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Alcohol Abuse
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Alcohol Abuse

Written by Seth Fletcher on April 16, 2024
Medical editor Dr. Chintan Shah
Last update: April 16, 2024

Alcohol use is widely acceptable in most places in the world. It is often a staple of social gatherings, and it may not be easy to tell when alcohol consumption has become a problem. The effects of alcohol abuse also vary among individuals, and it can be tricky to tell who is abusing alcohol. These effects can hurt the individual and those around them. There are warning signs that can help you determine whether you or a loved one’s alcohol use has crossed into abuse. The Canadian Centre for Addictions explores the signs and impacts of alcohol abuse and how you can seek help for yourself or loved ones.

Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol abuse can have severe adverse effects on one’s physical and mental health
  • It can also lead to relationship problems, financial difficulties, and legal trouble
  • Uncontrolled alcohol abuse can develop into alcohol use disorder
  • Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease with several severe negative consequences
  • Recovery from alcohol abuse and addiction may involve counselling, medications, and support 

What is Considered Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse (or misuse), by definition, describes a consistent pattern of drinking too much alcohol too often, leading to negative consequences in one’s life. If left unchecked, alcohol abuse can spiral out of control to become alcohol use disorder (AUD) – a physical dependency on alcohol. 

A person is abusing alcohol when they take up to 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks per occasion for men. For women, alcohol abuse is up to seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per occasion. The consequences of alcohol abuse can be physical, social, emotional, and financial. It can also lead to long-term health problems, so it’s crucial to get help for yourself or a loved one abusing alcohol. 

Why do People Abuse Alcohol?

People abuse alcohol for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons for alcohol abuse include:

As a Coping Mechanism 

Some people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for trauma abuse or mental health issues. Alcohol may provide a temporary numbness, which can be appealing when one is struggling with difficult emotions or experiences. However, using alcohol to escape reality makes things worse in the long run. Alcohol abuse leads to multiple problems that compound the stress and trauma the individual is already experiencing.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is a significant factor in many cases of alcohol abuse, especially among teenagers and young adults. Young people may feel they need to drink to be accepted by their peers or think that drinking is necessary to have a good time. This pressure can be tough to resist, leading to alcohol abuse. Some young people may also feel pressure to drink from their family members or other adults in their lives – a modelling behaviour that can also contribute to alcohol abuse.

To Feel More Confident

Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can make people feel more confident in social situations. While this might seem like a positive thing, it can be dangerous as a person under the influence of alcohol is more likely to make bad decisions that lead to regret. Abusing alcohol to feel confident can also lead to lower self-esteem and insecurity in the long run. 

To Celebrate

Another common reason for alcohol abuse is to celebrate. People drink to celebrate accomplishments, milestones, or special occasions. While this may seem harmless, it can become a slippery slope. A person used to celebrating with alcohol may come to rely on it and enjoy it themselves. Drinking to celebrate can also lead to overindulgence, poor decisions and injuries. 

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

Some of the alcohol abuse signs and symptoms to watch out for include:

Lying About Alcohol Use 

Lying about alcohol use is a common symptom of alcohol use. Alcohol abusers may lie about what they drink, how much they drink, or the effects of alcohol use. When someone is untruthful about how much they drink, it’s a sign that they’re ashamed of their behaviour and unable to control it. Alcohol is addictive, and lying about its use could also mean that a person is struggling with dependence and is unwilling to be honest about it. 

Drinking More Than Intended

Drinking more alcohol than intended could also be a sign that a person is struggling with alcohol abuse. It’s usually a sign that the person has developed tolerance, a situation where they need to drink more to get the same effect. Alcohol tolerance is dangerous if unaddressed, as it can lead to a cycle of increased drinking, which can cause severe health and social problems.

Needing Alcohol to Relax or Feel Better

Using alcohol to self-medicate or feel better is a clear sign of abuse. Alcohol is a drug with depressant effects; this means that it slows down the nervous system and can have a calming effect on some people, which may make them feel better in the short term. However, alcohol use makes anxiety and depression worse over time. It can also lead to alcohol dependence as the body gets used to functioning with alcohol. 

Using Alcohol in Dangerous Situations

A person who abuses alcohol may drink when driving or operating heavy machinery. Using alcohol in these situations is a clear sign that one cannot control their drinking. They may also put themselves and others at risk of severe harm or injury. 

Facial Redness

Red face from alcohol abuse occurs due to excessive capillary dilation. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and can cause them to become damaged if abused. Excessive alcohol consumption causes broken capillaries to rise to the surface, leading to facial redness. This condition is known as an alcohol flush reaction and is typically one of the early signs of alcohol abuse. 

Blacking Out

Blacking out is one of the most common signs of alcohol abuse. It is when a person is unable to remember what happened while they were intoxicated. Blacking out is dangerous, as a person may have done things they would not normally do and may not be aware of the consequences of their actions. 

Continued Drinking Even When it Causes Legal or Financial Troubles

Another sign of alcohol abuse is when a person continues to drink even when they get into financial or legal trouble. For example, someone may continue to drink even though they’re losing their job, getting arrested, or sliding into debt. 

Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse leads to various physical and psychological side effects, including:

Liver Damage

One of the liver’s functions is to flush out toxins like alcohol from the body. Your liver may not be able to keep up if you keep abusing alcohol. Uncontrolled drinking can inflame your liver, leading to alcoholic hepatitis. It can also cause fatty liver disease due to fat buildup in the liver. Alcohol abuse can also cause cirrhosis, a condition marked by scarring of the liver due to cell death. 

Cardiovascular Disease

Alcohol abuse can increase the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood, leading to plaque buildup in the arteries. It can also damage blood vessels and lead to high blood pressure. Alcohol abuse is also associated with an increased risk of blood clots, which can cause a heart attack or stroke. 

Gastrointestinal Issues

Alcohol abuse can lead to gastrointestinal issues such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. GERD causes heartburn, chest pain, and difficulty swallowing. Alcohol abuse can also lead to abdominal pain and ulcers of the stomach and small intestine. 


Alcohol abuse is associated with an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, including liver cancer and breast cancer. The relationship between alcohol use and cancer is thought to be related to the way alcohol interacts with the body’s cells. Alcohol damages cell DNA and interferes with the body’s ability to repair damaged DNA. It may also play a role in the development of other cancers like mouth, throat, colon, and esophageal cancer. 

Anxiety and Depression

Alcohol can alter the brain chemistry by affecting neurotransmitters, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression. While alcohol may produce euphoria at first, it is a depressant that lowers the mood and increases feelings of anxiety.  

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol abuse often leads to alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) because of the way it affects the brain. The more a person drinks, the more their brain adapts to the presence of alcohol. Over time, this leads to changes in brain chemistry and structure that make it tough to control drinking. 


Alcohol abuse can disrupt the natural sleep cycle, leading to insomnia. Drinking can cause you to become sleepy due to alcohol’s sedative effect. However, as the alcohol wears off, it can cause you to wake up at night and have difficulty returning to sleep. This disruption leads to fragmented sleep and causes you to spend less time in the restorative stages of sleep. 

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a severe situation that can occur if a person drinks too much alcohol within a short period. Excessive alcohol, usually due to binging, can cause one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to become dangerously high. A high BAC can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate breathing, heart rate, and temperature, leading to complications and potential death. 


Heavy alcohol use can damage the bone marrow, leading to a decrease in the production of red blood cells. It can also lead to loss of appetite, which can cause nutritional deficiencies such as lack of vitamin B12, causing anemia.

Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Addiction (Alcoholism)

Alcohol abuse refers to a pattern of drinking that causes harm to one’s health, relationships, or finances. It may involve binge drinking or drinking heavily regularly. Alcohol addiction, on the other hand, is a chronic disease characterized by a desire to drink despite apparent adverse consequences. Like other types of substance abuse, alcoholism is marked by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. People with alcohol addiction have a compulsive need to drink even when they know it’s causing harm.  

Alcohol Abuse Diagnosis and Treatment

There is no specific test for diagnosing alcohol abuse. Instead, a doctor or mental health professional will consider several factors to make a diagnosis. The factors may include the person’s pattern of alcohol use, their family history of alcohol abuse, and any physical or mental health problems they may have. 

They may also consider whether the person can function normally while using alcohol and whether they have tried to stop drinking and been unsuccessful. Sometimes, your doctor may order blood or other diagnostic tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. 

The treatment for alcohol abuse will depend on the individual’s specific needs. Most treatment programs involve a combination of counselling, medication, and lifestyle changes. The goal of alcohol abuse treatment is to help the individual stop drinking and lead a healthy, sober life. (See our guide on how to detox from alcohol). 

Counselling helps the individual understand the reasons behind their alcohol abuse and helps them develop strategies to cope with triggers and cravings. Medications may be prescribed to help reduce cravings or prevent relapse. Lifestyle changes may include changing your social circle, finding new hobbies, or attending support group meetings. 

How to Prevent Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Alcohol use, if not managed, can develop into alcohol use disorder (AUD), a condition marked by compulsive alcohol use despite obvious negative effects. Some steps one can take to prevent AUD include:

Set Limits on Your Drinking and Stick to Them 

Setting limits on your drinking can help prevent AUD. It means deciding ahead of time how much you’ll drink and sticking to that limit. Consider having a sober friend as an accountability partner to help you monitor how much you drink. 

Choose Low-risk Situations for Drinking

Drink only in situations where you know the risk of drinking too much or getting into trouble is relatively low. For example, having a drink with dinner at home is a lower-risk situation than going to a party where there will be lots of drinking. Similarly, choosing to drink with friends with healthy drinking habits is a lower-risk situation than drinking with people likely to encourage heavy drinking. 

Develop Healthy Coping Skills 

Coping skills are strategies used to deal with stress, emotions, and challenges that may trigger drinking. Some skills you can use to manage the urge to drink include exercising, journalling, or meditation. Finding coping skills that work for you helps build the resilience you need to resist your triggers and cravings. 

Seek Professional Help

In some cases, an individual may need professional help to prevent their drinking from progressing to alcohol use disorder. Several options for alcohol abuse are available, including individual therapy, group counselling, and medications. Individual therapy explores the root cause of your drinking and equips you with healthy coping skills. Group therapy provides support and understanding from others with similar experiences. 

Medications help to manage cravings and reduce the risk of excessive drinking. It’s crucial to be honest about one’s drinking habits when speaking with a professional to ensure they choose the best course of treatment for you. 

When to Seek Medical Advice

You should seek medical advice for alcohol abuse if you observe the following: 

  • Drinking more alcohol than intended
  • Craving alcohol at odd times
  • Tolerance, where you need to drink more to get the same effects
  • Having blackouts, where you cannot remember what happened while drinking
  • Feeling anxious or depressed due to drinking
  • Having diminished productivity at work due to alcohol use
  • Having physical health problems, like liver disease or pancreatitis 
  • Getting into legal or financial trouble due to alcohol use 

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse and you want to know how to stop drinking, the Canadian Centre for Addictions can help. At CCFA, we offer alcohol abuse and addiction treatment in an environment that inspires lasting change. We help our clients get to the root cause of their drinking and the healthier coping strategies available by engaging them in one-on-one counselling with certified counsellors, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals. Call 1-855-499-9446 today, and someone will speak to you. 


What are the four types of drinkers?

The four types of drinkers are:
• Social drinkers: They drink moderately in social situations and do not experience negative consequences from their drinking.
• Conformity drinkers: These people drink to fit in with a particular group or to be accepted. They may drink more than they normally would to gain acceptance.
• Enhancement drinkers: These people drink to feel better or improve their mood. They may drink more than usual when feeling down or stressed.
• Coping drinkers: They drink to deal with challenging situations like anxiety, depression, or trauma. Coping drinkers consume large amounts of alcohol and are more likely to experience alcohol-related problems than others.

What type of behaviour is associated with alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse is often associated with antisocial behaviour. People who abuse alcohol may lie, steal, or get into fights. They may have trouble controlling their anger or violence and act in ways that are dangerous to themselves and others. This type of behaviour can have severe consequences, including physical harm, financial difficulties, and legal troubles.

How much alcohol is considered alcohol abuse?

A person is abusing alcohol when they take up to 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks per occasion for men. For women, alcohol abuse is up to seven drinks per week or more than three drinks per occasion.

What does twenty years of drinking do to your body?

Twenty years of drinking can have serious consequences for your body. You will be at increased risk of chronic conditions like liver damage, cardiovascular diseases, digestive problems, and cancer. (Read our guide on what happens when you quit drinking). Alcohol is one of the world’s most addictive drugs, and using alcohol for two decades may lead to some form of dependence.

What are the signs of liver failure from alcohol?

The signs of liver failure from alcohol use include:
• Jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
• Swelling in the legs, ankles, or abdomen
• Ascites, which is an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen
• Loss of appetite
• Fatigue
• Difficult concentrating
• Confusion

What signs indicate that a loved one is struggling with alcoholism?

Some signs of alcoholism to look out for in a loved one include:
• Lying about drinking
• Neglecting responsibilities
• Blacking out regularly
• Drinking to destress
• Isolation
• Mood swings
• Having regular hangovers
• Being irritable or having withdrawal symptoms when they cannot get alcohol

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

Dr. Chintan is a Board Certified Family Physician with an interest in holistic and preventative care as well as healthcare systems. Credentialed Physician with both American & Canadian Board of Family Medicine. Adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Telemedicine clinician.

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