Alcohol Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

Often times the signs of alcohol addiction can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of alcohol addiction

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Learn about alcohol and substance abuse

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are chronic, life-long disorders that can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Alcoholism can lead to issues such as: problems at school, difficulties with job performance, issues in interpersonal relationships, and if left untreated will become worse over time. Many cultures in the world value drinking alcohol as a way to bond or to have fun together, so it can be hard for some to see when drinking has crossed from a way to unwind with friends into the dangerous territory of alcohol use disorders.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that develops when there are signs of a physical addiction to alcohol; the alcoholic continues to drink despite the great problems alcohol has caused in their personal, professional, scholastic, and family life. These problems are coupled with the negative consequences alcohol has caused to their health and emotional well-being. Alcoholism means that alcohol controls every facet of your life. Alcohol abuse is a condition in which all of the negative consequences of alcoholism exist without the presence of a physical addiction to alcohol itself.

The more you drink, the greater your problems become. Many alcoholics spend most of their time drinking or recovering from a night of drinking. Time spent drinking is often at the expense of social obligations, work duties, home life, and other areas necessary to live a full and productive life. If left untreated alcohol use disorders may lead to major health, legal, emotional, interpersonal, and psychological issues.

People often don’t notice that they’ve developed a problem with drinking until their drinking begins to cause distress or harm. Alcohol use disorders have a number of physical and behavioral symptoms that are associated with them that include tolerance – drinking more to achieve the same level of intoxication, withdrawal – uncomfortable physical symptoms that are exhibited when alcohol use is stopped, and cravings – feelings of a need for alcohol in the same way most people crave food. These cravings can develop months after a person has become sober, which can lead to “relapse” or a return to problem drinking. This is why ongoing long-term treatment for alcoholism is necessary.


Alcohol addiction statistics

Alcohol abuse is a shockingly common problem facing the United States. Over a twelve month period, estimates are that 4.6% of 12-17 year olds and 8.5% of adults over the age of 18 have an alcohol use disorder. Approximately one in every six adults, or 18 million people in the United States suffer from alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Rates of alcoholism are higher among adult men – 12.4% – than women – 4.9%. The highest amount of people suffering from an alcohol use disorder are between the ages of 18-29 (or 16.2%), a number that decreases with middle age. 1 in 3 motor vehicle fatalities, nearly 20% of fire-related deaths, up to 50% of drowning, and up to 50% of murders involve the usage of alcohol.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for alcohol addiction

There are a number of factors that can lead to a person developing a chronic problem with alcohol. Rather than a single risk factor, a number of factors work in tandem to turn a recreational activity into alcoholism. Alcoholism is caused by biological, genetic, environmental, and psychological factors, each of which affects the body and behaviors. These may include the following:

Genetic: While the link is still unclear, people who have a parent or other close relative who has a problem with addiction or alcoholism are more likely to become alcoholics themselves.

Biological: People who begin to drink during their younger years are more likely to develop a problem with alcohol abuse. Additionally, men are more likely than women to become alcoholics, although the reasons why are unclear.

Environmental: Spending time around people who drink often increases the risks for developing alcoholism because problem drinking is normalized by society. Leading a stressful life with a stressful job or stressful relationships can also lead to the development of problem drinking.

Psychological: Many people who suffer from mental health disorders find themselves overwhelmed by their symptoms to such a point that they will do anything, including self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, to relieve the discomfort. Over time, self-medicating can turn into a pattern of drinking which can lead to alcoholism.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction

While the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse will vary from person to person, there are some common signs and symptoms that are associated with alcoholism and alcohol use disorders. These symptoms may include:

Mood symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite or overly hungry while drinking
  • Mental exhaustion

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Hiding alcohol in odd places
  • Using alcohol in dangerous conditions (like while driving)
  • Neglecting home, work, school, and other responsibilities
  • Drinking as a means to control stress
  • Compulsion to drink at a certain time; anger if this ritual is interrupted
  • Acting hostile or aggressive while drinking
  • Blacking out for periods of time
  • Quitting important activities and obligations to drink
  • Hiding drinking from others
  • Legal problems caused by too much drinking
  • Drinking despite the problems it is causing

Physical symptoms:

  • Withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not used
  • Tolerance – requiring more and more alcohol to achieve desired level of intoxication
  • Strong cravings for alcohol
  • Very strong compulsion to drink
  • Spending a good deal of time recovering from effects of alcohol
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Shakiness
  • Cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • Coma
  • Death

Psychological symptoms:

  • Inability to control how much you drink
  • Wanting to quit drinking but unable to do so
  • Loss of normal inhibitions
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Violent behaviors


Effects of alcohol addiction

Chronic use of alcohol can lead to a host of major and very dangerous physical, personal, legal and financial problems. These complications associated with alcohol abuse can include:

  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Divorce
  • Domestic abuse
  • Cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • Hypertension
  • Heart attack
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Problems with vision
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Osteoporosis
  • Neurological problems
  • Coma
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorders

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Addictions to other substances of abuse
  • Other compulsive behaviors

Effects of Withdrawal

Effects of withdrawal from alcohol

Withdrawal from alcohol is a very serious, potentially life-threatening situation that occurs when a long-term drinker stops drinking alcohol. In order to prevent serious complication, withdrawing from alcohol requires proper medical supervision and management. Effects of alcohol withdrawal include the following:

  • Shakiness
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Delirium tremens – confusion, rapid heart rate, hallucinations, sweating, irregular heartbeat, severe tremors, fever – carries a mortality rate of 1-5%
  • Seizures
  • Extreme levels of confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Coma
  • Death