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Symptoms of an Alcoholic

More than 16 million adults in the United States had some sort of alcohol use disorder in 2013, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. While alcoholism can be a very specific and very personalized disease, people who have it tend to share a few symptoms and attributes. Knowing what those things are could be helpful, as they could help a family to spot an alcoholism issue. When families do discover alcoholism, these loved ones can be powerful agents of change, helping people with alcohol difficulties to get the help they need in order to get better.

Lifestyle Changes

Drinking like this takes up a great deal of time, and according to Psychology Today, it can leave people with alcoholism with very little time for other activities, including:

  • Work
  • Crafts
  • Reading
  • Helping children with homework
  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Study
  • Conversation
  • Family outings

The most obvious sign of an alcoholism issue involves persistent drinking. People with alcoholism rarely if ever go a full day without ingesting some form of alcoholic beverage. They may drink openly at home, and they might pull huge bins of empty bottles to the curb for recycling every week. They may drink in bars and come home with pockets packed tight with receipts.

To a person with alcoholism, getting alcohol and recovering from the impact of alcohol are the two most important tasks to handle in any given day. Those tasks can be so time-consuming that they do not leave enough time left behind for all the other activities that make life worthwhile.

In time, a person with alcoholism can become socially isolated. Family members and friends are so accustomed to being pushed to the side due to drinking that they simply stop trying to interact. The person struggling with alcoholism might lose jobs or fail out of school due to the lack of time devoted to professional success.

Despite these consequences, which can be devastating both to the person with alcoholism and that person’s family, someone who has alcoholism may be unable to quit drinking, says Mayo Clinic. In fact, this drinking continuation despite the consequences of drinking is a key warning sign of alcoholism.

Without help, the consequences can grow yet more severe. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests, for example, that about half of all traffic deaths in the United States involve alcohol use in some form. People with alcoholism can continue to make terrible decisions due to their need to put alcohol at the center of life. That could lead to public meltdowns or law enforcement action.

It is not at all uncommon for people with alcoholism to face arrests. They may be driving while under the influence and get pulled over so they do not harm someone else with their cars. Or they may be arrested for doing something inappropriate (like yelling, urinating in public, or fighting) while under the influence of alcohol. These episodes can be embarrassing, but they are sure signs that something terrible is happening with the help of alcohol.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

The lifestyle changes and poor decisions a person makes while under the influence of alcohol are not the only signs and symptoms a family can watch for. Alcoholism also comes with a number of easily seen physical changes, and those could prompt a family to get the care needed.

A key physical sign is spotted with the help of the nose. Alcohol has an odor that is hard to mask, and it can be remarkably persistent. Someone with alcoholism might have breath that is tinged with alcohol on a regular basis, or that person might use mints or mouthwashes to cover up the scent of alcohol.

In addition, a person with alcoholism might also seem happy and clumsy during an alcohol binge, and the person might slur words and struggle to complete sentences. The next morning, the person might seem uncomfortable and/or painful, and the smell of alcohol might linger on the person’s skin or on the person’s clothes.

Someone with liver damage due to alcoholism can experience:

  • Pain or swelling in the belly
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Increased thirst

Ongoing alcohol abuse like this is terribly hard on the cells of the liver, as this organ is required to clean alcohol particles out of the blood. Someone who drinks a great deal of alcohol on a regular basis can do so much damage to the liver that the organ can die, and that can lead to the death of the entire person. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 18,000 liver deaths are blamed on alcoholism each year.

Alcohol Liver Problems

While liver damage and/or alcohol’s direct damage can result in physical changes, someone with alcoholism can also experience a form of sickness that takes hold when that person tries to stop drinking.

A person with alcoholism can grow accustomed to the constant presence of alcohol in the body.

The cells come to depend on the alcohol, and when it is not available, those cells can begin to misfire and misbehave. Often, the symptoms are due to the sedation alcohol can cause. When the cells are no longer suspended in sedation, they can overcorrect and fire at a very rapid rate. That can cause tremors, hallucinations, and seizures, says the National Institutes of Health.

A person with alcoholism might experience this syndrome just once and grow determined to never feel those sensations again. This person might grow frantic when alcohol is not available, or drink in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning to ensure that the symptoms just do not set in.

What to Do

But alcoholism can also distort the way a person thinks about the self and the world. Some people with alcoholism remain convinced that:

  • The drinking isn’t serious
  • Alcoholism is not an issue
  • Quitting is easy
  • Drinking is a private matter
  • The family is making things up

Spotting these signs does not mean that the person with alcoholism cannot be helped. In fact, families that spot these signs are in a wonderful position, as the University of Maryland Medical Center reports that most people with alcoholism choose to get help after they are prompted to do so by caring family members and friends.

For some families, that prompt comes in the form of a short and simple conversation. One morning, after a particularly brutal night of drinking, one member of the family pulls aside the person with alcoholism and discusses the acts of the night before. This family member might point out that this drinking pattern is taking hold too often, and that it would be wise for the person with alcoholism to get help in a treatment program.

Remarkably, many people with alcoholism are very open to the idea of getting help. Their lives are difficult and painful, and while they may want those lives to change, they may not know how to make the changes stick. They know they need help, and they may want help, and they may be reassured to discover that the family cares enough to provide the assistance required.

Someone like this might respond with hostility or downright anger when the family suggests that alcoholism might be to blame for the problems in the family. A simple conversation cannot convince a person like this. More intense interventions are required.

In a formal alcohol intervention, the family prepares for the talk as a group, typically with the help of a professional interventionist. They pull together a list of all the physical changes they have seen and all of the serious consequences the person has faced due to alcoholism, and they outline all of these points in a formal, sit-down meeting with the person who has alcoholism.

The point of this meeting is not to place blame or lay down a judgment. The point of this meeting is to help the person understand that alcoholism is real, it has been noticed, and that there are options available. 

The family outlines those options by discussing how treatment works and why the person should get care. At the end of the talk, the family may even offer to escort the person to a treatment program, so care can begin.

Talks like this can seem difficult, especially in the planning stages, and some families never do follow through on their plans to get tough. But those families that do take the plunge and discuss the issue openly could be giving the person with alcoholism a very big gift. Their conversation can demonstrate new paths to healing, and that could give the person a sense of hope that’s been a long time absent.

When to Start

It is important to realize that alcoholism can be present even if severe signs and symptoms have not yet appeared. In fact, in a groundbreaking study in JAMA published in 1992, researchers found that there were two types of people with alcoholism: One type had severe symptoms that appeared at an early age, and the other had less severe symptoms that appeared later. Both had alcoholism, but the signs were different.

It is never too early to speak up about alcoholism if the health of a person is at risk. Subtle signs could grow more severe with time. People with alcoholism might always appreciate help, even if that help seems to be coming early in the disease process.

When families suspect that something is wrong, they are wise to speak up. It could be the best thing they have ever done to preserve the health, happiness, and success of the family as a whole.