to get a professional diagnosis and to then begin a treatment plan.

Treatment for alcohol addiction is largely based on therapy, especially behavioral therapies. These help an individual learn to change their behaviors, to find healthy ways to cope without alcohol, and how to avoid and manage triggers to prevent relapses. Therapy can also help patients better understand why they turned to alcohol and what underlying factors, such as an undiagnosed mental illness, may contribute to drinking.

Some patients also benefit from medications. There are three prescriptions that are approved for treating alcohol use disorder, and can help manage cravings and withdrawal and reduce the risk of relapse. Support groups are also useful for managing alcohol addiction and can be a long-term type of maintenance for preventing relapse.

For those who seek out and commit to a thorough treatment plan, alcohol addiction can be managed as a chronic illness. To get to that point, though, it is essential to be aware of what the signs of addiction and alcohol abuse are and to get professionally evaluated when it has become clear that drinking is an issue.