Alcohol is one of the most common recreational substances, especially in the U.S. Unfortunately, when alcohol consumption becomes compulsive, it can also be very distressing and harmful. And because alcohol is legal and often even encouraged, many individuals underestimate its prevalence as a problem. In fact, every year, there are approximately three million deaths related to the misuse of alcohol globally.1
While there is no single determining factor for alcohol addiction, many studies have found strong associations between certain factors and the likelihood of alcoholism. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have an alcohol addiction, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms so you can find professional treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction is a chronic condition that often goes undetected. It takes a serious toll on a person’s physical and mental health, and it is essential to be aware if you or someone you know exhibits any of the following signs and symptoms of alcoholism.
Physical and Psychological Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Not only does alcohol harm your body, but it affects your mind and emotional state—especially in those who struggle with anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and depression.2 It can also negatively impact your relationships, work, and social life as well. There are many physical and psychological signs of alcohol addiction to be aware of, including:3
- Slurred speech
- Unsteady gait
- Involuntary eye movements
- Impaired memory or attention
- Mood changes
- Inappropriate aggressive behavior
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired occupational or social functioning
Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol is used by people all over the world. Studies show that as of 2018, more than half of the United States adult population drank alcohol in the past 30 days, with 16% admitting to binge drinking and 7% admitting to heavy drinking.4
While having an occasional drink usually isn’t something to be worried about, it’s crucial that you pay attention to the common symptoms associated with alcohol addiction, including:3
- Tolerance: The need to consume more and more alcohol to achieve the same desired effect
- Alcohol withdrawal: The painful, uncomfortable symptoms you experience when you try to stop drinking
- Alcohol cravings: The intense desire and temptation to consume alcohol
- Using alcohol in dangerous situations: Regularly drinking and driving, operating machinery, or mixing other drugs.
- Failed attempts to quit drinking: Despite efforts to quit, you are unable to do so.
- Compulsive drinking regardless of consequences: You continue to drink despite negative consequences at work, home, school, and more.
- Compulsive drinking despite relationship problems: You continue drinking regardless of problems with friends, family, spouses, children, and more.
- Neglecting hobbies: No longer engaging in previously enjoyed activities in favor of alcohol use.
- Drinking despite mental or physical health issues: You continue drinking despite knowing that your alcohol consumption is causing or worsening your physical and mental health problems.
If you are still unsure as to whether you have an alcohol addiction, you can take an alcohol addiction self-assessment.
Understanding Alcohol Addiction: Who is at Risk?
Alcohol use disorder is a condition that can affect anyone. It is a condition that impacts both the drinker and their family, friends, and society. It affects the body, mind, and spirit – and if left untreated, it can severely damage the lives of those who are affected.
Unfortunately, there is no one way to identify those most at risk of developing alcohol use disorder. However, some factors may make you or someone you know more vulnerable.
The following are risk factors that may put you or someone you care about at risk for alcohol addiction:5,6
- Family History: Research shows that children of those with alcoholism are two to six times more likely to develop alcohol problems.
- Existing Psychiatric Disorders: There is evidence that those who have suffered from existing mental health problems, such as depression, personality disorders, and schizophrenia, are more likely to have a predisposition toward alcohol use disorders.
- Stress/Trauma: Those who have experienced a traumatic event or a significant stressor are more likely to develop alcohol use disorders.
- Substance Abuse: Those who have previously used drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, are at an increased risk for alcohol addiction.
How to Treat Alcohol Addiction
Deciding to seek alcohol addiction treatment can be one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do, but it is the most crucial decision you’ll ever make. Many different intervention approaches can be used for the treatment of alcohol addiction, including:
An inpatient alcohol rehab is the most intensive treatment setting available. You live at the facility for the duration of your treatment program, which typically lasts from 30 to 90 days, although it may be longer. At an inpatient treatment program, you are separated from your using environment and are able to focus solely on your recovery process. While every inpatient alcohol treatment program has a slightly different philosophy or treatment ideology, most programs offer a combination of the following interventions:
- Individual therapy (like cognitive-behavioral therapy)
- Group counseling
- Alcohol education classes
- Family therapy
Outpatient alcohol rehab is less intensive than inpatient, but it offers you a lot more freedom throughout your alcoholism recovery. You live at home during your treatment program and attend therapy and counseling sessions when it works for your schedule. An outpatient alcoholism treatment program may be beneficial if you have a strong and sober support system at home, as well as reliable transportation.
Alcohol detoxification is the process of ridding the body of alcohol (or other drugs) through methods such as alcohol withdrawal medications, supportive care like IV fluids and vitamins, proper nourishment, and sleep. It’s a critical part of any alcohol addiction recovery program, as it’s the first step in the process of becoming sober. Because detoxification can result in some potentially dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, you will want to find a program that offers around-the-clock medical detox services.
Medications for Alcohol Addiction
There are several FDA-approved medications for the treatment of alcohol dependence or alcohol addiction, and they will likely be a part of your treatment plan. Here are the medication options:7
- Naltrexone: It blocks receptors in your brain that are involved in the rewarding effects of alcohol, as well as cravings.
- Acamprosate: It reduces symptoms of post-acute withdrawal, such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
- Disulfiram: It produces unpleasant symptoms like heart palpitations and flushing if you drink alcohol while taking it.
The Importance of Aftercare and Ongoing Support
Once you finish your alcohol addiction treatment program, you will collaborate with your treatment team to create an aftercare and relapse prevention plan. This plan will include types of ongoing support that work to build upon the foundation you formed in rehab. Everyone’s relapse prevention plan is going to look different, but as long as yours includes recovery support resources that help you stay sober, that’s what matters.
Common types of aftercare include:
- Sober Living Homes: These residences are ideal if you are in the the beginning stages of recovery and want to continue your recovery in a supportive environment, without the fear of relapse.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Meetings: It’s free to join AA, and you are welcome as long as you have a desire to stay sober. You can attend AA meetings and learn from the recovery progress of others as well as share your experiences. You may also find a sponsor and work through the 12 steps of AA.
- Step-down care: Once you complete an inpatient alcohol rehab program, you may want to transition into an outpatient program. This is known as step-down care because you are entering a less intensive treatment program that still provides structured support.
Understanding Alcohol Addiction: Frequently Asked Questions
Is There a Difference Between Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Addiction?
Yes – alcohol dependence develops from chronic drinking. It means your body has adapted to the presence of alcohol; it is a physiological response, whereas alcohol addiction is characterized by compulsive drinking despite the harmful consequences.
Can Alcoholism Be Cured?
While there is no “cure” for alcoholism, a person dealing with alcohol use disorder can live a fulfilling life without alcohol by undergoing proper treatment and lifestyle changes.
What Causes a Person to Be an Alcoholic?
Alcoholism can result from several things, including a hereditary predisposition, trauma, stress, and even other underlying health conditions.
How Does Alcohol Affect a Person Psychologically?
Alcohol affects a person’s mental health in a myriad of ways, including lowering inhibition, causing anxiety, and decreasing emotional control.
Does Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment Work?
Yes – if you are serious about your recovery and willing to take the necessary steps, then treatment can help you recover from alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol Addiction Resources
- World Health Organization. (2018, September). Alcohol.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2002). Alcoholism and psychiatric disorders. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 3). Data on excessive drinking.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020, August 18). Alcohol use disorder: MedlinePlus Genetics.
- Frontiers in neuroscience. (2018, May 11). The risk factors of the alcohol use disorders-through review of its comorbidities.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2008). Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much: A Clinician’s Guide.