medically reviewed

Alcoholism Warning Signs and Cutting Back on Drinking

If you’re unsure if your alcohol consumption constitutes a drinking problem, there are a few alcoholism warning signs to look for that can be helpful in understanding your use.

If you’re unsure if your alcohol consumption constitutes a drinking problem, there are a few alcoholism warning signs to look for that can be helpful in understanding your use. Regardless of how much or how often you drink though, any amount of alcohol can be harmful. Keeping track of how much you drink, your BAC levels and watching for symptoms of alcoholism early on can help to avoid more serious issues in the future.

Defining Alcohol Drinking Levels

Blood alcohol concentration, or BAC,  measures the amount of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream.1,15 A person’s BAC is not only affected by how much alcohol is consumed, but also factors such as an individual’s weight, the amount and frequency of consumption, gender, and genetics.

Regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed, a person’s liver can only process about one standard drink an hour.1

What Is A Moderate Level of Drinking?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, moderate drinking is considered to be up to 1 standard drink per day for women and up to 2 for men.2 According to the guidelines, a standard drink contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.2 This can be found in:3

  • 12 ounces of beer, or one bottle at 5% alcohol.
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor at 7% alcohol.
  • 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol.
  • 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or one shot, at 40% (80 proof) alcohol.

However, alcohol content can vary among different types of drinks, so it’s always a good idea to check the label prior to consuming.

What is Binge Drinking?

When it comes to binge drinking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that this pattern occurs when a person raises their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level  to 0.08 g/dL and above.4 In a two-hour period, this typically takes around 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men.4

What is Heavy Alcohol Use?

Heavy alcohol use, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), refers to binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.4 Heavy alcohol use and binge drinking can put individuals at an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).4

Free and low-cost alcoholism treatment is available.

Health Problems Associated with Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking is associated with a number of effects on the body and mind. Some are immediate and short-term while others can be long-term and develop over time. These are some of the most common issues associated with binge and/or heavy drinking:3

Short-Term

  • Risky sexual behavior, resulting in STDs or unplanned pregnancies.
  • Assault and violence, including domestic violence and homicide.
  • Injury (e.g., falling, car accidents, drowning).
  • Stillbirth, miscarriage or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Alcohol poisoning.

Long-Term

  • Memory loss.
  • Stroke, liver disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive problems.
  • Social problems (e.g., loss of friendships, unemployment, family issues).
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Cancer (breast, colon, liver, throat, mouth, and esophagus).
  • Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
  • Alcohol use disorder.

In the U.S., excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths annually and was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years from 2006-2010.3 In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 31% of overall driving fatalities.5

Warning Signs of Alcoholism

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person must exhibit at least 2 of the following symptoms in a 12-month period to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder.

These symptoms include:6

  • Strong cravings for alcohol.
  • Numerous unsuccessful attempts to cut back or quit drinking.
  • Using alcohol despite knowing it aggravates a medical or psychological disorder.
  • Spending a great deal of time getting, drinking, and recovering from alcohol use.
  • Giving up previously enjoyed pursuits to drink alcohol.
  • Interpersonal conflict.
  • An inability to fulfill responsibilities at home, work, or school.
  • Tolerance, having to drink more and more alcohol to get the same effects as before.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
  • Using alcohol in situations in which it is risky, such as driving or while using heavy equipment.
  • Using more alcohol than you originally intended.

Is It Safe to Stop Drinking Cold Turkey?

While it might be tempting to try to stop drinking on your own, if you’ve developed a severe physical dependence on alcohol, it is ill-advised to do so. Many people underestimate how much they drink or may not understand how physically dependent they are on alcohol. For this reason, trying to quit cold turkey could result in unpleasant and severe withdrawal symptoms.7

Symptoms of withdrawal can range from mild to severe and possibly life-threatening and may include:8 

alcohol withdrawal symptoms

  • Increased heart rate.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Anxiousness and irritability.
  • Severe agitation.
  • Tremors and shaking.
  • Seizures.

The most severe—and potentially deadly—form of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens (DT), which occurs in about 5% of people experiencing withdrawal symptoms.9 DT symptoms may occur as early as 48 hours after last use.9 Complications from DT include severe rhabdomyolysis, arrhythmia, and associated comorbid illness.9 The risk of mortality is increased by factors such as older age, pneumonia, pancreatitis, and a history of other medical problems.9

Medically managed detox that consists of 24/7 oversight and support by nurses and physicians can provide a safe, comfortable environment when quitting alcohol use.7 Medications may be given to help prevent seizures or other possibly serious outcomes associated with alcohol withdrawal.7 The specific type and amount of medications you may be given depends on numerous factors, such as pre-existing medical conditions and prior detox outcomes.7

What are Some Benefits of Quitting Drinking

Research has shown us that over they years, consuming alcohol has negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health, careers, relationships, and finances.3 But once they stop drinking, they can begin to reverse some of those problems and experience the long-term benefits of sobriety.10,11

Studies found that, for heavy drinkers, stopping alcohol use for at least one year resulted in:10,11

  • Increased work productivity.
  • Weight loss.
  • Improved liver enzymes.
  • Improved heart functioning.
  • Lowered blood pressure.
  • Decreased anxiety and symptoms of depression.
  • Higher rates of positive psychosocial functioning.
  • Lower rates of hospitalization.

There are also cost benefits to cutting back on or quitting drinking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans spent around $249 billion a year on alcohol in 2010.12 This breaks down to roughly $807/year per person. But because binge drinkers and heavy alcohol users consume considerably more than the average consumer per day, that number is likely much higher for them.

Plus, anyone caught drinking and driving may be charged with a DUI which can result in fees for bail, attorneys, court fines, court-mandated classes, and public transportation due to the loss of a license or vehicle. You’ll also be paying for DMV administrative hearings and fees to reinstate your license and higher insurance rates. Altogether, a first-time DUI offense could potentially cost you anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000.

When you consider how much you could be saving each year by not drinking, it could mean taking that vacation you’ve been putting off, a new car, or a safety net for unexpected expenses in the future.

Why Should I Consider Treatment?

Alcohol use disorder is a complex, yet treatable disease which can be successfully managed with professional treatment and ongoing recovery efforts.13 An estimated 15 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder in 2018; however, many of them do not get the help they need, with only about 10% of them actually entering treatment.6

Research has shown that 1 year later, after completing alcohol addiction treatment, about 1/3 of people show no further symptoms and many others have fewer alcohol-related problems.14 If you believe you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, it may be time to consider professional alcohol addiction treatment.

Rehab can help individuals understand why they drink and how to break the patterns associated with excessive alcohol use. There isn’t a single treatment plan that works for every person. Depending on the individual and the severity of alcohol abuse, a therapeutic treatment team can tailor a person’s recovery plan to best suits their needs.

Treatment for alcohol use disorder may involve:13

  • Medical detox.
  • Medication for symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Inpatient or outpatient treatment.
  • Behavioral therapies.
  • Private, group and family therapy.
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar).
  • Aftercare planning.

Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC) which offers a network of treatment facilities across the nation. We are dedicated to making alcoholism treatment accessible to every person in need. As a leading provider of addiction treatment services, we offer a combination of proven therapies and services to meet your individual needs.

If you’re ready to chat with someone today about treatment, our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to discuss your options today. Find out if you or your loved one’s insurance covers treatment at an AAC facility by filling out the form below.

Sources
toggle content icon

[1]. MedlinePlus. (2018). Blood Alcohol Level. 

[2]. US Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.

[3]. Centers for Disease Control. (2019). Alcohol use and your health. 

[4]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined. 

[5]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol Facts & Statistics.

[6]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol use disorder.

[7]. Kattimani, S., & Bharadwaj, B. (2013). Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic reviewIndustrial Psychiatry Journal22(2), 100–108.

[8]. Myrick, H., & Anton, R. F. (1998). Treatment of alcohol withdrawalAlcohol Health and Research World22(1), 38.

[9]. MedlinePlus. (2018). Delirium Tremens (DT).

[10]. Charlet K. &  Heinz, A. (2017). Harm reduction-a systematic review on effects of alcohol reduction on physical and mental symptoms. Addiction Biology. 22(5), 1119‐1159.

[11]. Witkiewitz, K., Kranzler. H.R., Hallgren, K.A., et al. (2018). Drinking risk level reductions associated with improvements in physical health and quality of life among individuals with alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 42(12):2453‐2465.

[12]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Excessive Drinking is Draining the U.S. Economy.

[13]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of effective drug treatment. 

[14]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help

[15]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1997). Alcohol Metabolism. Alcohol Alert; 35, 371.