The Physical Signs of Alcoholism Explained

How alcohol addiction physically affects different parts of your body.

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Alcohol can have a damaging effect on many aspects of our lives, even if we only consume it in small amounts. For those who develop an addiction, the effects of alcohol on the body and mind can be significant.

Certain physical signs and symptoms might indicate that you’ve developed an alcohol addiction. Symptoms of alcoholism vary, but in this piece we’ll focus on some of the physical signs of alcohol dependence. It can help to give you a clearer picture of the ailments, sensations and changes to your body that might happen as a result of alcoholism.

Common physical signs of alcoholism

There are numerous physical signs of alcohol abuse, and they can differ from person to person. We have listed some of the most common physical symptoms below:


Alcoholic face

Alcohol's effects on skin can be quite visible not long after drinking. There are many facial signs of alcoholism, but one of the more common signs is redness in your face.

This is called ‘alcohol flush reaction and it happens when your body is unable to fully digest all the alcohol you’ve consumed. This means that the toxins in alcohol, including acetaldehyde, can build up in your body. In response, blood vessels in your face dilate – causing redness.  In the long term, these vessels can over-dilate, leading to spider veins on the skin.

Alcohol can also lead to excessive sweating - known as alcohol sweats or night sweats. For many, this is a problem that will keep us tossing and turning at night, leading to alcohol affecting our sleep.

Alcoholic skin sores

Severe alcohol consumption can impair the immune system, which can leave a person at greater risk of infections and skin sores (abscesses). As alcohol dries the skin, our natural defence against pathogens, this can also lead to repeated skin infections.

Change in skin tone and appearance

A yellow skin tone could be the result of jaundice. Jaundice can be a physical sign of liver problems, where the skin takes on a yellowish-brown tone due to high levels of bilirubin. While many things could lead to you developing jaundice, a common cause is high levels of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning it dehydrates you every time you have a drink. Losing valuable fluid and nutrients from your body can lead to wrinkled, dry, puffy or just generally unhealthy-looking skin.

Physical appearance

Dishevelled appearance 

If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse disorder, you may start to neglect your personal hygiene and grooming, as these become less of a priority for you.  You may also look exhausted as a result of dehydration and lack of sleep, which are often associated with heavy alcohol use. You may also smell of alcohol from the previous night or have to have a drink first thing in the morning to keep physical withdrawal symptoms at bay – both of which can make you appear dishevelled and generally unkempt.

Either gaining or losing weight 

Alcoholism can have a big impact on a person’s appetite. They may lose feelings of hunger or no longer have a desire for food, as their focus shifts to alcohol. Alternatively, they may crave high-fat foods as alcohol produces the hunger-increasing hormone, ghrelin. In addition, some alcoholic beverages, such as wine and beer, are high in calories, so regular consumption of these drinks can lead to weight gain.

Either way, fluctuations in a person’s appetite, as a result of alcohol consumption, can lead to changes in their weight.

Unsteady on their feet 

The part of the brain that controls co-ordination and balance can deteriorate under the influence of alcohol, making you look unsteady on your feet Known as the cerebellum, this part of your brain is particularly sensitive to severe alcohol consumption. Even when sober, there is an increased risk of falls and accidents.

Bruises and injuries 

Unexplained bruises and scrapes may be observed more frequently and alcoholics can have reduced platelet counts and other clotting factors, making them more likely to bruise. This is especially true when you consider the increased likelihood of them falling.

More seriously, this reduced clotting leads to an increased risk of stroke.


Alcoholic liver

Alcoholism is one of the organs most affected by alcoholism. It can lead to liver problems including fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis. Fatty liver is caused by fat building up in liver cells. This can develop into alcohol hepatitis, which is the inflammation of the liver.

Alcohol hepatitis can lead to liver failure and can also gradually damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is when normal liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue, which causes the liver to lose its ability to function well.

Stomach problems

People with alcoholism can develop erosive gastritis, where the stomach lining wears away. This can cause the stomach to bleed or develop ulcers.

Other physical signs of alcoholism

Feel numbness and tingling in feet or hands

Alcohol’s toxic properties can be damaging to your nerve tissue. Over time, the damage done can lead to alcoholic neuropathy, where the peripheral nerves in your limbs have been badly damaged by alcohol. It might lead to a tingling sensation in your hands and feet.

Withdrawal symptoms

Consistently drinking over a period of time leads you to develop a tolerance for the substance. If you suddenly stop drinking alcohol, it can lead to a number of uncomfortable alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It often drives people with alcoholism to keep drinking in order to limit these symptoms.

The mechanism of withdrawal is similar to that of the medication Antabuse (disulfiram), which is often used to treat alcohol addiction. Many withdrawal symptoms are physical in nature, including:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain
  • High temperature and/or chills
  • Tics and tremors (‘the shakes’)

Page clinically reviewed by Dr Patrick Mbaya (MB ChB, MSc, MD, FRCPsych, Cert. Psychopharmacology), Lead Consultant for Addictions at Priory Hospital Altrincham.

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