1 “Am I an Alcoholic?”: Signs & Symptoms
“Am I an alcoholic?” is a question frequently asked by those who drink alcohol. Even though alcohol is a legal substance for purchase and use by anyone over the age of 21 in most U.S. states, it is also an addictive substance, and its continued misuse or abuse can lead to the development of an alcohol addiction, now medically termed as alcohol use disorder (AUD).
1. What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be briefly defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disorder.” Additionally, it is further defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Addiction1 (NIAAA) as:
“A medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism. Considered a brain disorder, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Lasting changes in the brain caused by alcohol misuse perpetuate AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse.”
Death by alcohol-related causes is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and every year, alcohol-related causes (such as the long-term damage to physical health caused by alcohol, AUD, and motor vehicle accidents) result in the deaths of around 95,000 people,1 more than the number of those who die each year due to the U.S. opioid epidemic.
The Risks of Developing Alcohol Use Disorder
The development of AUD depends on a number of specific factors:
- Alcohol Consumption: The risk of AUD depends, in part, on how much, how often, and how quickly you consume alcohol. Over time, alcohol misuse, which includes binge drinking and heavy alcohol use, will significantly increase the risk of AUD.
- History of Consumption: Studies have shown people aged 26 years and over who began drinking alcohol before the age of 15 were more than 5x as likely to develop AUD 1 as those who waited until age 21 or later to begin drinking. The risk for females in this age group is higher than males.
- Genetics / Family History of Alcohol Misuse: Genetics do play a role in AUD risk, estimated to be around 60% of someone’s overall risk1. Parents’ drinking patterns can also influence the chance that their child(ren) will one day develop AUD.
- Mental Health Disorders & Trauma: AUD is often diagnosed with people also suffering with a mental health disorder, eg. depression, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those with a history of childhood trauma are also at increased risk of AUD.
AUD in the United States: Statistics
- Every year in the U.S., more than 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes 1
- It is the third leading preventable cause of death1 in our country
- Alcohol misuse costs the U.S. around $250 billion1 every year
- In 2019, approximately 14.1 million people1 had AUD
- According to a 2017 study, more than 10% of U.S. children live with a parent who has AUD1
2. Physical & Mental Health Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
The continued misuse and abuse of alcohol will certainly take its toll on both your physical health and your mental wellbeing. Here are the main negative health effects you can expect to experience and see:
|Physical Health: Signs & Symptoms||Mental Health: Signs & Symptoms|
|Regularly increasing alcohol intake||Anxiety|
|Increased injuries from accidents and falls||Irritability, restlessness or agitation|
|Poor hygiene||Abrupt mood changes|
|Breath smelling of alcohol||Irrational behavior|
|Changes in weight|
|Reduction in appetite|
Frequently showing signs of alcohol intoxication, including:
|Spending more time being hungover and recovering from drinking alcohol|
Frequently showing signs of mild alcohol withdrawal, including:
3. Social & Appearance Signs of Alcohol Abuse
Over time, the misuse and abuse of alcohol, such as regular episodes of either binge drinking or heavy drinking, is a difficult thing to hide, particularly from loved ones, family members and friends. Alcohol abuse not only takes its toll on your physical wellbeing – it affects your mental health, the way you appear to others, and how you engage with others.
Social signs of alcohol abuse can include:
- Being secretive about the level of alcohol consumption
- Being in denial about how bad the alcohol abuse is
- Wanting to stop drinking, but consistently failing to do so
- Abnormal risky behavior, such as DUI
- Diverting energy away from normal activities in order to drink
- Relationship problems
- Work-based / legal / financial issues
Outwardly, if someone is regularly abusing alcohol, as hard as they may attempt to hide it, their appearance can often give them away, through, for example, poor hygiene, alcohol on the breath, an unkempt appearance, and bloodshot eyes.
4. “Am I an Alcoholic?”: Self-Quiz
The medical criteria for AUD can be found in “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition,2” and consists of 11 specific signs. AUD is diagnosed when someone experiences 2 or more signs in the past year. Answer the following questions honestly to see if you have an alcohol misuse issue:
- Do you drink more alcohol or drink for longer than intended?
- Do you want to stop drinking, but fail when you attempt to do so?
- Do you avoid social activities you previously enjoyed in preference to drinking?
- Do you drink alcohol in risky situations, eg. before driving?
- Do you devote more time and resources to drinking than before?
- Do you have an increased tolerance for drinking, eg. do you need more alcohol than previously to feel the same way?
- Do you crave alcohol when you’re not drinking?
- Do you experience withdrawal symptoms, eg. cravings, sweating, tremors, nausea, when you’re not drinking?
- Do you need to have a drink to feel better?
- Are you experiencing problems at home or at school or work because of your drinking?
- Do you continue to drink despite social, health, relationship, and personal problems?