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Top Signs of Alcoholism – Identifying the Red Flags

Top Signs of Alcoholism – Identifying the Red Flags
Written by Seth Fletcher on January 22, 2016
Last update: April 17, 2024

Alcohol use is socially acceptable in Canada and most parts of the world. In 2019, three-quarters (76% or 23.7) of Canadians reported using alcohol the previous year, unchanged from 78% (23.3 million) in 2017. A Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study found Canadians drink more than 50% above the global average. However, normal alcohol consumption can quickly become a serious health concern if use becomes abuse. The warning signs of alcohol abuse are numerous, though some may not be quickly recognizable. 

Alcohol abuse describes using alcohol in increasingly large amounts that can be harmful to a person and others around them. It includes binge drinking and other drinking patterns that lead to distress or affect proper functioning. Only a health provider can definitively diagnose alcohol use disorder (AUD), but this condition typically presents red flags you can spot easily. The Canadian Centre for Addictions explores the top signs of alcoholism and how to spot an alcoholic face, so you can help them start on the path to recovery.

Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol abuse is the use of alcohol in increasingly large amounts that can be harmful to the drinker and others around them.
  • Alcohol use is socially acceptable in most places, and this can make it difficult to distinguish between casual drinking and alcohol abuse.
  • People who abuse alcohol tend to be secretive about their habits; knowing alcoholism signs or red flags to watch for can help detect whether a loved one is struggling with alcoholism.
  • Professional medical help is often required to help an individual overcome the effects of alcoholism.

11 Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

People who abuse alcohol tend to be secretive about it and can even become hostile if confronted. Here are signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse to watch out for in a loved one. 

Lying About Drinking

Denial is one of the most prominent signs of alcohol abuse. A person with a drinking problem will usually be the last to admit they have a problem. They will usually drink secretly, lie about their behaviour or claim their drinking is not a big deal. Lying or concealing alcoholic signs, symptoms or behaviour can be challenging to spot and hard on loved ones. If someone you care about is becoming increasingly secretive about their alcohol use, they may have a drinking problem. 

Neglecting Responsibilities 

People with drinking problems tend to prioritize alcohol use above other things in their lives, making it difficult to follow through with their daily responsibilities. Alcohol abuse also deteriorates an individual physically and emotionally, so they may find their daily activities more challenging. They may have diminished interest in their work, academics, hobbies, or pets. The alcohol abuser may not realize this problem immediately, but family members and close friends will notice hygiene practices slipping and a sudden nonchalant approach to their responsibilities. 

Drinking to De-Stress

Taking a drink or two to unwind is fine, but if an individual starts drinking whenever they face a stressful situation, there may be a problem. Alcohol is a social drug and is often a part of celebratory occasions. However, people with an alcohol use disorder or who use alcohol to cope with situations may struggle to quit using alcohol even when the stressful situation is improved. For those who drink to de-stress, the appeal to stress reduction reinforces continued alcohol use. 

The de-stressing effects of alcohol will wane with prolonged use, and rather than providing stress relief, alcohol use begins to complicate issues by triggering chemical changes in the brain.

Blacking Out Regularly

Blackouts from alcohol use are caused by partial or total loss of memory, where the individual can take actions or participate in events they don’t recall. They usually occur when a person has had too much to drink at once, often causing them to engage in high-risk activities. Blackouts may not be easy to identify, as the individual may still be able to give a speech, drive, or perform other activities. However, these actions may lead to severe negative consequences like accidents, unplanned pregnancies, and legal issues. A person who has frequent blackouts from alcohol needs alcohol rehab.

Showing Signs of Dependency

Showing signs of dependence is a sure sign of alcoholism and proves they need professional alcohol rehab or addiction treatment. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), alcohol-dependent individuals will need to drink more to get drunk, experience withdrawal symptoms, and consistently fail to reduce their drinking. They will also give up important work or personal time to drink and spend much time recovering from the effects of alcohol use. 

Alcohol-dependent individuals will continue to drink even when they know they have a physical or psychological problem exacerbated by drinking. Anyone who overuses alcohol is at risk of becoming dependent. However, risk factors such as physical or mental illness, poverty, and the absence of coping strategies for managing dependence can increase one’s chance of alcohol dependence. Individuals with alcohol dependence will also have to deal with problems in their relationships, finances, work, and other areas of their life.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria must be met before a person can be diagnosed with alcohol dependency. Alcohol dependency is a serious diagnosis that identifies those most impacted by alcohol use. Doctors assess alcohol dependency by asking questions that review an individual’s alcohol tolerance or withdrawal. These questions cover the following:

  • Quantity of alcohol consumed
  • Frequency of alcohol use
  • Time spent obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of alcohol use
  • Desire to cut or control alcohol use unsuccessfully
  • Continued alcohol use despite persistent physical or psychological problems
  • Missing out on important work or recreational activities due to alcohol use

Exhibiting Extreme Mood Swings

Alcohol abuse affects the brain and can cause severe mood changes. Some people take alcohol to improve their mood or to make them happy when depressed. However, continued alcohol abuse will lead to extreme or unpredictable mood swings and loss of emotional control. Alcohol has short and long-term effects on moods. In the short term, an alcohol abuser can experience the following within a short period. 

  • Happiness and excitement
  • Sadness and depression
  • Improved confidence
  • Anger 
  • Affection
  • Trust for people they barely know
  • Invincibility 

A person under the influence of alcohol can go through all of these emotions within a single night. Mood swings from alcohol abuse can also lead to reckless behaviour like unprotected sex, driving while intoxicated, and getting into fights. Continued alcohol abuse will lead to severe and lasting mood changes. Heavy alcohol users tend to be overly aggressive and impulsive, especially when they cannot obtain alcohol. 

Alcoholism can also worsen existing mood disorders or trigger underlying ones that were previously dormant. Mood swings can also arise from alcohol withdrawal. As the individual tries to abstain from alcohol after prolonged use, their body struggles to function without alcohol leading to mood changes. Research shows that alcohol use can contribute to mood disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders. 

Isolating Oneself from Loved Ones

Isolation and alcoholism go together; alcoholism can make individuals struggle with interaction with others. A person who is abusing alcohol will want to separate themselves from others and can become increasingly lonely the more they consume alcohol. The fear of judgment, stigma, or misunderstanding that can arise from alcohol abuse makes abusers more likely to stay away from people. At first, isolation is usually easier and more comfortable for the alcoholic, even though it worsens the problem. Loneliness can be debilitating and increases the risk of physical and mental health problems. These effects, combined with those of alcohol abuse, can put an individual’s health in severe jeopardy.

Isolation enables alcoholism, and the alcoholic can benefit from interacting with others in an environment that encourages sobriety. 

Putting Oneself at Risk

Alcoholism causes increased risk-taking behaviour, as an individual under the influence will feel invincible, less self-conscious, and not overly concerned about negative consequences. According to this study, the most frequently observed high-risk behaviour among alcoholics is driving while intoxicated. Alcoholics are also more likely to engage in risky sexual encounters and other activities that can put their lives and health at risk. 

Feeling Hungover When Sober

Another sign of alcoholism is a feeling of being drunk even when there is no alcohol in your system. The cognitive effects of prolonged alcohol use can lead to phantom hangovers that persist for several days. Phantom hangovers occur due to chemical imbalances in the brain while it’s trying to recover from the effects of alcohol or as a psychological effect of quitting. The symptoms of this type of hangover typically begin 48 hours after the last drink and include headaches, low energy, aching joints, nausea, and mental fog. Not every alcoholic experiences a hangover feeling when sober, and it can be discouraging for people in the early stages of quitting alcohol.

Changing Social Circles

Our social circles impact us, and it is not unusual to see someone changing the people they move with when they develop a drinking habit. Peer groups are often central to the behaviours that lead to alcoholism. If your loved one is drinking too much, chances are their friends and other members of their social circle are doing the same. The longer a person spends with a group of heavy or binge drinkers, the deeper they will likely slide into alcoholic behaviour.

Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms occur when a heavy drinker stops or reduces their alcohol consumption. These symptoms may be mild or severe and, in some cases, life-threatening depending on the degree of alcohol use. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms start a few hours to days after the last drink and can make alcohol detox programs challenging. Some withdrawal symptoms to look out for include tremors, paleness, anxiety, loss of appetite, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, and irritability. 

If you observe any of these alcoholism symptoms or signs in a loved one, you need to help them seek alcohol rehab treatment.

Other Physical and Behavioural Signs of Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse affects every aspect of a person’s life, and there are other physical and behavioural signs of alcoholism to watch out for, including:

  • An unsteady gait
  • Lack of coordination
  • Diarrhea 
  • Slurred speech
  • Jaundice 
  • Oversleeping
  • Stupor
  • Coma 
  • Intense craving for alcohol
  • Tolerance (drinking more to get the same effects)
  • Problems with work or school due to drinking
  • Financial or legal issues caused by drinking

The Canadian Centre for Addictions offers professional treatment for alcoholism in an environment that inspires lasting change. We are a highly trusted Ontario alcohol rehab facility offering multiple treatment options. Call 1-855-499-9446 today to understand the best coping strategies to help you or a loved one recover from alcoholism and its effects. 

Risk Factors for Adolescents 

Underage drinking is a serious problem, and knowing the risk factors that predispose adolescents to alcohol abuse is crucial to prevention and early treatment. The risk factors for alcoholism in adolescents include:


There is a strong relationship between genetics and the development of alcohol use disorder. This study shows that genes may contribute to half of a person’s risk of becoming an alcoholic. However, the genetic component of alcohol abuse can be mitigated by environmental influences. 

Childhood Behaviour 

Early childhood behaviour can also be a pointer to teenage alcohol abuse. Restlessness, impulsiveness, and antisocial behaviour during childhood are markers of alcohol use. An individual who is impulsive or restless will find it difficult to reject alcohol or stop using alcohol when they’ve had too much to drink. 

Abuse and Trauma

Adolescents who experience abuse or traumatic events as kids are more likely to have drinking problems. There are more cases of reported physical or sexual abuse, witnessing of violence, and violent victimization among teenagers in the treatment of alcohol use disorders. About 13% of adolescents with alcohol dependence have also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Positive Expectancy or Perception of Alcohol

Adolescents who have developed a positive expectancy or perception about alcohol are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Wrong or insufficient education on the dangers of teen alcohol abuse is often responsible for the positive expectancy that fuels alcoholism. 

Alcohol Advertising 

Studies show that alcohol advertising can increase positive expectations of alcohol. Television and Internet advertisements have been shown to influence brand preferences and increase teenagers’ desire to drink as adults. This study also suggests that alcohol warning adverts can reduce the urge to drink among young adults. 

Peer Pressure

Adolescents face a lot of peer pressure and desire acceptance at this stage of their life. Research shows that acceptance of drinking among peers increases a teenager’s likelihood of participating in underage drinking. 

Childhood Environment 

Adolescents’ childhood environment can play a role in their decision to start drinking. Growing up in a home where parents drink and allow them to drink or where alcohol is easily accessible increases the risk of underage drinking. Children who are educated on the dangers of alcohol by their parents growing up are less likely to start drinking as teenagers. 

Recognizing You Have a Problem

It’s not always easy to tell whether a person is out drinking or has a problem with alcohol. People with a drinking problem tend to conceal the issue or pretend it’s no big deal. The person with an alcohol use disorder is often the last to realize or admit they have a problem. Here are some signs to help you recognize your alcohol use is getting out of control:

  • Drinking more than intended or finding it difficult to control how much you drink
  • Having cravings or feeling miserable whenever you’re not drinking
  • Developing tolerance so that you need to drink more to get the same effects
  • Difficulty carrying out your daily activities without alcohol 
  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Storing alcohol in unusual places at home, car, or workplace
  • Choosing to drink over taking part in hobbies or events you once enjoyed
  • Getting into problems with loved ones, friends, colleagues, and other people because of drinking
  • Having financial or legal issues due to drinking
  • Desiring or trying to stop drinking but failing 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop or reduce alcohol use 

Acknowledge How Much is Too Much

Knowing how much you drink and whether you are drinking too much is essential. Excessive drinking covers binge drinking, heavy drinking, underage drinking, and drinking while pregnant. 

Binge drinking is consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion for men and four or more drinks on a single occasion for women. It is the most common form of excessive drinking, and over 90% of excessive drinkers binge drink. Heavy drinking is 15 or more drinks per week for men and eight or more for women. Drinking below the legal age or while pregnant is also considered excessive. 

Diagnosing Alcohol Use Disorder

Only a professional healthcare provider can give a definite diagnosis for alcohol use disorder. A healthcare professional usually starts diagnosis by asking questions about your drinking habits and health history. They will also perform a physical exam to detect complications caused by alcohol use. 

There are no specific tests for alcohol use disorder, but your provider may recommend blood and imaging tests to assess organ damage and identify health problems that may be caused by alcohol use. A psychological evaluation may also be prescribed. You may answer questions or fill out a questionnaire about your addiction symptoms, thoughts, emotions, and behavioural patterns.

When to Consult a Medical Professional

The line between casual alcohol use and misuse is blurry for many people, and they may not consider seeing a medical professional until their alcohol use becomes a severe problem. However, you should consult with a medical professional once you observe that your drinking is beginning to affect your quality of life or prevent you from getting things done. 

When speaking with your professional, it’s important to be as honest and detailed as possible. It allows them to diagnose accurately and prepare the most effective care plan for you. 

At CCFA, our team of medical professionals helps people understand their addictions and healthier coping strategies available to them by engaging them in one-on-one counselling with certified counsellors, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals. 

What If a Loved One Needs Help?

Seeing a loved one battling alcoholism can be painful and challenging for you and other family members. It is not always easy to talk to a person with a drinking problem as they can get defensive, aggressive, or even deny that they have a problem. However, these reactions shouldn’t stop you from trying to help them, as it is unlikely that they’ll get better without assistance. 

The first thing you want to do when trying to help a loved one with a drinking problem is to learn about their condition as much as possible. Read books, websites, or talk to professionals about the situation to educate yourself on what you’ll be facing. Armed with sufficient information, practice what you will say and pick the right time and place for the conversation. Speak about the situation and your concerns in a loving way, expressing your worries about the effects of alcoholism on their health and overall well-being in a loving way. 

Encourage your loved one to speak about how they feel and why they are drinking so much. Listen to them in a loving, compassionate, and non-judgmental manner. Let them know you’re supportive and offer treatment options if they are willing to get help. You may consider intervention with other family members if you can’t handle it alone or your loved one is unwilling to seek help.

Understand that you cannot help someone with alcoholism if they are unwilling to get help. Do not blame yourself if your attempts are unsuccessful, and try not to threaten or punish them for their refusal. Also, ensure you don’t enable them or cover for them if they get into trouble due to their behaviour. If they are receptive to your attempts and willing to get help, offer to accompany them to appointments and plan with them as they make changes to improve their life. 


Not everyone who drinks has a problem, but alcohol abuse can get out of control quickly without the appropriate intervention. So, it’s important to be able to spot the signs and symptoms of alcoholism so you can get help and start the healing process. If any of the early signs of alcoholism sound familiar, you should help your loved one get help. CCFA, a highly trusted rehab centre in Ontario, offers alcohol multiple options for alcohol addiction treatment and aftercare services that minimize relapse risk.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are you an alcoholic if you drink every day?

Sometimes, the signs and symptoms of being an alcoholic are fairly obvious but having a drink every day is not necessarily one of them.However, daily drinking suggests a progression in your alcohol use and can put your health at risk. Alcohol abuse in any form is potentially destructive, and you may need to seek help if alcohol use is becoming part of your daily routine.

What happens in the body of an alcoholic?

The body of an alcoholic goes through short and long-term changes from alcohol use. Short-term alcohol abuse symptoms include lowered inhibitions, slurred speech, mood changes, blackouts, loss of coordination, and problems with decision-making. Long-term effects of alcohol include lowered immunity, sleep disturbances, difficulty focusing on tasks, sexual dysfunction, and problems with memory and concentration.

What are the four types of drinkers?

The four types of drinkers are: 
- Social drinkers
Social drinkers drink to celebrate or to make time spent with friends more fun. Social drinking is the most common form of drinking. 
- Conformity drinkers
Conformity drinkers drink to fit in, and not necessarily because they want to in that situation. They usually drink less than others. An example of a conformity drinker would be someone who sips wine at a toast or holds a beer at a gathering so they don’t feel different from others. 
- Enhancement drinkers
Enhancement drinkers drink for the excitement it brings. They are usually extroverted, impulsive males who love thrill-seeking and risk-taking.
- Coping drinkers
Coping drinkers drink to cope with problems like anxiety or depression. They use alcohol to try to forget about their problems, which usually leads to worse long-term consequences. 

What is a delta alcoholic?

A delta alcoholic is someone at the stage of alcoholism where they cannot abstain from drinking. In this stage, the individual needs alcohol to get through the day and will experience severe withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to abstain.

What are the first signs of kidney damage from alcohol?

Regular alcohol and substance use has severe effects on the body. The first signs of kidney damage - - From alcohol include:
- Fatigue/exhaustion 
- Swollen legs, ankles or face
- Loss of appetite 
- Kidney pain
- Red or pink urine
- Chest pain or pressure
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

Certified Addiction Counsellor

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

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