Physical and Psychological Symptoms of Alcoholism


Kerry Canning, MBChB
Page Clinically Reviewed on
Kerry Canning is a Medical Editor at Castle Craig and is responsible for developing and medically reviewing content. More

While the term “alcoholism” has been widely used in the past, it is now considered outdated. The correct term is “alcohol use disorder” (AUD), which more accurately encompasses the complexities of this condition. This page will outline the various signs and symptoms of AUD to help you recognise these in yourself or your loved ones.

AUD manifests in numerous subtle ways, impacting both the body and brain. Beyond any obvious physical symptoms, such as changes in appearance and health complications, and psychological symptoms like mood swings and cognitive impairments, there are less apparent effects on the body and brain. Recognising these subtle signs is key to addressing the problem early on. Early intervention can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment and recovery.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the signs or symptoms mentioned on this page, please reach out for help. Castle Craig can provide the support and treatment needed to overcome AUD and help you reclaim a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Key Takeaways

  1. AUD can lead to, increased alcohol tolerance and dependency causing withdrawal symptoms like shaking and sweating
  2. Physical symptoms of AUD include difficulty sleeping, agitation, nausea and a faster-than-normal heart rate
  3. AUD may also produce psychological symptoms such as increased anxiety or depression, behavioural changes and memory problems
  4. Chronic, excessive alcohol consumption can have serious health consequences, some of which require emergency medical assistance
  5. Our alcohol quiz can help you to assess your drinking habits
  6. Acknowledging the problem and reaching out for help are the first steps towards recovery

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition which impairs an individual’s ability to stop or control alcohol consumption despite negative consequences. It encompasses a range of conditions, from mild to severe, and is recognised as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder. The severity of AUD is determined based on the number of symptoms experienced by an individual.1

AUD is diagnosed based on criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These criteria include experiencing cravings, loss of control over alcohol intake, withdrawal symptoms and continued use despite negative effects on personal and professional life.

Individuals with AUD may drink more than they intend, have difficulty cutting down or quitting and spend a significant amount of time obtaining, using or recovering from alcohol. They may also neglect responsibilities and engage in risky behaviours while under the influence.2

Understanding AUD is crucial for effective treatment and management. It is not a sign of moral weakness or lack of willpower; rather, it is a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and psychological factors. Treatment often involves a combination of medication, therapy and support groups to help individuals achieve and maintain sobriety.1

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Effects of Alcohol Misuse on the Body

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to numerous physical health issues, significantly impacting various organs and systems within the body.3 Some of the most notable effects include:

  1. Cardiovascular Problems: Alcohol misuse increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Alcohol consumption is also linked to an elevated risk of having a stroke
  2. Digestive System Issues: Chronic alcohol intake is linked to pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and an increased risk of developing cancers such as gastric and colon cancer3
  3. Liver Damage: Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) describes liver damage resulting from alcohol consumption. ARLD comprises different conditions of varying severity, including fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. In advanced cases, the inflammation and scarring of the liver can restrict its ability to filter toxins, resulting in serious health consequences.4 
  4. Weakened Immune System: Long-term alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections including pneumonia and tuberculosis.5
  5. Nutritional Deficiencies: Alcohol interferes with the absorption, storage and excretion of essential nutrients, often leading to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. Vitamin deficiencies can result in complications such as visual impairment, clotting difficulties and severe neurological problems6
  6. Bone and Muscle Problems: Alcohol misuse can lead to osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) and myopathy (muscle weakness), increasing the risk of fractures and physical impairments7
  7. Reproductive Health Issues: In men, alcohol can cause erectile dysfunction and reduced fertility. In women, it can lead to menstrual irregularities and an increased risk of miscarriage and preterm birth during pregnancy8 To reduce maternal and foetal risk, NHS guidance recommends avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy

Effects of Alcohol Addiction on the Brain

Alcohol has profound effects on the brain, both in the short and long term, leading to various psychological and cognitive issues:

  • Cognitive Impairment: Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to significant cognitive deficits, including memory loss, difficulty concentrating and problems with decision-making and problem-solving. Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) comprises conditions that can occur when alcohol is consumed excessively over an extended period. Examples of ARBD conditions include alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome10
  • Mental Health Disorders: There is a strong link between alcohol misuse and mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and increased risk of suicide. Alcohol can exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues and contribute to their development
  • Behavioural Changes: Long-term alcohol misuse often leads to changes in behaviour and personality such as increased aggression, irritability and mood swings. These changes can strain relationships and lead to social isolation11
  • Addiction and Dependence: Chronic alcohol consumption can alter the brain’s chemistry, leading to physical and psychological dependence. This dependence makes it difficult for individuals to stop drinking, despite knowing the harmful effects
  • Neurotoxicity: Alcohol is neurotoxic, meaning that it can cause direct damage to brain cells. This damage can result in a loss of brain volume, particularly in areas responsible for memory and executive function, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex12
  • Sleep Disturbances: Alcohol disrupts normal sleep patterns leading to insomnia and poor-quality sleep. This can result in chronic fatigue and exacerbate mental health issues
  • Hallucinations and Psychosis: In severe cases, particularly during withdrawal, individuals may experience hallucinations, confusion, disorientation (delirium tremens) and psychotic episodes. These symptoms can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention13

These potentially damaging effects highlight the importance of addressing alcohol misuse early and seeking appropriate treatment to mitigate these physical and psychological complications.

Take Our Alcohol Quiz

If you’ve been considering your relationship with alcohol, our alcohol self-assessment quiz may provide valuable insights. This brief quiz is designed to help you evaluate your drinking habits by examining both the physical and psychological indicators of alcohol dependence.

Please note that while this quiz is not a replacement for professional medical advice, it can be an informative tool to better understand your alcohol use and to identify any potential warning signs. The questions address various aspects of your behaviour and emotions related to alcohol, including the frequency of consumption and the degree of emotional reliance.

For the most accurate results, answer honestly. The quiz may ask about physical symptoms such as experiencing memory blackouts or feeling unwell when you cease alcohol use or stop heavy drinking. Additionally, it will explore psychological indicators such as feelings of guilt about your drinking or increased anxiety or depression.

What To Do if You’re Struggling With Symptoms of AUD

If you find yourself struggling with symptoms of AUD, it is important to take action and seek support. Recognising the problem is the first step towards recovery. Speak to someone you trust about your concerns, whether it’s a family member, friend or healthcare professional. Sharing your struggles can provide immediate emotional relief and open the door to professional assistance.

Consider consulting with your GP, who can offer medical advice and guide you to appropriate resources. Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, provide a community of individuals who can understand your experiences and offer invaluable support.

For those needing more intensive assistance, residential rehab facilities like Castle Craig offer comprehensive treatment programmes designed to address both the physical and psychological aspects of AUD.

A medical detox is an essential component of treatment, especially for managing dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Attempting to detox without medical supervision can be life-threatening, as withdrawal can cause severe complications such as hallucinations or seizures .13

Inpatient care, provided in a controlled and supportive environment, is widely regarded as an effective treatment for AUD. It offers 24/7 medical supervision, structured therapy sessions and a supportive community, all crucial for a successful recovery.

Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. By taking these steps you can begin your journey towards recovery and reclaim a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Comprehensive Addiction Treatment at Castle Craig

We offer personalised addiction treatment programmes for alcohol addiction, combining medical care with psychological support.

Treatments for AUD

Every individual is different, so a personalised approach to treatment is key. Available treatments for AUD include medications, behavioural therapies and support groups.

Navigating the numerous options for AUD treatment can be overwhelming. At Castle Craig, we are committed to helping you find the most suitable and effective treatment plan tailored to your needs. Our experienced team will guide you through the options to ensure you receive the best possible care.

Addressing physical alcohol dependence often requires medical supervision, especially during the initial stages of withdrawal. This phase can involve uncomfortable and potentially dangerous symptoms.

At Castle Craig, our doctors and medical professionals are equipped to provide the necessary medication and support to manage these symptoms, ensuring your safety and comfort throughout the detoxification process. We are here to help you every step of the way, offering a comprehensive approach to treatment that promotes lasting recovery.

Behavioural therapies also play a key role in treatment. These therapies are designed to treat addiction by identifying any contributing factors and providing you with strategies for managing cravings and avoiding triggers. Behavioural therapies can also help rebuild relationships damaged by addiction and foster healthier coping mechanisms.

The focus on rebuilding relationships and developing effective strategies to handle cravings and avoid triggers helps patients establish a strong foundation for lasting recovery.

If you recognise any of the symptoms mentioned on this page, in yourself or someone you know, it may indicate an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Call us today and let our team guide you through available treatment options and help you towards a healthier life.

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