Alcoholism symptoms: spotting the signs of alcohol use disorder

Facing alcohol addiction is challenging, but reaching out for help is a powerful first step.

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Page clinically reviewed by Claire Rimmer (BA (Hons), Dip.Psychology, FDAD (NCAC)), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Altrincham, in June 2022.

What is an alcoholic?

An alcoholic is someone who is suffering from alcohol abuse disorder. Alcohol abuse disorder is the most serious level of problem drinking. It’s associated with lots of different symptoms, and is generally characterised by an impaired ability to control your drinking or stop drinking altogether. If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse disorder, it’s likely that your drinking has led to problems with your health and your social and professional life.

The signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction, also known as 'alcoholism' or 'alcohol use disorder', can vary from person to person. Some of the symptoms will be more difficult to spot than others, and factors like the amount of alcohol you're drinking and the frequency of your alcohol consumption will all play a role in whether you develop a dependency on the substance.

This page will outline some of the most common warning signs for alcoholism, plus what you can do if you’re struggling with some of the symptoms.

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What are the signs of an alcohol dependence?

The symptoms of alcoholism can vary widely from individual to individual, influenced by factors such as the duration and intensity of their drinking habits. However, there are a number of common symptoms to be aware of that can assist in recognising alcoholism.

For many of us, our behaviour changes after drinking alcohol. However, if you're suffering from alcoholism, these behavioural changes can linger and could affect everyday life. Just some changes include:

  • Secretive or dishonest behaviour in relation to alcohol
  • Drinking heavily alone
  • Heavy drinking or binge drinking
  • Drinking at inappropriate times such as first thing in the morning
  • Avoiding contact with loved ones
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities at home or work
  • Continuing to drink despite the negative effects that this has had on your home, work or social life
  • Losing interest in activities, hobbies or events that were once important to you

As well as psychological changes, alcohol abuse can cause physical changes too. These include:

  • Finding that you've built a tolerance to alcohol, meaning that you need to drink increasingly higher amounts of alcohol in order to feel ‘drunk’
  • Lethargy and headaches
  • 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
  • Appearance of alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you haven’t consumed alcohol for a certain amount of time

Alcohol use and depression, or other mental health disorders like anxiety, are closely linked. You might find yourself feeling anxious or depressed, and turn to alcohol in order to self-medicate and cope with these symptoms.

Recognising alcoholism

Sometimes, the symptoms of alcoholism will be quite obvious, but at other times it can be difficult to pinpoint when someone has a serious issue. This is especially the case when you’re dealing with a functioning alcoholic. Despite being dependent on alcohol, the symptoms of a functioning alcoholic are much tougher to spot, as they'll be able to operate normally in their professional and social lives.

To get a clearer idea of whether someone is suffering from alcohol abuse disorder, you could use a series of screening questions like CAGE. It’s recommended that if you or someone you know, answers 'yes' to two or more of the four questions, this can indicate a drinking problem and the need for professional assistance.

  1. Cut - have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Annoyed - have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Guilty - have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
  4. Eye-opener - have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or get over a hangover?

It’s also worth looking at how medical professionals might assess whether someone has a problem with drinking that requires treatment. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) outlines their guidance for assessing and diagnosing harmful drinking. In it, they point to the alcohol use disorders identification test (AUDIT). Developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), AUDIT is a 10-question tool for screening for harmful drinking.

Online alcohol test: check your symptoms

Use our quick alcohol testing tool to check your symptoms.

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What to do if you’re struggling with the symptoms of alcoholism

If you, or someone you love, appears to be struggling with the symptoms of alcohol abuse disorder, there are steps you can take to tackle the issues you’re experiencing and put yourself on the road to recovery.

Speak to someone you trust

Accepting you have a problem with drinking is a tough but significant step. Seeking the thoughts of someone you trust, a loved one or close family friend for example, can help you to speak frankly about the impact of alcohol on your life. Gaining the support of someone you love is going to be vital for your recovery.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s drinking habits, take time to consider how you broach the subject. If you’re speaking to an alcoholic partner, for example, be sure to do your research beforehand, helping you to get an idea of what they're going through. Once you’ve done that, speak to them about it when they’re sober and emphasise the fact you’ll be there to support them throughout.

Reach out to a support group

Statistics from Alcohol Change say there are over 600,000 dependent drinkers in the UK, and these alcohol statistics highlight that 57% of adults (aged 16+) drink up to 14 units of alcohol per week and 23% drink more than 14 units. If your drinking is becoming an issue, rest assured that you're not alone. Finding a support network of other people who are going through the same issues can be an effective way of working through them.

Numerous alcohol support lines and groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Drinkline, can give you emotional support, both in the immediate term and long-term.

Get professional treatment

If your alcohol use is severely damaging your life and the lives of those around you, it may be right to explore potential treatment. Trying to curb alcohol cravings and beat addiction on your own is incredibly challenging, and sometimes you need professional support. Today, many effective treatments exist for those struggling with addiction:

  • Detox – under medical supervision, detox allows you to stop drinking alcohol while managing any withdrawal symptoms
  • Therapy – therapeutic treatment gets to the root cause of your addiction, helping you to better understand the psychological aspects of alcohol use. In therapy, you'll also develop coping strategies and new ways of thinking, building a long-term strategy for abstinence
  • Residential care – inpatient care in a residential facility can allow you to recover, away from the stresses of home and working life. There, you’ll be treated by the very best medical professionals, undergoing an intensive treatment plan that might include a detox, therapy and other interventions
  • Aftercare – recovery is a lifelong pursuit. Aftercare groups offer continued support for recovering alcoholics, helping you to maintain abstinent as life goes on around you

Save 10% on addiction treatment

Our free addiction assessment explained

Priory is currently offering 10% off private self-pay addiction inpatient treatment, for admissions until 31st August inclusive.

Get a free initial assessment with a therapist, to help you take the first step towards recovery. T&Cs apply.

  • Work with world-class addiction specialists
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  • Range of therapeutic techniques used, including equine therapy

Treatment for alcohol addiction at Priory

Using our network of hospital sites and wellbeing centres, Priory offers effective, evidence-based treatment for addiction that can put you on the road to recovery. Our world class team of consultant psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and other medical professionals deliver the very best treatment to people struggling with addiction.

Treatment programmes at Priory can be on a residential, inpatient basis at one of our leading hospital sites across the UK, allowing you to receive round-the-clock treatment. Alternatively, we can treat you on an outpatient or day care basis – allowing you to recover from addiction around your other responsibilities.

Book a free addiction assessment to help us understand the difficulties you’ve been experiencing and talk through the best course of treatment for your recovery.

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