Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism: From Early to End-stage

The disease of alcoholism is one of the most prevalent diseases in the entire world. America in particular has quite a drinking problem. In fact, around 33 million US citizens are addicted to alcohol. That’s more than one out of ten of us. On a global scale, estimates suggest there are close to one billion alcoholics. Because alcohol is legal almost everywhere is perhaps why its abuse is so prevalent. Perhaps that’s why about 700,000 US citizens seek treatment for alcohol every year, and another 88,000 die from alcohol-caused circumstances.

Because alcohol is extremely dangerous, and extremely available, it’s important to know both the signs and the symptoms of alcoholism. First let’s take a look at six levels of drinking before we explore signs, symptoms, and what the three main stages of alcohol abuse are.

Alcoholism Defined, and the 6 Levels of Drinking

Physically, the definition of alcoholism is the state of being addicted to alcohol. Mentally, alcoholism takes on a different and deeper meaning. It is an illness of the mind and brain that results in dependency on alcohol, yes, but alcoholism also encompasses a wide range of behaviors and/or symptoms. Many people ask what the difference is between a ‘drinker’ and an alcoholic – or if there is one. Well, there is a difference. In fact, there are six levels of alcohol consumption.

Bear in mind though, that it’s a rather slippery slope if and when one decides to consume alcohol. Obviously those who remain in the first stage their whole lives are safe. However, even those in the second stage are far more susceptible than one may think to becoming an alcoholic. One “drink” for the stages that follow means one 12 oz. beer at 5% ABV or one glass of wine at 10-12% ABV or one shot of liquor at 35-40% ABV.

  1. Non-Drinker

At absolutely no risk for any of alcohol’s many effects, non-drinkers either have never consumed alcohol, or at some point in the past have stopped completely and remained sober. Even “holiday drinkers” do not qualify here. One must be completely abstinent from alcohol in order to be considered a non-drinker.

  1. Moderate Drinker

For this level and those that follow, there is slight differentiation between male and female drinkers. Male moderate drinkers, according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, consume no more than 2 drinks per day. Female moderate drinkers consume no more than 1 drink per day. This difference arises from the average body size of either gender. Moderate drinkers are considered low-to-no-risk when it comes to the effects of alcohol abuse, especially long-term.

  1. Low-risk Drinker

A large number of American drinkers are considered to be at low-risk for developing alcoholism. For males, this means no more than 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week, and for females, the amount is no more than 3 drinks daily and no more than 7 per week. Being a low-risk drinker is a warning sign of alcoholism. This is because it only takes a few more drinks in order to qualify for the next level, binge drinking, which is a massive issue in this country. Many folks believe themselves to be low-risk drinkers but are in fact binge drinkers. As you read the next section, bear this in mind alongside your own drinking habits.

  1. Binge Drinker

In order to qualify as binge drinking, an individual must become legally drunk (reaching a blood alcohol content of .08 grams per deciliter) more than once a month on average. For males, this usually means 5 or more drinks in one sitting, and 4 or more for females. This must happen once a month or so. Binge drinking is the gateway to alcoholism, and binge drinkers are considered at high-risk for the effects of alcohol.

  1. Heavy Drinker

If you binge drink 5 times or more per month, consider yourself a heavy drinker. This means you get drunk more than once a week, on average. If every Friday you find yourself drunk at the bar with your friends, and then on top of that you find yourself drunk a couple times in between, you are a heavy drinker. This is a major warning sign of alcoholism. Drinking to excess this often is essentially training for alcoholism. If a heavy drinker does not either cut back or stop, chances are an alcohol addiction will develop.

  1. Alcoholic

Here’s the big one, and the hardest to define, believe it or not. There is no drink-count associated with alcoholism. Once addicted to alcohol, the brain needs it in order to function, but not healthily… to function on an impaired, addicted level. Essentially, an alcoholic needs to drink in order to feel normal. However, what has become ‘normal’ for an alcoholic is abnormal.

Excess amounts of neurotransmitters and endorphins are released in the brain each time someone drinks alcohol. Over time, this can cause a long list of potential health issues. Also, the brain becomes used to this excess amount of chemicals and begins to adapt. Eventually, once someone is an alcoholic, they will not feel overall balance until they are drinking. This is the addiction.

Early Signs of Alcoholism

If you find yourself thinking you’re not an alcoholic, but you now realize you’re in one of the last four categories above, it’s time to look for signs. There are physical, emotional, and social signs to consider.

Physical Warning Signs

Drinking more than intended is a sign of alcoholism. Those in control of their drinking can set limits and not exceed them. Alcoholics are usually incapable of sticking to such limits.

Acquiring a tolerance to alcohol is a definite sign. This means the brain is so used to the presence of alcohol that it requires more just to achieve the same feeling. The higher one’s tolerance, the more likely one is to become an alcoholic.

Most people feel a hangover after a night of drinking. This is normal after such substance abuse. However, alcoholics can sometimes feel hungover without having recently been drunk. If you tend to feel slummy, achy, and/or over-tired even in between drinking nights, consider this an early sign of alcohol addiction.

Drinking alcohol in dangerous situations, or at times when drinking is inappropriate, is a definite warning sign. This can mean something as risky as drinking and driving, or simply sneaking a vodka flask into a concert or movie. If you are drinking where unacceptable, you may be developing an alcohol addiction.

Emotional Warning Signs

The first emotional sign of alcoholism has nothing to do with the individual doing the drinking. It involves those he or she knows. If family or friends or coworkers are concerned with your drinking, you may be an alcoholic. Sometimes it’s easier for others to see the problem.

Feeling depressed when not drinking is another major alcoholic warning sign. It is not normal to feel sad or upset without booze. Alcoholics tend to crave drinking so much that without it, they feel depressed. This is because the brain is malfunctioning. Another emotion associated with alcoholism is defensiveness. If you find yourself defending your drinking to others, especially to the point of arguing, this is a sign.

Irritability and having mood swings also occurs in alcoholics. These emotions flare when unable to drink. If you feel your emotional balance being disturbed when not drinking, chances are you are developing an addiction.

The last noteworthy emotional sign of alcoholism is shame. If you feel ashamed by your drinking, you have crossed the line. This applies to all substance addictions. Shame brought on by consuming a substance is a strong indicator of addiction.

Social Warning Signs

The foremost social sign of alcoholism is legal trouble. This is whether it’s a DWI, an arrest for public intoxication, or anything in between. Even a non-alcohol-related legal issue being affected by your drinking qualifies as a social warning sign. If the law is aware of your drinking, you may be an alcoholic.

If and when drinking alcohol outweighs your responsibilities in life, consider it a sign. Responsible drinking occurs only after all other things are taken care of. Alcohol should never be a top priority and should never stand in the way of fulfilling your duties.

Making excuses to drink is similar to alcohol becoming a top priority. If you find yourself justifying getting drunk with illegitimate excuses, alcoholism may have a hold of you. For instance, your favorite sports team winning a game is not a reason to grab a 12-pack.

Surrounding yourself with other heavy drinkers/alcoholics is another social warning sign. First of all, if any of your friendships are based solely on drinking, they are not real friendships and should be reconsidered. Secondly, if you find yourself associating more and more with people who drink often, take a second. You may have a problem developing.

Drinking alone, or isolating yourself because of drinking, is a surefire warning sign. Responsible drinkers will rarely, if ever, get intoxicated alone. Safe drinking is a social event. Getting drunk alone is for alcoholics. If your personal relationships are being negatively affected by your drinking, that is a sign. If you find yourself lying about your drinking habits to others, this is also a sign of alcoholism. Those who are not at risk of developing an addiction to alcohol will feel no need to hide their drinking habits.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

We have broken alcoholism’s symptoms into the same three categories as with the signs. The symptoms of alcoholism are important in recognizing alcoholism, but also in educating on the perils of abusing alcohol. Sometimes if you understand how badly something can affect you, it helps in the process of ridding it from your life.

Also, how severe the following symptoms are is directly related to the level of drinking. For example, slight indications of these symptoms may indicate early signs. However, frequent and obvious indications likely indicate full-blown alcoholism. Here are some of, but not all of, the physical, emotional, and social symptoms of alcohol addiction:

Physical Symptoms

– Blacking out from excess drinking

– Increasingly stronger tolerance

– Experiencing tremors, shakes, or convulsions without alcohol

– Unusual distress or tension

– Insomnia

– Loss of appetite and/or extremely unhealthy eating

– Spider angiomas (tiny, overly red blood vessels)

– Unexplained illnesses or accidents

– Loss of interest in sex

– Liver problems, such as inflammation or cirrhosis

– Loss of hygiene upkeep

– Sweating and nausea, even when not drinking

– Bringing alcohol to events, especially when inappropriate

Emotional Symptoms

– Unpredictability

– Depression

– Anxiety

– Emotional numbness

– Crying bouts

– Hysteria or panic

– Tendency to be abusive, whether physically or emotionally

– Unusual anger

– A newfound untrustworthiness

– Unusual unreliability

Social Symptoms

– Drinking alone and/or attempting to hide it from others

– Not being able to place a limit on consumption

– Missing family-based and/or business-related events

– Acting irritable when unable to have a drink

– Relationship trouble stemming from alcohol use

– Friends/family/coworkers becoming concerned

– Run-ins with the law, such as driving under the influence or public intoxication

In Conclusion (The End-game Stage)

If you feel as though you or a loved one is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, paired with excessive and/or heavy drinking, please seek help for yourself or for your loved one immediately. The end-game of alcoholism only has three options: death, jail, or becoming mentally ill.

Alcoholism is a deadly disease, one of the deadliest on the grand scale. Alcohol is not only readily available to the public; it’s cheap, it’s advertised heavily, and peer pressure doesn’t stop till you’re dead. Still this is no excuse or reason to not be a sober person. Drink responsibly if you choose to drink, but know the difference. It could save your life.

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