Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction & Abuse

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is the most severe kind of problem drinking, defined as drinking at a level that is harmful to one’s health. It refers to a strong, often overwhelming desire to consume alcohol.

Alcoholism is sometimes referred to as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence. It’s classified as a form of ‘alcohol-use disorder’ that can be treated medically. It differs from ‘harmful drinking,’ which is a pattern of heavy drinking that harms your health but does not lead to dependence.

Someone addicted to alcohol will often prioritise drinking over all other responsibilities, including work and family, and will develop a physical tolerance, which means they will drink more and more to achieve the same effect and will feel withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.

According to the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines, males should not drink more than 14 units per week regularly, and women should not drink more than 7 units per week.

What are the signs or symptoms of alcohol dependence?

It can be challenging to recognise the indicators of alcoholism. People with alcohol use disorder may hide their drinking and become angry if confronted.

Doctors look for indicators that a patient can’t control their drinking and has a strong internal need to use alcohol when determining whether or not they are alcohol dependent. The following are the symptoms they are looking for:

  • Impaired control over alcohol use – This could include being unable to control how long you drink, how much alcohol you consume when you do drink, how frequently you drink, being unable to quit drinking once you start, or drinking at inappropriate times or locations.
  • Giving increasing priority to alcohol – If drinking takes precedence over other daily activities and obligations, if drinking is more important to you than taking care of your health, or if you continue to drink despite negative health or life consequences.
  • Unwanted physical or mental effects from drinking – Having increased alcohol tolerance (needing to drink more to achieve the same effect), experiencing withdrawal symptoms, or using alcohol to prevent or mitigate withdrawal symptoms.

Based on an ongoing pattern of how you use alcohol, a doctor may diagnose alcohol dependence if you exhibit two or more of the aforementioned symptoms. Alcohol dependency can be diagnosed based on continuous daily (or almost daily) consumption of alcohol for at least three months, but it is usually based on behaviour during the previous 12 months or more.

If you believe you’re drinking too much or that it’s starting to have a negative impact on your life, call us on 0800 999 1083 for confidential help.

Physical symptoms of alcoholism

Physical symptoms of alcohol addiction include:

  • Finding that you have built a tolerance to alcohol, meaning that you need to drink increasingly higher amounts of alcohol to feel ‘drunk’
  • Lethargy
  • Headaches caused by dehydration, which is another side effect of excessive alcohol consumption
  • Excessive sweating in the absence of physical exertion
  • Weight loss or gain as a result of changes in appetite
  • Lack of concern over physical appearance/personal hygiene
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, including insomnia
  • The appearance of alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you haven’t consumed alcohol for a certain amount of time

Behavioural and social symptoms of alcoholism

Below are some of the behavioural and social symptoms of alcohol addiction:

  • Secretive or dishonest behaviour
  • Drinking heavily alone
  • Drinking to the point of passing out
  • Drinking at inappropriate times, such as first thing in the morning
  • Finding that you only tend to socialise with people who drink alcohol
  • Avoiding contact with loved ones
  • Withdrawing from responsibility
  • Prioritising alcohol over other activities
  • Continuing to drink despite the adverse effects that this has had on your home, work or social life
  • Poor performance or attendance at work
  • Losing interest in activities, hobbies or events that were once important to you

Psychological symptoms of alcoholism

Mental health issues can also lead to alcoholism, and some of the more psychological symptoms of alcohol addiction can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Increased temper and irritability
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Paranoia
  • Defensiveness
  • Agitation
  • Memory problems
  • Diminished self-esteem and self-worth
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Finding that you depend on alcohol to function on a daily basis
  • Regularly drinking to relieve stress – this can often be the starting point for many people who go on to become addicted to alcohol
  • Intense cravings for alcohol
  • Exacerbation of any existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal can be difficult and, in some cases, life-threatening. If you wish to stop drinking, you may need help from a healthcare expert, depending on how often and how much you drink.

Before stopping alcohol, it’s usually a good idea to consult your doctor. It’s possible that going “cold turkey” isn’t always the best option.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • anxiety
  • nervousness
  • nausea
  • tremors
  • high blood pressure
  • irregular heartbeat
  • heavy sweating

Seizures, hallucinations, and delirium are possible side effects of severe withdrawal.

Medical detoxification can help you safely quit drinking. Your doctor may recommend treatment at a clinic or at home, depending on your risk for withdrawal symptoms.

Risk factors for alcohol use disorder

You may be more likely to develop alcohol use disorder if you experience certain circumstances in your life.

Here are a few examples:

  • heavy drinking
  • binge drinking
  • ongoing anxiety
  • having a group of friends or family members that are heavy drinkers
  • having genes that alter your alcohol sensitivity
  • suffering from anxiety, sadness, schizophrenia, or another mental illness
  • having a close relative, particularly a parent, who suffers from the disease

What are the long-term effects of alcohol addiction?

Alcoholism can cause plenty of long-term problems and take control of your life, health, and well-being. Family breakdowns, damaged relationships, job loss, financial troubles, and, in extreme situations, homelessness are some of the long-term negative repercussions of alcohol addiction.

Furthermore, alcoholism is linked to a wide range of long-term physical health problems, some of which can be fatal. Liver damage, gout, ulcers, a weaker immune system, high blood pressure, and sexual dysfunction are some long-term negative physical health consequences.

Alcohol safety tips

Although there is no completely risk-free way to consume alcohol, following these guidelines can help decrease some of the risks:

  • Make sure you eat something. To avoid being intoxicated too quickly, avoid drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Make sure you drink plenty of water. Aim to drink a glass of water for every regular drink you consume.
  • Don’t go too fast. Slowly drink to give your body time to metabolise the alcohol. Every hour, your liver can process around 1 ounce of alcohol.
  • Don’t mix with other substances. Caffeine might mask the depressive effects of alcohol, causing you to drink more than you would otherwise. While drinking coffee to “wake up” may make you feel more alert, it may also make you more likely to make the mistake of driving while intoxicated. Combining alcohol with other medications might have adverse consequences as well.
  • Don’t drink and drive. It is never a good idea to drive while inebriated. Even though you feel sober, you may still have alcohol in your system, which might slow down your reaction time.

Tips for dealing with the early stages of alcoholism

The following are some suggestions to help you manage and cope with the early stages of alcoholism:

  • Admit that you have a problem with the amount and frequency with which you use alcohol.
  • Commit to either reducing your drinking habits or stopping drinking completely.
  • Set daily goals for yourself, such as deciding how many beverages you will have each day and sticking to them.
  • Set a realistic date for when you will quit drinking alcohol totally if your objective is to stop drinking alcohol completely.
  • Be open and honest with your friends and family about your alcoholism.
  • Avoid negative influences and temptations.
  • Accept that achieving alcohol abstinence will be difficult, and prepare yourself to make some significant changes in your life.

Helping Someone with an Alcohol use disorder

It might be tough to know what to do if someone close to you is showing signs of alcoholism. You might be concerned about them, upset that they don’t seem to want assistance, worried for them, or even terrified of them. All of these emotions are natural, and support is available for people addicted to alcohol and those who care for them.

If possible, speak openly with the person you’re worried about and urge them to see a doctor. People addicted to alcohol may find it difficult to confess they have a problem, but being supportive, open, and non-judgmental can help them feel safe.

If you’re taking someone to an appointment, strive to gain a straightforward understanding of the condition, its long-term repercussions, and recovery options for the person.

Some programmes can assist you in supporting someone having treatment and other resources for families. Please inquire as to how you might best help them. You could ask for an after-hours emergency phone number.

Treating Alcohol Addiction

In many circumstances, the first step in treating alcoholism is for the drinker to admit that they have a problem. The second step, like with many health problems, is to seek assistance from a healthcare practitioner, typically your local GP surgery, who can recommend you to a specialist.

People who have been diagnosed with alcoholism might get a variety of treatments.

  • Detoxification (often referred to as “detox”) is a crucial stage of treatment. Detox entails entirely ceasing drinking while under medical care for the body to adjust to life without alcohol. A person may have alcohol withdrawal symptoms during this period. The following are some examples of ongoing treatment options:
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be offered to help change negative thought patterns which may lead to drinking
  • Mutual help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are beneficial partly because they provide members with a new support network. They can assist people in changing their mindsets and attitudes about themselves and others.
  • Pharmacological treatments (i.e. medications) can also play a role in preventing relapse for some people trying to abstain from alcohol.

Alcohol Addiction

Finding treatment for alcohol use disorder

Are you thinking about reducing your alcohol use or quitting altogether?

You have a variety of support and treatment options available to you:

  • free recovery support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery
  • therapy to help address reasons for drinking and learn helpful coping skills
  • medical treatment to address symptoms of alcohol use disorder and any related health concerns
  • medications that can help reduce cravings

For details on how Compare Rehab UK can provide you with assistance regarding alcohol addiction treatment and rehabilitation, please call 0800 999 1083.

Last Edited: September 19th, 2022
Clinically Reviewed: July 23, 2022
Clinical Reviewer


BACP accredited psychotherapist with 16 years experience working in mental health specialising in psychodynamic person-centred therapies treating those with a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD and Addiction.