Alcohol Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Effects and Treatment
Are You Addicted to Alcohol?
Alcoholism is a debilitating condition characterized by problematic drinking that causes distress in the drinker’s life and, often, in the lives of his or her loved ones.
If you are looking for more information on alcohol, addiction and treatment, read on to learn more about:
- Signs and symptoms that you or someone you love may be addicted to alcohol.
- Alcohol addiction treatment options.
- Short- and long-term effects of alcohol dependency.
- Medications used to treat alcoholism.
How to Tell if You or a Loved One Is Addicted to Alcohol
An individual who displays 2 or more of the following signs or symptoms within the past year 6 may already be struggling with a drinking problem or, more technically, meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
- More alcohol is consumed and more often than the drinker intended.
- Consistent failed attempts to quit drinking.
- Spending an excessive amount of time buying and drinking alcohol, and recovering from its effects.
- Strong craving to drink alcohol.
- Neglecting work, home or school responsibilities in favor of alcohol use.
- Continuing to drink regardless of consequences.
- Choosing alcohol over previously enjoyed activities.
- Using alcohol in dangerous situations such as driving.
- Choosing to drink despite psychological or physical problems caused or worsened by alcohol.
- Tolerance: requiring increased amounts of alcohol to get the same desired effects and drinking the same amount but experiencing less of an effect.
- Withdrawal: experiencing withdrawal symptoms or drinking to prevent or alleviate withdrawal symptoms.
These are some of the common signs of alcoholism. No matter how many of these signs are present, if alcohol is causing any significant impairment or distress in your life, an alcohol recovery center or other form of substance abuse treatment can provide help.
Getting Treatment and Starting Recovery
More than 17 million people suffer from alcohol dependency, and an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths per year. 1 Despite these alarming numbers, only about 20% of alcoholics receive treatment for their condition. 4
If you are looking for an alcohol addiction treatment center, remember that what works for one person might not work for another and vice versa. That’s why it’s important that you educate yourself on the different alcohol recovery options. Various mental health and medical professionals will also be instrumental in directing the type of treatment you undergo. But knowing your options can help you advocate for yourself and help you to ultimately make a sound treatment decision.
Some common treatments for alcoholism include:
- Inpatient rehab center: You live at the treatment center to first complete a period of detoxification, followed by ongoing group counseling, individual therapy and other recovery exercises to address substance abuse and any co-occurring mental or behavioral health issues. Prior to completion of an inpatient or residential treatment program, diligent aftercare planning will be made.
- Outpatient rehab center: You live at home while receiving treatment a few times a week when it works with your schedule. Many of the treatment techniques will resemble those administered on an inpatient basis. Outpatient rehabilitation efforts are typically more appropriate for those with stable and supportive home situations and/or less severe addictions.
- Dual diagnosis: Some rehabilitation centers specialize in treating dual diagnosis, which refers to the presence of an addiction to alcohol and a co-occurring mental health disorder. If you are concerned you may have a mental health condition, find a recovery program that has experience treating dual diagnosis to strengthen your recovery efforts and minimize your risk of relapse.
- Group counseling: A certified mental health professional will facilitate a group counseling session in which you share your addiction experiences with others as a facet of therapy. The group setting facilitates the development of coping skills and sober social skills.
- Individual therapy: You meet one-on-one with a therapist to uncover the reasons for your alcohol abuse while learning healthy coping skills for stressful situations.
- 12-step programs: Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship program in which the members support and encourage one another while working through the 12 steps of recovery.
Medications Used to Treat Alcohol Dependence
Some alcohol treatment programs use a medically assisted approach to aid the recovery process. Doctors or therapists may prescribe the following medications when treating you for an alcohol addiction. As an integrated part of some recovery programs, these medications have been beneficial in decreasing drinking habits and lowering relapse rates. 10
- Naltrexone: A medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that blocks receptors associated with alcohol cravings, decreasing instances of relapse in alcoholics.
- Vivitrol: This medication is an FDA-approved, extended-release version of naltrexone. It is given once a month intravenously.
- Acamprosate: This medication decreases long-term withdrawal symptoms such as depression and anxiety and helps to prevent relapse.
- Disulfiram: This medication causes unpleasant effects, such as nausea and heart palpitations, when you consume alcohol, in the hopes of reinforcing abstinent behavior.
- Topiramate: Topiramate is not FDA-approved for use in treating alcohol use disorders. But it is sometimes used as an off-label adjunct to treating alcoholism.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Dependency
Alcohol dependence can bring about harmful short-term effects on the body and brain, which include: 
- Involuntary eye movements.
- Memory loss.
- Slurred speech.
- Coordination problems.
- Unsteady gait.
- Inappropriate sexual or aggressive behavior.
- Mood swings.
- Impaired judgment.
- Slowed breathing.
- Slowed pulse.
Additionally, there is an increased rate of suicide when someone is under the influence of alcohol.  If you are concerned about a loved one committing suicide while intoxicated, call 911 to get him or her the appropriate medical attention immediately.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Dependency
Long-term alcohol dependence can cause permanent damage to the body and brain.
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol doesn’t directly kill brain cells. Chronic drinking behavior can result in changes in the size of brain cells and dysfunction in certain brain regions, such as the cerebellum – a part of the brain involved with motor functioning. 7,9
The long-term effects of alcohol abuse can include: 8
- Cirrhosis of the liver.
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Liver cancer.
- Mouth cancer.
- Throat cancer.
- Breast cancer.
- Weakened immune system.
- Cardiomyopathy (weakened, enlarged heart muscle).
- High blood pressure.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
If you are dependent on alcohol and suddenly stop drinking, you may experience severe and potentially life-threatening withdrawal effects that begin within a few hours to a few days after the last drink.6
For at-risk individuals, a detox center or alcohol recovery center will be necessary to provide medical monitoring during this time. Medications will be administered to preclude against dangerous adverse events such as seizures and to make you as comfortable as possible – easing the detox transition.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:5
- Mood swings.
- Unpleasant, vivid dreams.
- Rapid heart rate.
Some people may go through a serious and deadly withdrawal syndrome called delirium tremens (also known as “the shakes”). Delirium tremens symptoms include: 5
- Profound confusion.
Why Is Alcohol So Addictive?
Alcohol affects many different neurotransmitters in the brain. One major neurotransmitter impacted by alcohol is gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. An increase in GABA activity can decrease anxiety and result in sedation. 3 It is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and alcohol acts as an agonist on the receptor that ultimately amplifies GABA inhibition. 2
Further, alcohol inhibits glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Alcohol also causes a release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters associated with reward, motivation and mood. 2
Drinking alcohol targets GABA and glutamate in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions, and the nucleus accumbens, which is a major reward center. 2 These mechanisms play a role in mediating the pleasure you experience when you drink alcohol. The enjoyment achieved by drinking positively reinforces the behavior. 2
If you regularly consume alcohol, you will build up a tolerance. This means you will need an increased amount of alcohol to achieve the same desired effect or “buzz.” An increased tolerance drives many to drink more and more which, in turn, increases the likelihood of dependence.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Effects of Alcohol on Exercise/Fitness?
Alcohol has several negative effects on exercise and athletic performance.
- Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it dehydrates your body of water necessary to maximize performance.11
- It can cause low blood sugar, which impairs fitness and performance during endurance exercises.11
- Alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to regulate its temperature during exercise and can cause reduced core body temperature.11
- Alcohol impairs muscle recovery after an intense workout, which could inhibit strength gains.12
Find Help for Alcoholism
If you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol, it’s better to get help sooner rather than later to avoid severe health problems. Contact a recovery support specialist today at to get more information on alcohol rehab programs.
. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (2015). Facts About Alcohol.
. The Scripps Research Institute. (2002). The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain.
. Valenzuela, C. (1997). Alcohol and Neurotransmitter Interactions. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), 145-145.
. Connor JP, Haber PS, Hall WD. Alcohol use disorders. Lancet 2015 [Epub ahead of print].
. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Alcohol withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.
. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
. Nasqvi NH, Morgenstern J. (2015). Cognitive neuroscience approaches to understanding behavior change in alcohol use disorder treatments. Alcohol Res 37:29-38.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Beyond Hangovers.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Alcohol Addiction.
. Mohsen, N., & Ayoubi, S. (2014). Effects of Alcohol on Athletic Performance. Asia Pacific Journal of Medical Toxicology, 3(22), 12-12.
. Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, et al. (2014) Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88384. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088384