Alcohol Abuse: Signs and Symptoms
It’s common for service members and veterans to feel stress as a result of deployment or other life transitions. Often this stress can be managed safely through coping skills such as breathing techniques, exercise and peer support -- but in some instances it can trigger other serious challenges, including alcohol abuse and dependence. If you or someone you know is using alcohol in a way that may cause either physical or psychological harm, or is experiencing a strong urge to drink alcohol, it is important to reach out for care and support. Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence (also known as alcoholism) are serious matters that can pose risks to your physical and psychological health, including relationships with loved ones and creating financial strain. Fortunately, there are a variety of military and civilian resources that can help you access treatment and care to overcome unhealthy alcohol use as well as help you to maintain responsible drinking habits.
When is One Drink, One Too Many?
When is One Drink, One Too Many? For tips on responsible alcohol consumption, check out the DCoE Blog post, “When is One Drink, One Too Many?”. In this post, a DCoE subject matter expert on alcohol and substance abuse/misuse defines responsible drinking habits, as well as at-risk behaviors.
Early Signs of Alcohol Abuse
For some individuals, it’s difficult to tell when drinking has crossed the line from moderate use to heavy or “at risk” consumption, but recognizing the problem is the first step to overcoming it. Heavy or “at risk” drinking is defined as excess daily consumption (more than 4 drinks per day for men or more than 3 drinks per day for women), or excess total consumption (more than 14 drinks per week for men or more than 7 drinks per week for women), or both.1 About one in four adults who drink heavily are also experiencing an alcohol use disorder such as alcohol abuse or dependence.1 People who abuse alcohol are not physically dependent on alcohol, but their excessive alcohol consumption negatively impacts their lives including personal relationships and responsibilities at home, work and school.2
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Rethinking Drinking online self-assessment, some of the warning signs and indicators for an alcohol use disorder include the following:3
- Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended.
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn't.
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt, such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area or having unsafe sex.
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you wanted, or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before.
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem.
- Had a memory blackout.
- Spent a lot of time drinking or being sick or getting over other aftereffects such as dizziness, headache or nausea.
- Continued to drink even though it negatively affected your relationships with family or friends.
- Found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—prevented you from fulfilling obligations at home, work or school.
- Gave up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink.
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure, or sensed things that were not there.
Supporting Your Service Member or Veteran Address Substance Misuse
For more information, read the articles “The Role of Family and Loved Ones in Substance Misuse” and “How Veterans Can Address Substance Misuse.”
Alcoholism Symptoms and Effects
Alcohol dependence, a medical diagnosis also known as alcoholism, is characterized by a physical dependence on alcohol. Individuals experiencing alcohol dependence often display the following symptoms:2
- Craving—a strong need, or urge, to drink.
- Loss of control—not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun.
- Physical dependence—withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and / or anxiety after stopping drinking.
- Tolerance—the need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same effect.
Alcoholism can pose serious risks to your overall health. It can lead to serious medical problems including harm to the liver and pancreas, heart disease, damage to the brain, increased cancer risk and a weakened immune system.4 Alcoholism may also cause individuals to neglect responsibilities at home, work or school, and it has also been associated with psychological health concerns, including depression, loss of self-esteem and chronic feelings of guilt.5
To better understand your consumption of alcohol, visit Military Pathways to take a free and anonymous self-assessment. The tool does not provide a diagnosis, but it can help you determine if you would benefit from further evaluation by a health care professional.
Care and Support Resources
If you have concerns about your alcohol use, visit your health provider for more information on responsible alcohol use or alcohol abuse support programs. Reaching out for treatment, care or support can help you maintain peak performance both physically and psychologically, and can improve relationships with friends, family and fellow warriors. There are many kinds of help, offered by both military and civilian organizations that can support your recovery and help you to lead a healthier life, including the resources below.
Service Specific Resources:
- Air Force
Learn about the Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment by visiting the Air Force Medical Service website or your home installation website.
The Army Substance Abuse Program [PDF 1.19MB] outlines policies, procedures and guidelines for helping soldiers overcome a substance dependence problem.
- Marine Corps
The Marine Corps Substance Abuse Program’s main mission is to provide Marine Corps plans, policy and resources to improve and sustain the capabilities of commanders to provide opportunities to prevent problems which detract from unit performance and readiness.
The Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program offers information and assistance to support individual and command alcohol abuse and drug use prevention efforts.
- National Guard
Search the Joint Services Support resource database to find substance abuse care in your community.
Military OneSource provides reservists with service-specific information to help them overcome substance abuse.
- Alcohol Use Screening
- Human Performance Resource Center
- Military OneSource
- Military Pathways
- Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator (SAMSHA)
- VA Services: Substance Abuse Programs
1 “Moderate and Binge Drinking,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Last accessed Aug. 28, 2012.
2 “Alcohol Use Disorders,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Last accessed Aug. 28, 2012.
3 “What are symptoms of an alcohol use disorder?” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Last accessed Aug. 28, 2012.
4 “Beyond Hangovers: Understanding alcohol’s impact on your health,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Last accessed Aug. 28, 2012.
5 “Quick Facts About Alcohol Abuse,” Military OneSource. Last accessed Aug. 28, 2012.