Alcoholism: Symptoms and Treatment

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a disease characterized by an uncontrollable urge to consume alcohol. The disease is caused by the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol, leading to a physical and emotional dependence on the substance. Alcohol, specifically ethyl alcohol, is a depressant that affects the central nervous system. Once ingested, it is rapidly absorbed in the stomach and intestines, spreading to all the tissues of the body, with a higher concentration in the liver and brain.

The effects of alcohol are directly proportional to its concentration in the blood. When the blood alcohol concentration reaches certain levels, signs of intoxication become apparent. While occasional and moderate consumption may not compromise physical and mental health, chronic and excessive usage can have severe consequences, including trauma, interpersonal violence, and impaired social and relational skills.

Alcohol addiction starts with psychological dependence, where the individual uses alcohol as a coping mechanism to feel euphoric, calm, and relieved from daily stressors. This behavior can lead to habitual overconsumption or continuous use of alcohol despite the ensuing social and occupational problems.

Physical dependence on alcohol develops over time, leading to an increased tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. At this stage, abstaining from alcohol becomes increasingly difficult, and the addiction can significantly impact the individual's physical and mental health, disrupt interpersonal relationships, and hinder social activities.

Acute and Chronic Alcohol Intoxication

Acute alcohol intoxication is characterized by an initial state of excitement, followed by a reduction in global psychic efficiency, motor incoordination, slurred speech, memory disorders, and impaired judgment. Severe intoxication can lead to vomiting, hypotension, hypoglycemia, and loss of consciousness, and in extreme cases, can be fatal.

Chronic alcoholism, on the other hand, results from a persistent habit of excessive drinking. It is associated with physical, mental, and behavioral manifestations, including gastritis, renal damage, alcoholic psychosis, aggression, and emotional indifference. Chronic alcohol abuse also predisposes individuals to liver diseases, cardiovascular problems, peripheral neuropathy, malnutrition, and certain types of cancers.

The Damaging Effects of Alcoholism

The damage caused by alcoholism is extensive and can affect numerous bodily systems. The Central Nervous System (CNS) is often the first to be affected, with symptoms such as memory gaps and learning difficulties appearing over time. Other physical manifestations of alcoholism include esophagitis, gastric ulcers, muscle weakness, liver damage, and pancreatic issues.

Alcoholism can also lead to hormonal imbalances, resulting in symptoms like testicular atrophy and gynecomastia in males. In addition, frequent episodes of vomiting and diarrhea, along with impaired intestinal function, can contribute to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.

Furthermore, abruptly stopping alcohol consumption after prolonged use can lead to withdrawal syndrome, characterized by symptoms ranging from tremor to convulsions and hallucinations, up to delirium tremens. Mild withdrawal symptoms include weakness, headache, sweating, agitation, loss of appetite, and nausea. Severe withdrawal can lead to seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens, a medical emergency that can be fatal if untreated.

The Impact of Alcoholism on Vitamin Intake

Vitamin deficiency, a state of malnutrition resulting from an insufficient intake of vitamins, is a common consequence of alcoholism. This deficiency can either involve a single vitamin (monovitamin deficiency) or multiple vitamins (multivitamin deficiency), and it can vary in severity from mild (hypovitaminosis) to severe (avitaminosis).

Alcoholism can negatively impact the absorption capability of the digestive system, leading to frequent episodes of diarrhea and vomiting, which can further exacerbate malnutrition. The vitamins most commonly affected by alcoholism include thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin PP), and folic acid (vitamin Bc).

Vitamin B1 Deficiency

Thiamine, or vitamin B1, is a water-soluble vitamin that is absorbed in the intestines. In individuals with alcoholism, the ability to absorb and metabolize this vitamin can be significantly compromised, leading to symptoms of advanced malnutrition. The primary effects of thiamine deficiency in alcoholism include decreased nerve conduction efficiency and reduced enzymatic metabolization capacity of alcohol.

Vitamin B2 Deficiency

Similar to thiamine, riboflavin (vitamin B2) absorption is also affected by alcohol abuse. A deficiency in riboflavin typically results in a non-selective alteration of the mucous membranes, leading to skin lesions around the nose and mouth.

Niacin Deficiency

Niacin, or vitamin PP, is another nutrient that is often insufficiently absorbed in individuals with alcoholism. Prolonged niacin deficiency can negatively impact the maintenance of skin integrity and further worsen intestinal and nervous function.

Folic Acid Deficiency

Folic acid, a vital vitamin for the synthesis of nucleic acids, is also commonly deficient in individuals with alcoholism. This deficiency can lead to anemic conditions, alterations of the mucous membranes, and worsening of diarrhea. In pregnant women, a folic acid deficiency can significantly increase the risk of miscarriage or fetal malformations.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcoholism can manifest through various symptoms, including aggression, hallucinations, depression, difficulty concentrating, mood disorders, insomnia, hypertension, restlessness, and social isolation. More severe symptoms can include anemia, convulsions, delirium, erectile dysfunction, gastrointestinal bleeding, memory loss, and vision reduction.

Early identification of alcoholism symptoms is crucial for both healthcare professionals and the individual's immediate social circle. Early intervention can help tackle the problem effectively, preserving the health of the individual and their loved ones.

Initial indicators of alcoholism include:

  • Decreased communication skills in interpersonal relationships
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and passions
  • Frequent anger outbursts
  • Regular tardiness or absences at work
  • Hazardous driving
  • Escalation of family conflicts
  • Difficulty in abstaining from alcohol
  • Compulsive need for alcohol
  • Social isolation

Diagnosing Alcoholism

The diagnosis of alcoholism involves identifying specific signs and symptoms, supported by laboratory tests such as blood alcohol level, Gamma-Glutamyl-Transpeptidase (GGT) levels, and the measurement of the average globular volume. Carbohydrate-deficient transferrin (CDT) is another marker indicative of alcoholism.

Contrary to popular belief, blood alcohol levels are not the most definitive test for diagnosing alcoholism. While they can reveal recent alcohol consumption, they do not necessarily indicate chronic alcohol abuse. A more indicative sign of alcoholism is elevated blood alcohol levels in the absence of typical drunkenness symptoms, which may suggest increased alcohol tolerance due to habitual heavy drinking.

Key Blood Markers of Alcoholism

Blood markers of alcoholism are measured using a blood sample obtained from a vein in the arm. This procedure should be performed after fasting for at least 8-10 hours to ensure food does not alter the results. It's also essential to inform the doctor of any ongoing treatments as some medications can interfere with the results.

The interpretation of these results should be done by a healthcare professional who is familiar with the patient's medical history. Blood tests for diagnosing alcoholism can help recognize chronic alcoholics or those who return to drinking, even if they deny it, and assess potential organ damage.

Gamma-Glutamyl-Transpeptidase (GGT)

The liver plays a pivotal role in the metabolism of ethanol, making liver function markers particularly useful in identifying at-risk drinkers. The most specific of these markers is Gamma-Glutamyl-Transpeptidase (GGT). GGT levels are typically increased in alcoholics but can also rise due to generic liver or biliary dysfunctions. However, a negative GGT test does not necessarily rule out alcoholism as GGT levels can drop within the first week of abstaining from alcohol and normalize within two weeks.


The serum levels of transaminases, such as AST (Aspartate Aminotransferase) and ALT (Alanine Aminotransferase), can also increase in alcoholics. An AST/ALT ratio greater than 2:1 is often observed in individuals with alcoholism.

Mean Corpuscular Volume (MCV)

MCV measures the average size of red blood cells, which are typically enlarged (a condition known as macrocytosis) in about 90% of alcoholics. MCV values begin to normalize from the first week of abstinence from alcohol and gradually return to normal over the following 120 days, which is the average lifespan of red blood cells.

Carbohydrate-Deficient Transferrin (CDT) and Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG)

CDT and EtG, which are detectable in human serum, are other markers of chronic alcohol abuse. CDT typically increases with daily alcohol consumption of more than 60g for 15-20 consecutive days, while EtG is a direct marker of acute alcohol intake. These markers return to normal within 2-4 weeks of stopping alcohol intake.

AUDIT: Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test

The AUDIT is a simple questionnaire designed to identify individuals at risk of developing alcoholism. It consists of ten questions that help define whether the individual's drinking habits are suggestive of risky behavior. The questions cover the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption, the inability to stop drinking, neglect of responsibilities due to drinking, the need for morning alcohol, feelings of guilt, memory loss, harm caused by drinking, and whether a healthcare professional has advised the individual to stop drinking.


Treatment includes supportive measures to detoxify the patient and manage the withdrawal syndrome. This can involve endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation in severe cases, intravenous rehydration, administration of thiamine, and benzodiazepines.

Psychotherapy and participation in rehabilitation programs are crucial components of the treatment process. These programs aim to help individuals understand their addiction, develop coping strategies, and build a support network to maintain sobriety.


Alcoholism is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. While it can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or social situation, it is crucial to remember that it is also treatable. Early recognition and intervention can significantly improve the prognosis and quality of life for those struggling with this disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism, seek professional help immediately. Remember, it's never too late to start the journey to recovery.

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