August 27, 2019

10 Early Signs of Alcoholism

an image representing the early signs of alcoholism

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Although alcohol is completely legal and widely accepted socially, it is still a dangerous, addictive substance and it’s important to be able to recognize some of the early signs of alcoholism. Approximately 88,000 people die annually due to alcohol-related causes, making it the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Most of these people suffered at some point from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Despite this fact, alcohol use remains an integral part of the social lives of most Americans. 140.6 million Americans aged 12 and over drank within the past month in 2017. This can make recognizing alcoholism very difficult, both in yourself or a loved one. 

The line between being a regular drinker and having a problem with alcohol can seem blurry.

For many people, heavy drinking or binge drinking is seen as a normal part of their culture and social lives. The line between being a regular drinker and having a problem with alcohol can seem blurry. Often, those who feel they may have a problem, or that a friend or family member may have a problem, are told not to worry by those around them. Unfortunately, if you ignore the early signs of AUD, it can quickly become a more serious problem that severely impacts your life and health. So, what are the early signs of alcoholism? 


E.M. Jellinek was among the founders of modern addiction science and an early proponent of the disease model of addiction. After studying a group of AA members, Jellinek reported his findings in a study of the progressive nature of alcoholism, hypothesizing that problematic drinking follows this trajectory of decline:

      • Pre-alcoholic stage

      • Early stage alcoholic

      • Middle stage alcoholic

      • End stage alcoholic

    It is in the pre-alcoholic stage that some of the symptoms of alcohol use disorder may present.

    If you are concerned about your drinking habits, ask yourself the following questions and respond honestly:

        • Do you drink alcohol to soothe pain?

        • Have you consumed alcohol in order to feel better about yourself?

        • Have you relied on alcohol as a coping mechanism when you are worried about something?

        • Has tolerance formed so that you require more alcohol to achieve the same effects?

        • Do you use alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of depression or anxiety or depression?

      Responding positively to any of these questions means that your patterns of alcohol consumption might be problematic. Due to the progressive nature of alcohol use disorder – the clinical descriptor for alcoholism – these problems are likely to escalate without intervention.

      Self-medicating the symptoms of mental health conditions will provide only temporary relief. Without addressing the underlying issues, alcohol use disorder may develop. At the same time, the symptoms of the mental health condition are liable to be inflamed.

      Many people with drinking patterns that fall in the pre-alcoholic stage do not subsequently develop alcohol use disorder.

      Those who engage in binge drinking episodes, by contrast, are at heightened risk of developing alcohol use disorder, as well as at increased risk of alcohol overdose (alcohol poisoning). CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) classifies binge drinking as follows:

          • Men consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in two hours.

          • Women consuming four or more alcoholic drinks in two hours.

        Becoming aware of the first signs of alcoholism can help you to deal with problematic patterns of alcohol consumption before they progress into a diagnosable alcohol use disorder.


        Early signs of alcoholism and functional signs of alcoholism can easily go undetected by friends and family, sometimes for years. Not all alcoholics lose control of their lives, and many become very adept at hiding their drinking from those around them. However, alcohol abuse will eventually lead to health problems and will affect the lives of addicts in more significant ways. By identifying the early signs of alcoholism, you can recognize problematic drinking in yourself or a loved one before it becomes a more serious issue.


        One of the clearest early signs of alcoholism is not being able to stop once you start drinking. Addiction is all about loss of control. People who do not have a problem with alcohol can enjoy a drink or two without it turning into a binge drinking situation. If you or a loved one regularly find that you finish an entire bottle of wine, or drink all of the alcohol in the house before stopping, then you may have a problem. 


        Most addictive substances work by triggering the release of dopamine in the brain. Over time, the brain develops a tolerance, meaning that less and less dopamine is released. This means that addicts need to use more of the substance to get the same effect. This is exactly the same for alcohol. If you find yourself drinking the same amounts without getting drunk, or drinking more than everyone around you to reach the same level of intoxication, then you should definitely examine your drinking. 


        Another part of the process of addiction is drug detox and withdrawal. Once the brain is dependent on a substance, going without it can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, and discomfort. Serious symptoms of withdrawal are associated with serious cases of AUD, but there are some early signs that you may be experiencing withdrawal. If you or a loved one experience mood swings or irritability when not drinking, that is a sign of a problematic relationship with alcohol. 


        Often, when you have a problem with substance abuse, your subconscious knows that you have a problem before you do. Hiding the problem from those around you is one way that your subconscious may try to protect your substance abuse from being discovered. You may justify it as preventing them from worrying unnecessarily but, if you find yourself hiding your drinking from a spouse or friends, you may have a problem.


        Putting a substance ahead of their own health or safety is one of the most common signs that someone is becoming addicted. There are times when drinking is acceptable and does not put you at risk. However, there are other times when it is a very bad idea. Before work, driving, or after taking medication that shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol are some examples. If you find yourself ignoring warnings and drinking when you shouldn’t, you may be putting yourself and others in danger. 


        Binge drinking is a growing problem in America. It is defined as consuming five or more drinks within two hours for men, or four or more drinks for women. Approximately one in six adults in America binge drinks more than four times a month. While most people who binge drink do not necessarily have a dependency issue, if you or a loved one drinks to the point of ‘blacking out’ regularly, it may be a sign of growing alcoholism. 


        Addiction and healthy relationships don’t mix. Hiding your substance use from loved ones and prioritizing your addiction over their needs creates a point of stress between you. Long before you experience some of the more obvious signs of addiction, your relationships with family and friends may feel that stress. If your relationships with those around you are under strain, try to look at the role that drinking might have played in causing that strain. 


        There is a growing trend of people taking a break from drinking for their health. Whether it’s ‘Sober October’ or ‘Dry January’, sober months are all the rage. Other people are just opting to quit drinking during the week. Whichever you opt for, if you try to take a break from drinking or quit altogether and find that you can’t, that may be a sign that you have a more serious problem than you think. 


        Drinking alone is one of the key early signs of alcoholism. For many people, there is nothing wrong with coming home and enjoying a beer or glass of wine with dinner on their own. However, drinking to get drunk on your own can be a sign of a problem. Enjoying alcohol in moderation while socializing with friends can be unproblematic, but if you regularly drink several drinks alone then your drinking my be turning into AUD. 


        Addiction means putting the use of an addictive substance ahead of other things in your life. Often this means choosing between indulging your addiction or meeting your responsibilities. People with a drinking problem will often get drunk before a work engagement or a family responsibility, knowing that they will not be able to do it. If you find yourself prioritizing drinking over work or family responsibilities, then you may well have an issue with alcohol. 

        an image of people who overcame the early signs of alcohol addiction at a treatment program


        Occasionally experiencing one of these signs does not necessarily mean that you have addiction issues with alcohol. However, if you or a loved one are experiencing two or more of these, then it may be time to look into treatment options. There are lots of treatment options available for alcoholics, from 12-step programs to in-patient addiction recovery. 

        It is important to recognize the early signs of alcoholism and be aware of them.

        Confronting addiction can be difficult, especially in yourself. It is important to recognize the early signs of alcoholism and be aware of them. Catching Alcohol Use Disorder before it becomes a serious problem can give you or a loved one a much higher chance of being successful in recovery. If you recognize some early signs of alcoholism and think you or a loved one may have a problem with alcohol, don’t hesitate to ask for help. 

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        Joe Gilmore

        Joseph Gilmore

        Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
        Jenni Bussi

        Jenni Russe MS, LPCC

        Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

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