Alcohol Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

No one experiences alcohol addiction the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of alcohol addiction is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Learn about alcohol addiction

As alcohol use is socially acceptable in many cultures around the world and often synonymous with “having a good time,” it can be hard to see when drinking has changed from social or moderate use to an alcohol abuse disorder. Alcohol use disorders can affect every aspect and every person in an alcoholic’s life, from their children to their loved ones to the people with whom they work. Alcoholism does not just affect the alcoholic; it affects everything.

Alcohol use disorders are chronic, long-term medical conditions that are often noticed when drinking causes distress or harm to a person. These disorders also have a cluster of behavioral and physical symptoms such as withdrawal, tolerance, and craving. Those who have problems with alcohol abuse will spend a great deal of their time drinking, ensuring they have enough alcohol to get through the day and recovering from the effects of drinking. Often these activities are done at the sacrifice of other previously enjoyable social relationships and other obligations.

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are two different forms of problem drinking. Alcoholism is a disease that develops when you have signs of physical addiction to alcohol and continue to drink despite the problems that alcohol has caused in personal relationships, physical health, mental well-being as well as neglecting family, social, or occupational responsibilities. Alcohol can control your life and obligations. Alcohol abuse, though, is a condition in which drinking becomes problematic but without physical addiction.

The more you drink, the greater the problems become, even if you’re engaging in a pattern of drinking many drinks at one time. Binge drinking, a pattern in which a man drinks five or more drinks in a row or a woman drinks four or more drinks in a row can lead to similar health and interpersonal problems that alcoholism does. Alcohol is a very dangerous substance of abuse and if left untreated can cause major health, psychological, emotional, legal and behavioral problems.

Alcohol withdrawal involves symptoms like nausea, seizures, and anxiety that occur between 4-12 hours after long-term alcohol consumption. Many people who experience alcohol withdrawal will find themselves drinking to alleviate these symptoms because they are so unpleasant. Other times, the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal last for many months which can lead to relapse.

People who abuse alcohol often crave it, which is an intense feeling of need for alcohol and can cause them to think of very little else beyond when they can have their next drink. These cravings can affect the ability to perform at school, work, and often interferes with interpersonal relationships. Fortunately, with the right treatment a person suffering from an alcohol use disorder can get better.


Alcohol addiction statistics

Alcohol abuse is a very common problem in the United States. In a 12 month period, it’s estimated that 4.6% of 12-17-year-olds and 8.5% of adults over 18 years old have an alcohol use disorder. In the United States approximately 18 million people – or one in every six adults – have an alcohol use disorder such as alcoholism or alcohol abuse. Rates of alcohol abuse disorder are higher among adult men (12.4%) than women (4.9%). Alcohol use disorder decreases in middle age, with the highest percentage of people with alcohol use disorders being between 18-29-year-olds (16.2%).

One in every three motor vehicle fatalities, fifty percent of drowning, nearly twenty percent of fire-related deaths and almost fifty percent of murders involve alcohol. These shocking statistics are proof that alcohol use disorders are serious disorders that need serious treatments.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorders

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Addiction to other substances of abuse
  • Other compulsive behaviors

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for alcohol addiction

There are a number of factors that lead to a person becoming a chronic, long-term drinker, many of which work in tandem to cause alcoholism. Alcoholism is caused by genetic, environmental, social and biological factors, each of which has an impact on how it affects behavior and body.

Genetic: Individuals who have a parent or close relative that has a problem with alcohol are more likely to become alcoholics.

Biological: People who begin to drink at a younger age have an increased risk for developing alcoholism.

Environmental: Being surrounded by individuals who drink regularly can increase the risks for developing alcoholism as a society and others often normalize problem behaviors. Leading a stressful lifestyle can also lead to the development of alcoholism or other related disorders.

Psychological: Many people who have mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression find themselves self-medicating with drugs or alcohol in order to alleviate symptoms of their disorder. Over time, this can turn into a pattern of steady alcohol use.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction

While signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorders can vary from person to person, there are some common symptoms associated with alcohol use disorders. These include:


  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Exhaustion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache


  • Repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at work, home, school
  • Stashing alcohol in unusual places
  • Use of alcohol in situations that are dangerous physically
  • Legal problems related to drinking
  • Compulsion to drink at specific times and agitation if this ritual is disturbed
  • Continuing to drink despite the problems it is causing
  • Drinking to reduce stress
  • Giving up important activities due to alcohol use
  • Drinking alone to “hide” drinking from others
  • Black outs – the inability to recall commitments, behaviors, and conversations
  • Hostility while drinking


  • Tolerance – needing more and more alcohol to obtain desired results
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Spending a great deal of time recovering from alcohol use
  • Strong compulsion to drink
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Shakiness
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • Coma
  • Death


  • Loss of control over drinking
  • Desire to quit drinking but unable to do so
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Violent behaviors
  • Decreased inhibitions leading to risky behaviors


Effects of alcohol addiction

Sustained use of alcohol can lead to many major and dangerous health, legal, personal and financial problems. Some of the effects of chronic alcohol use include:

  • Cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attacks
  • Pancreatitis
  • Hepatitis
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eye problems
  • Birth defects, if alcohol is consumed during pregnancy
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome, if alcohol is consumed during pregnancy
  • Osteoporosis
  • Neurological complications
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Divorce
  • Domestic abuse
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawl Effects

Withdrawl effects of alcohol addiction

Withdrawal from alcohol is a very serious condition and often life-threatening condition that occurs when someone who has been a long-term heavy alcohol user stops drinking. Withdrawal from alcohol requires medical management in order to avoid serious complications. Effects of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens – confusion, rapid heart rate, hallucinations, sweating, irregular heartbeat, severe tremors, fever – carries a mortality rate of 1-5%
  • Seizures
  • Extreme confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Coma
  • Death