What Are the Physical Signs of Alcoholism?

When considering the signs of alcoholism, it’s important to remember that there is no single symptom that’s indicative of alcohol abuse or withdrawal. You must see the full picture and consider the all the symptoms of alcoholism that a person is experiencing.

The signs of alcoholism generally fall into two categories: behavioral and physical. In this article, we’ll explore the physical signs of alcoholism and alcohol dependence. Some of these physical symptoms of alcoholism can be fairly obvious and apparent, while others are fairly easy to conceal and may only be evident to the individual who is struggling with alcoholism.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism – General Appearance

Alcoholism can have a significant impact on an individual’s overall appearance. Personal hygiene often suffers, as the person may not shower regularly. They may also lack the motivation to tend to their hair or makeup.

With an individual who drinks heavily on a daily basis, you may notice that they look perpetually unwell, with a poor skin complexion, dark under eye circles and a tired demeanor. Chronic dehydration, combined with poor sleep, is a major contributor to an individual’s sometimes haggard appearance.

Weight gain, particularly around the midsection, is also commonplace. This can occur due to a lack of exercise, combined with poor food selection while intoxicated and high-calorie drinks, such as beer.

When alcohol is withheld, the individual may get very distressed, ultimately exhibiting signs of a condition known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). Symptoms can include anxiety and irritability, unsteadiness, seizures or tremors, sweating, fever, nausea, vomiting, insomnia and even hallucinations.

One of the most severe signs of alcoholism is called Delirium Tremens (DT), symptoms include:

  • Severe Agitation or Confusion
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Headache
  • Convulsions and Tremors
  • Tactile Hallucinations of Itching, Burning or Numbness
  • Auditory Hallucinations
  • Visual Hallucinations

If you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms, it’s best to seek immediate medical attention by calling 911 or by going to the nearest emergency room for treatment.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism – Skin

Alcohol impacts virtually every body system, so the physical symptoms of alcohol abuse can be observed throughout the body as well. This includes the skin.

Jaundice / Yellow Skin Tone

Jaundice is one of the more obvious signs of the liver problems that commonly accompany alcoholism. Jaundice occurs when the body fails to metabolize bilirubin, which is yellowish brown in color. Bilirubin forms as the liver breaks down old blood cells, but fails to metabolize and process those bilirubin particles. In a healthy person, the liver breaks down bilirubin, which is then excreted when the person has a bowel movement. But in a person with liver disease or another condition that impacts liver function, the bilirubin levels rise to abnormally high levels, giving the skin a yellow color. The whites of the eyes will also appear yellow in many individuals.

In addition to jaundice, it’s common to observe other signs of liver disease, such as nausea, vomiting, weight loss and a generally poor physical condition.

Poor Skin Condition

It’s not uncommon for men and women to experience poor skin condition or chronic breakouts due to poor hygiene. Some women have a tendency of passing out or falling asleep while still wearing makeup. Forgetting to wash your face before going to bed can certainly contribute to skin problems.

Additionally, the body’s immune system is heavily taxed by frequent alcohol consumption, resulting in a much higher frequency of skin infections, including pimples, cysts, sores and abscesses.

You may also observe a persistent redness on the nose and cheeks, resulting from alcoholism-related changes in the circulatory system.

Spider Angiomas

One of the more common physical symptoms of long-term alcoholism involves the formation of spider angiomas (also called a spider nevus), which are small spider web-like marks on the skin. They can be red or blue/purple in color. They’re most commonly found on the nose and cheeks, but can arise elsewhere on the body too.

Spider angiomas often form as the result of liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver. Liver disease and cirrhosis can both arise from long-term alcohol abuse. It’s important to remember, though, that liver issues and spider angiomas can occur in individuals with non-alcohol-related health issues too. For instance, spider angiomas can result spontaneously or due to high estrogen levels (which is common during pregnancy.) So alone, they are not necessarily indicative of alcoholism. But you may have cause for concern if you see these vascular formations in conjunction with other symptoms of alcohol abuse.

Bruises and Injuries

Alcohol skews your equilibrium and balance, resulting in bumps, bruises and even more serious cuts and injuries.

An individual with an alcohol problem may have bruises and other injuries on a fairly frequent basis – far more frequently than the average person.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism – Liver Problems

Alcohol abuse is a common cause of liver problems, as this vital organ serves as a filter of sorts (amongst other functions). Alcohol-related liver disease or ARLD can be life-threatening, even in a younger individual. In other words, you do not need to drink heavily for 30 years to get liver disease.

The liver does have the unique ability to regenerate. So it is possible for the liver to heal in many – but not all – cases. This requires time and sobriety. It’s also important to note that moderate to severe scarring (such as that associated with cirrhosis) is typically permanent. But seeking treatment can lead to a dramatic improvement in your condition.

There are three basic phases to ARLD. They are as follows:

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

This is the first and least severe stage of alcohol-related liver disease. With this condition, fat accumulates in and on the liver. This causes inflammation, mild scarring and fat deposits that impair the liver’s ability to function properly.

Often, there are no noticeable symptoms of alcoholic fatty liver disease. In other cases, a person may experience weakness, fatigue and abdominal pain in the upper right area of the abdomen. Lab work may reveal elevated liver enzyme levels, but this is not always the case. Liver function could appear normal according to diagnostic tests.

Fortunately, you can typically reverse the effects of alcoholic fatty liver disease by abstaining from alcohol and medications that place a strain on the liver.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis occurs in about one-third of all heavy drinkers, making it a fairly common condition. Alcoholic hepatitis can occur on a broad spectrum, from mild (with no apparent symptoms) to severe and even life-threatening.

Alcoholic hepatitis arises when large quantities of fat are deposited in the liver, leading to inflammation and scarring. With this condition, lab work will reveal a significant elevation in liver enzymes and liver function tests typically reveal some degree of impairment.

Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include fever, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, jaundice and poor appetite.

In the early stages of alcoholic hepatitis, the effects on the liver are often reversible. But by the time an individual reaches the late stages or suffers from a bout of acute alcoholic hepatitis, much of the scarring and damage to the liver is permanent. Acute alcoholic hepatitis can ultimately lead to death from liver failure.

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic cirrhosis is a very serious and life-threatening condition. It is the most advanced stage of alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD). It’s estimated that as many as one-quarter of all heavy drinkers (and an even larger percentage of those who struggle with an alcohol addiction) have cirrhosis of the liver.

Cirrhosis occurs when the liver suffers extensive and severe scarring. Normally, the liver tissue is soft and flexible, but when scarring occurs, that soft tissue is replaced with hard, inflexible scar tissue. This has an adverse impact on the liver’s ability to function. The end result is liver failure.

While cirrhosis is not reversible, the patient can still enjoy benefits from enrolling in an alcohol treatment program. This is because the symptoms of cirrhosis and ARLD will improve – sometimes dramatically – and abstinence can prevent further damage and worsening of one’s health condition.

Abstinence will also reduce the chances of developing further complications, such as liver cancer. Individuals with another liver ailment, such as chronic hepatitis C, are at especially high risk of developing health problems that could ultimately necessitate a liver transplant.

Other Physical Signs of Alcoholism – Sleep Patterns

Alcoholism can result in some very abnormal sleep patterns, which may be very noticeable to a spouse, family members and even your friends or employer. These abnormal sleep patterns can, in turn, impact your health in numerous ways.

In fact, even just a single drink before going to bed can actually do more harm than good.

After consuming alcohol, the body will fall into a very deep sleep. This is actually unhealthy, as sleep occurs in cycles. The first stage in that cycle is called rapid eye movement sleep or REM sleep. When you drink, your body skips the REM sleep cycle (or goes through this stage very briefly). The result: you fall into a very deep sleep and you may be difficult to rouse.

Scientists and researchers actually have very limited knowledge about what actually happens while we sleep; in fact, science isn’t entirely sure why the body even needs sleep in the first place! But anecdotal evidence tells us that this REM stage of the sleep cycle is critical for feeling refreshed and rested. Studies have revealed that in an average night, a healthy person experiences approximately six to eight bouts of REM sleep. A person who has consumed one or more drinks before going to bed may experience just one or two bouts of REM sleep throughout the course of the night. The result is that you wake up feeling as though you haven’t slept a wink. Also, since you experience long periods of deep sleep after drinking, there is a greater chance that you’ll sleep through your alarm.

Sleep pattern disturbances are also common in alcohol abusers who are trying to cut back on their drinking. Insomnia is one of the many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. But beyond this, there’s also a psychological component. Virtually every individual who struggles with alcohol dependence drinks to escape some uncomfortable reality. This could be a past trauma, depression, anxiety or any number of challenges that one may encounter in life. These issues can make it challenging to quiet the mind and fall asleep.

Other Physical Signs of Alcoholism

The physical signs of alcoholism are numerous and quite varied.

Amongst the signs of alcoholism are redness and/or swelling involving the palms of the hand. The individual may also experience numbness, tingling or a lack of coordination in their hands and even in their feet. This can also result in unsteadiness.

In addition, alcohol-related liver disease can cause a number of other symptoms, such as ascites, which is an accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity. It’s also possible to develop complications such as an enlarged spleen or kidney failure.

Frequent exposure to alcohol can cause damage to the esophagus (throat) and stomach. The harsh nature of alcohol (especially hard liquor) can irritate the sensitive tissues in these areas of the body. This may lead to the formation of an ulcer, which is essentially an internal sore.

Ulcers have a tendency of bleeding when irritated, causing pain, discomfort and even further stomach upset due to the blood. This frequently results in chronic nausea, vomiting and decreased appetite.

While most people associate alcoholism with weight gain, but weight loss is also a fairly common sign in individuals who are in the more advanced stages of alcohol abuse. As liver function becomes more and more impaired, it’s typical to see some fairly significant and rapid weight loss

Alcohol abuse is a very complex issue, with many physical, psychological and behavioral signs and symptoms. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism, there is help. You don’t need to go through this process alone. Speak to an addiction treatment counselor that is committed to providing a comprehensive range of treatment solutions for people who are struggling with alcoholism.