Understanding the signs and symptoms of abusing alcohol can be difficult, but it’s important to be able to recognize potential warning signs.

Many adults report that they drink at least occasionally, frequently in social situations or when they want to unwind. Alcohol can also be used as a way to relax, and while alcohol consumption in moderation isn’t necessarily problematic, it is a substance that can increase the likelihood of adverse consequences and it can also lead to dependence and addiction. Understanding the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse or dependency versus consumption can be a difficult distinction to make, but it’s important to be able to recognize potential warning signs of alcohol abuse if you think a loved one might have a problem. There can be a lot of blurred lines that come with identifying and distinguishing signs of alcohol abuse, and it can be harder to spot a problem as compared to warning signs that someone is on drugs.

What Are the Signs of Intoxication?

For most people, there’s a significant difference between drinking a glass of wine with dinner and having several shots of liquor in terms of behavior and visible impairment, but alcohol can impact you a lot more than you’re aware of or the people around you realize. As soon as you take a sip of alcohol, it increases your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level. The higher that BAC goes, the more likely you are to show outward signs of impairment.

If you’re unsure of how much someone around you has had to drink, look for symptoms including:

  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Impaired coordination and motor skills
  • Sense of confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Concentration problems
  • General personality changes

Some of the other physical signs someone is drinking or intoxicated include glassy or bloodshot eyes, talking loudly, or increased moodiness. Unlike many other drugs, the smell of alcohol can also be a warning sign that someone is drinking. Alcohol has a strong odor that is not only present right after someone drinks, but it also tends to linger on their breath or even their clothes. The changes that can occur because of drinking may be subtle, such as someone becoming more talkative or social. That’s a big reason a lot of people drink in social situations. The signs that someone is drinking can also be severe and include aggression, violence or engaging in risky behaviors.

What Are the Signs of Alcoholism?

If you see someone occasionally drink or even become impaired, it may not signify an alcohol dependence, but it could indicate alcohol abuse or even alcoholism. This is where things can get tricky when it comes to knowing the warning signs of alcoholism. First, alcohol abuse typically refers to people who aren’t necessarily dependent on or addicted to alcohol, but they do drink heavily, and they ignore negative consequences that can occur, even if it’s just something like a hangover.

Common Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse or Binge Drinking:
  • Being preoccupied with drinking, such as constantly looking forward to visiting bars
  • A lack of interest or involvement with activities including school or work
  • Inability to control drinking or frequently drinking more than they intended to
  • Violence or erratic behavior
  • Drinking despite the fact that the person knows they will have to do something like driving that can be risky when impaired
  • Drinking even though physical conditions can be made worse because of it
  • Hangovers interfere with other activities or commitments
  • Memory loss
  • Blackouts

There can be warning signs of alcohol abuse without addiction, but abuse can often turn into an addiction and even a physical dependency on alcohol.

Common Signs Someone is Addicted to Alcohol:
  • A person builds up a tolerance to alcohol, so they need to drink larger amounts to get the same effects
  • When someone doesn’t drink, they experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can include feeling sick, anxious or sweaty
  • The person foregoes things they used to like in order to drink
  • Damage can be done to relationships, careers and other areas of a person’s life but they keep drinking
  • A person who is addicted to drinking will often start drinking early in the day and will be drunk for long periods of time
  • One of the common signs of alcohol addiction is drinking alone, and trying to hide drinking
  • A big red flag of alcohol abuse or addiction is getting into dangerous situations repeatedly when drinking, such as having unsafe sex or driving under the influence.

Wondering If You Yourself Could Have a Drinking Problem?

Think about whether you lie to cover your drinking, or often feel guilty about it. Do you feel like you need to drink to relax, or do you often blackout while drinking? These can be representative of a potential alcohol abuse problem. Many of the symptoms and signs of alcohol abuse that are listed above may be indicative of alcohol use disorder (AUD). In order to be diagnosed with an AUD, people must meet criteria that are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). People who meet two of 11 criteria during a 12-month period may have an AUD, and severity is classified as mild, moderate or severe.

You’ve Identified Some of the Common Signs, What Should You Do Next?

Along with learning more about alcohol use disorder, including the warning signs of an alcohol problem, you can start preparing for how you will broach the conversation with the person. You can also research information regarding treatment and recovery centers for alcohol addiction or contact an alcohol abuse hotline.

Most individuals who have an alcohol use disorder, regardless of severity, can benefit from alcohol rehab treatment or online counseling services, such as teletherapy. Unfortunately, only a small amount of people receive help, which is why proactively identifying an alcohol problem can be so critical; call The Recovery Village support team today to learn more about comprehensive treatment for yourself or a loved one.

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By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.