What are the Physical Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder?

An Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a pattern of drinking that results in harmful consequences for an individual's mental or physical health, personal relationships, or ability to function at work. The exact cause of AUD is unknown, but researchers believe a combination of genetic, social, and environmental factors interacts to raise a person's risk of developing a problem with alcohol. 

Sometimes it is easy to tell when a loved one's drinking is out of control. If you live with the person or spend a lot of time with them socially, you may have noticed them drinking excessively. However, for some people, it’s difficult to tell when a relationship with alcohol is unhealthy. Both the person struggling with alcohol and their loved ones may be in denial about how bad the problem is. People with AUD typically underestimate the amount they drink, overestimate how much other people drink, and minimize the risks associated with their drinking.

If you suspect someone is drinking too much, look for these signs to see if your loved one might have an alcohol use disorder:

Shaking and Tremors

Tremors are involuntary shaking in parts of the body, most often the hands. Tremors can be caused by a variety of factors, including drinking alcohol. These tremors are known as "alcohol shakes." The brain sends signals to the muscles of your body that cause them to contract. That's what causes tremors. In the case of alcohol-induced tremors, they develop after long-term use or withdrawal from alcohol or other drugs. If a person who shakes has the shakes when drinking alcohol, it may be a symptom of an alcohol problem.

When you quit drinking alcohol, it's common to experience withdrawal symptoms like tremors. Doctors call this condition delirium tremens (DT), which can be dangerous. Symptoms of DT include confusion, fever, and possibly seizures and hallucinations. Because alcohol-related signs often are subtle in the beginning stages of withdrawal, it is easy to overlook them until they become more noticeable as you reduce your drinking.

Nausea and Vomiting

If you've ever had a hangover, you know that excessive alcohol consumption can make you feel terrible. Alcohol is a diuretic, which makes your body lose more fluid than usual when you consume it. When your body is dehydrated, the lack of nutrients and electrolytes can lead to nausea and vomiting. Someone with an AUD may frequently experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. During a binge-drinking session, it's common for people who chronically abuse alcohol to forget to eat before or during drinking sessions, which will cause dehydration and make nausea worse because there's nothing to absorb the toxins in the stomach. 

Bloodshot and Dry Eyes

The dilation of blood vessels causes red eyes, also known as 'bloodshot' or 'pink' eyes. This dilation is a common side effect of alcohol consumption and occurs because of how the body processes alcohol. You may experience a stinging or burning sensation, sensitivity to light, or eye fatigue when you have dry eyes.  

Flushed Face

When a person drinks alcohol, it causes the blood vessels in their skin to dilate (open up). This makes it easier for more blood to flow through the skin and surface capillaries. People with AUD often have flushed skin and a red face.

The alcohol flush reaction is caused by an enzyme deficiency or an inherited trait that makes one sensitive to a metabolite of alcohol called acetaldehyde. This condition is most common among East Asians, but it can also affect people of other ethnic groups. For some people who have a genetic predisposition for it, consuming just a moderate amount of alcohol can trigger a flushing reaction.

Dry Mouth

A dry mouth or xerostomia is a condition where the mouth lacks enough saliva to keep it moist. A common side effect of drinking dry mouth can be caused by dehydration as well as salivary gland damage. The drying effect of alcohol on the mouth can result in symptoms like bad breath and dry, cracked lips. This can lead to more frequent visits to the dentist, as well as increased consumption of water or other drinks to compensate for the dryness. If someone you care about frequently complains of dry mouth, they may have an issue with alcohol use disorder. It's important to keep in mind that many medications also list dry mouth as a side effect, so dry mouth alone does not indicate alcohol abuse. 

Excessive Fatigue

Has your loved one had a change in their sleep patterns? Do they have trouble waking in the morning or seem tired all day? If they were previously an early bird but now sleep past noon, it could be a sign of alcohol dependence. The immediate cause of fatigue in people who drink too much is dehydration. Alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the body, making you feel tired, especially if you're also not getting enough sleep. It's important to note that this is true for any amount of alcohol—if you're drinking too much, you're going to feel tired. Additionally, alcohol is a depressant that zaps you of your energy. The more you drink, the more tired you'll feel. People with AUD also get tired because alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle and affects memory and concentration.

Weight Gain and Poor Diet

Some people with an AUD are at greater risk of obesity. Although studies do not conclusively agree that overindulging in alcohol makes you gain weight, alcoholic beverages contain empty calories with no nutritional value. According to a 2015 study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), people who drink excessively eat less fruit and consume more calories from alcoholic beverages and high-fat, high-sugar foods, resulting in a decrease in diet quality. There is also evidence connecting binge drinking with binge eating, leading people to consume excessively.

Persistent Cough

Chronic cough is a common problem for people with a drinking problem. It's often overlooked, but it can be a significant symptom of alcoholic lung disease (ALD). This disease affects the lungs and causes them to become inflamed and damaged because of alcohol in the system. The chronic cough that accompanies alcoholic lung disease comes from inflammation in the bronchioles, which are smaller airways branching off from larger ones that bring air into and out of the lungs. If someone you know has a cough that doesn't go away, they may be struggling with alcohol dependence. 

AUD is Dangerous

Drinking too much alcohol can have harmful effects on your body and mind. The more you drink, the greater your risk of developing health issues, including:

  • Brain damage and dementia
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Problems with balance
  • Mood disorders like depression
  • Liver and pancreas damage
  • Heart and kidney issues
  • Cirrhosis
  • Mouth Cancer

While alcohol use disorder is most commonly associated with physical issues, it can seriously affect your mental health and legal and social life.

How to Help Someone Who Struggles with Alcohol 

Alcohol Use Disorder is a disease that affects millions of people worldwide. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 14 million Americans suffer from an AUD. If you're worried about someone's alcohol consumption, it can be helpful to be aware of common physical signs of alcoholism. 

It is critical to get help if you feel someone has an alcohol use disorder. The physical symptoms of alcoholism are real, and the addiction must be addressed as soon as possible for treatment to be effective. In Massachusetts, Lake Ave Recovery Treatment Center can help your loved one with a free and confidential clinical assessment to determine their level of alcohol dependency. We work with our clients to develop holistic treatment plans that address their physical, mental, and spiritual needs. We guide individuals down a comprehensive addiction recovery path that includes a Day Treatment Program/Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), Evening Treatment Program, and a flexible Outpatient Program. If you or someone you care about is struggling with an alcohol use disorder or addiction, we're here to help. Call us at 508-794-4400 to learn about treatment options today.

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