How to Spot the Physical Signs of Alcoholism

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : AUGUST 30,
| 4 Sources

Having a drink or two to unwind after a long day can be a perfectly harmless way to relax, as long as it doesn’t become all-consuming.  So how can you tell the difference?

 According to Brittany E. Bryant, D.S.W., and Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, “Moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men—drinking more than that is not suggested.” 

 Unhealthy alcohol consumption can range from binge drinking—which involves five or more drinks within two hours for males, and four drinks within two hours for females—to varying levels of alcohol use disorder (AUD) that demonstrates loss of control in one’s alcohol consumption and causes withdrawal symptoms from not drinking.

If you notice a growing dependence on alcohol or indications of an unhealthy drinking pattern either in yourself or a loved one, don’t hesitate to speak to someone for advice. Even a mild case of alcohol misuse can escalate into a severe disorder, which makes it particularly important to seek advice and help during the early stages.  

Alcoholism: A Leading Cause of Preventable Death & Disability

A 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) report found alcohol misuse to be the first-leading risk factor for premature death and disability among people aged 15 to 49. 

On top of that, the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that only 7.3 percent of adults aged 18 and older who were diagnosed with AUD in the past year had received any treatment in the last 12 months.

Other studies found that less than 4 percent of individuals with AUD were prescribed FDA-approved medication to treat their disorder and that people with AUD were more likely to seek care for alcohol-related medical problems rather than the actual drinking problem.

All this underscores the vital fact that early treatment of alcohol misuse can prevent it from progressing into a severe disorder that causes premature (and preventable) death and disability.

physical signs of alcoholismPhoto by kevin laminto

How to Recognize the Physical & Behavioral Signs of a Drinking Problem 

It can be difficult to recognize the warning signs of a drinking problem, especially in the case of high-functioning alcoholics: individuals who are able to function normally in their daily lives. Is it a problem if the drinking doesn’t affect one’s ability to perform at work or school or to provide for the family?

Yes, you might be able to function as a responsible adult and fulfil your commitments for the time being, but at some point or other, the growing alcohol dependence will outweigh your other priorities, which is when your life will start to fall apart despite your best efforts to stay in control. 

To prevent possible alcohol misuse from spiralling out of control, it helps to know what physical and behavioral signs to watch out for, so you can seek advice and early treatment if needed.

Here’s a typical questionnaire used by doctors to diagnose alcohol use disorder (AUD). The presence of two to three symptoms indicate a mild AUD, four to five symptoms are classified as a moderate case, and six or more symptoms point to a severe AUD.

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, you might want to consider seeking advice from a medical professional or counselor.

Over the last 12 months, have you experienced the following?

  • Ended up drinking more or for longer than intended.
  • Wanted to reduce or stop drinking, or tried to, but failed repeatedly. 
  • Spent a big portion of your waking hours drinking or being hungover.
  • Couldn’t stop thinking about having a drink.
  • Found that drinking or being sick from drinking was distracting you from your home or family responsibilities, or causing problems at work or school.
  • Continued drinking despite the problems it was causing for your family and/or friends.
  • Replaced other important activities or hobbies you previously used to enjoy with drinking.
  • Demonstrated risky or unsafe behavior during or after drinking such as driving, swimming, operating machinery, or engaging in unsafe sexual behavior.
  • Couldn’t seem to stop drinking even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or creating other health problems, or despite having memory blackouts from drinking.
  • Started drinking more because your usual number of drinks was having less effect than before.
  • Started having withdrawal symptoms upon sobering up, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, anxiety, seizures, or hallucinations.

"If you're unsure whether alcohol may be a problem, speak with one of our supportive counselors. With many having first-hand experience they understand the struggle. The free chat is confidential & they are available 24/7."

The Physical & Psychological Effects of Alcoholism 

Alcohol has a profound effect on the way the brain works, which leads to changes in mood and behavior. In small amounts, alcohol creates a pleasurable buzz that helps us relax. 

However, continuous heavy drinking over an extended period of time can lead to our brain over-activating the neurotransmitters—the body's chemical messengers—which can lead to unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

These disruptions will manifest as physical dependence as well as psychological effects. 

Physical dependence develops in two ways. Firstly, the more alcohol we consume, the greater the tolerance level we build up over time. This leads to the tendency to drink more in order to experience the same effects. 

Secondly, chronic alcohol abusers will go into withdrawal if their alcohol intake ceases or if there is a drastic reduction in the amount of alcohol ingested. This prompts them to continue drinking in order to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms, which can include anxiety, confusion, tremors, nausea, vomiting, a racing heart, and insomnia. 

This physical dependence automatically feeds the psychological effects where the individual’s thought processes and decision-making become fixated on the endless quest to obtain alcohol and consume it, even at the expense of their daily responsibilities and relationships.

Other Common Physical Signs of Alcoholism

Prolonged alcohol dependence tends to have a knock-on effect on other areas of one’s life as the addiction outweighs all other priorities. This leaves obvious physical signs such as the following that can be hard to ignore.

  • A disregard for personal hygiene and grooming.
  • Red eyes and unhealthy skin due to dehydration and lack of sleep.
  • A strong stench of alcohol from the night before.
  • Significant weight gain or loss either from cravings for high-fat foods or a lack of appetite.
  • Redness in the nose and cheeks due to enlarged blood vessels.
  • Repeated skin sores as a result of alcohol impairing the immune system, which increases the risk of infections.
  • Loss of balance and coordination as the brain deteriorates from chronic alcohol abuse.
  • Unexplained bruises and injuries due to reduced platelet counts and other clotting factors, which increases one’s chances of bruising.

How to Get Help

If you’re concerned that you, a friend, or a loved one might be exhibiting physical signs of alcohol dependence, call our 24/7 free helpline at 1-877-322-2694 and speak to a counselor for support or advice.

It won’t be easy to beat the addiction, but you’re not alone. Help is always available; you just have to ask for it.

Our counselor’s will provide detailed and relevant facts and information on alcohol misuse and addiction, connect you with competent and helpful alcohol treatment programs and center’s, and walk you through every step of the treatment and recovery process so you can decide on the best choice for you or your loved one.

We’re here to help you get through this.

signs of alcoholismPhoto by Brad Neathery

If you found this page helpful, then the following may be of interest to you:

"If you're unsure whether alcohol may be a problem, speak with one of our supportive counselors. With many having first-hand experience they understand the struggle. The free chat is confidential & they are available 24/7."

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

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