Alcoholism: Effects, Signs & Symptoms

Alcohol is a dangerous drug that, if not consumed responsibly, can cause serious physical, psychological and social harm to a person. There is a significant stigma surrounding addiction, however, which is why it’s so hard for those with a drinking problem to recognize it and get help. It’s also why friends or loved ones often don’t speak up about dangerous behaviors or changes they notice. However, even though they may try to hide it, alcoholism leaves behind many tangible signs. Loved ones should look out for these effects of alcohol abuse so they know when to step in and offer help.

Alcohol can cause visible effects after just one or two drinks. While these symptoms may seem like they make a party or concert more fun, excessive drinking can easily become dangerous. Excessive drinking is defined differently for both men and women. A man under age 65 may have a drinking problem if he consumes four or more drinks per day, or more than 14 each week. In women and older men, heavy drinking means more than three drinks per day, or seven total per week. When a person drinks at this level, it becomes easier to spot the typical signs and symptoms of alcoholism.

Before alcoholism begins to tamper with a person’s body, it affects their mind. Addiction rewires the brain, making a person crave and seek out alcohol, even if they recently consumed it. This altered brain chemistry prioritizes alcohol, making getting drunk the most important thing to an addict.

If you’re worried a loved one has a drinking problem or is becoming an alcoholic, be on the lookout for one or more of these signs:

  • Disinterest in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased performance at work or school
  • Challenges with interpersonal relationships
  • Legal trouble
  • Financial distress
  • Change in appearance and hygiene

Most of these signs will begin to occur all at once. Some, including financial distress, typically crop up later after the person has been drinking excessively for some time.

As alcohol takes an increasingly important role in a person’s life, they may be quick to let go of other activities or hobbies they once loved. Someone who used to love spending their free time playing music or hanging out with friends may now be at the bar instead. Similar problems may crop up at school or work. Alcohol can inhibit a person’s memory, motor skills and cognitive abilities, which can easily lead to tardiness and low performance on academic work assignments. Most people experience attitude changes while they’re drunk, as well, making them possibly more boisterous or silly, or more argumentative. In both cases, this may cause a problem in an educational or professional setting, and the person may receive an official reprimand.

Alcohol has a lot of calories, so drinking excessively without increasing exercise can also lead to weight gain. The infamous “beer belly” is a common side effect of drinking too much, as well as a generally sloppy appearance, slurred speech and stumbling while walking. The drunker a person is, the less they will likely care about their appearance or behavior.

As these changes manifest, an alcoholic will likely experience conflicts with coworkers, friends, family and other loved ones. As an abuser loses their job, stops attending activities or begins getting into legal trouble, romantic and platonic relationships become strained. Such legal troubles include arrests for public drunkenness and driving while under the influence. Financing bail and lawyer’s fees can add up quickly, compounding with the cost of purchasing alcohol, further deepening financial problems.   

alcohol abuse signs

It may be legal, but alcohol is still a drug that can cause dangerous effects if not taken responsibly. Most people are familiar with the physical symptoms of alcohol use.

Intoxication may look like:

  • Loud speech
  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Boisterous attitude
  • Sexually risky behavior
  • Staggering or otherwise unusual walk
  • Disorientation
  • Discoordination
  • Moodiness
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Memory loss

Continual abuse can lead to even more symptoms that may indicate alcoholism. Someone who is regularly abusing alcohol, or may even have an addiction, will experience these social and physical symptoms:

  • Inability to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink
  • Cravings to drink alcohol
  • Frequent visits to the liquor store
  • Drinking larger amounts of alcohol to get drunk
  • Drinking alcohol in unsafe situations, such as while driving
  • Long memory blackouts
  • Drinking early in the day
  • Drinking alone
  • Frequent hangovers
  • Giving up hobbies or activities due to alcohol use, drunkenness or hanging over
  • Relationship problems
  • Legal trouble
  • Financial problems  

Certain symptoms are associated with specific levels of blood alcohol concentration. After one or two drinks, your BAC will reach .04. This is typically when a person begins to feel a “buzz,” or the early effects of intoxication. Law enforcement across America define a person as “drunk,” when their motor skills and cognitive abilities are significantly impaired, at .08 BAC. This is when you can get arrested for driving under the influence. Truck drivers can get arrested for DUI at .04 BAC. At .12 BAC, most people will feel the need to vomit. A person may lose consciousness between .30 and .40 BAC. Reaching .45 BAC can be deadly.

Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can cause serious bodily injury. In particular, alcohol can affect the human liver, heart and brain.

  • Alcohol and Liver Damage – The liver is the organ that metabolizes alcohol. Once a person consumes alcohol, the liver begins working to process it — converting ethanol to the toxin acetaldehyde, which it breaks down into acetate, and further breaks down into water and carbon dioxide. The liver can process about 10g of ethanol per hour, leaving the remaining amount in the bloodstream. The blood alcohol concentration is a common way to measure how drunk a person is.

    Long-term, regular heavy drinking can damage the liver and cause liver disease. Regular, heavy drinking in men is defined as 20 or more drinks per week for 10 or more years. In women, regular, heavy drinking is defined as 16 or more drinks per week for 10 or more years. The more alcohol the liver has to process, the more bloated its cells become. The resulting swelling and inflammation are known as alcoholic hepatitis or alcoholic steatohepatitis. As heavy drinking continues, these conditions can cause fibrosis, or scarring to develop. These liver diseases can eventually lead to liver failure and possible death.

    Not only do these conditions cause grave consequences, but a poorly functioning liver also affects the rest of the body. Specifically, liver dysfunction from alcohol consumption can cause a brain disorder called hepatic encephalopathy. The disorder causes changes in basic things, like sleep patterns and mood, but also has more serious effects, such as personality changes, anxiety, depression and problems with physical coordination. The more serious cases can be fatal.
  • Alcohol and Brain Damage Alcohol’s direct effect on the brain can be extreme. In the short term, for example, it slows functioning and makes the abuser feel as though the world is moving slower. Long-term abuse can cause even more damage. For example, studies of men and women with alcoholism have shown greater brain shrinkage (an indicator of brain damage) than their counterparts.

    Alcoholism also often leads to a deficiency in thiamine and Vitamin B1. This can cause Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Together, they’re referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This syndrome causes a short but severe state of mental confusion and trouble coordinating muscles to do simple things like walking, as well as trouble learning and remembering new information.
  • Alcohol and Heart Damage – Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the heart in multiple ways, such as increasing your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and hemorrhagic stroke; raising triglyceride levels; and leading to obesity, which puts significant strain on the heart. While it is true that drinking in moderation can promote heart health, excessive drinking can weaken the heart itself — called cardiomyopathy — and cause premature death.

Heavy drinking can easily lead to alcohol overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning. Poisoning typically occurs at a BAC of .45 or higher.

Alcohol poisoning deaths are unfortunately very common, so it’s important you look for these overdose symptoms:

  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Dulled response to stimuli
  • Low body temperature
  • Blue skin color, especially in the lips or face
  • Clammy skin
  • Slow response to stimuli
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures

Each of these symptoms signals extreme danger. For example, if a person has dulled responses to stimuli, they may vomit and not feel their gag reflex, effectively choking on their own vomit. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can cause seizures. Slowed or stopped breathing can cause brain damage and death. Dehydration is also a threat to alcoholics, as excessive vomiting depletes the body of water and nutrients, and can lead to seizures and permanent brain damage.

Alcohol overdose is a medical emergency and must be treated immediately before it becomes fatal. A person may be experiencing alcohol poisoning without exhibiting all of these symptoms at once. If you think someone may be experiencing the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately.

“Alcoholism In-Depth Report.” The New York Times, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
American Heart Association. “Alcohol and Heart Health.” American Heart Association, 12 Jan. 2015, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
College Drinking. “Facts About Alcohol Overdose (or Alcohol Poisoning).” College Drinking, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
Drinking & You. “Alcohol and the Heart.” Drinking & You – Alcohol and Health, Alcohol in Moderation, 2000, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
Drinking & You. “Alcohol and the Liver.” Drinking & You – Alcohol and Health, Alcohol in Moderation, 2000, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Alcohol Use Disorder Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic, 25 July 2015, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers of Drinking Too Much.” NIAAA, National Institutes of Health, Oct. 2015, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.
Oregon Liquor Control Commission. “50 Signs of Visible Intoxication.”, Oregon Liquor Control Commission, June 2012, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

Alcohol Signs & Symptoms

Alcoholism: Effects, Signs & Symptoms
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