It’s important to know the signs of alcoholism in women if you suspect someone you love is in trouble. The problem is bigger than you might think. There are an estimated 15 million alcoholics or alcohol abusers in the US. Women make up about 4.6 million of that number. A publication from the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA) called Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue, states that heavy drinking and binge drinking is becoming a huge threat to the health, safety and wellbeing of American women.
The problem has become so huge that it’s even been highlighted by Time in recent years. Check out their video:
Women, who are heavy drinkers, are in greater jeopardy of getting addicted to alcohol. The good news is that women who enter into alcohol dependency treatment will likely rehabilitate much faster than men. This is because most women with drinking problems will consume less alcohol than men. Also, they will often have fewer symptoms of dependency than men. This can help speed up their recovery from alcoholism.
Statistics from NIAAA found that women make up 25% of admissions in US addiction treatment centers. Men make up the rest of the 75%. Since there are just as many alcoholic women as men, this shows that many women with alcoholism are not getting the help they need to recover. Women are more prone to seek out holistic treatments for their drinking problems. They will often utilize psychiatric services, such as talk therapy to explore their feelings. This, however, may not be enough.
What makes a person an alcoholic? It’s important to know what to look for. If you have a loved one who you think might have a problem with alcohol, here are the signs of alcoholism in women you should be aware of.
Definition of Alcoholism
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) considers alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, as a disease. Alcoholism is not a choice. Those with an alcohol addiction can’t help themselves. They are dealing with a chronic mental health disorder, and need professional help to get better. This disease is best characterized as a compulsive need to drink alcohol or a loss of control over one’s drinking.
To better study this disease, the American Psychiatric Association issued the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) in 2013. Anyone who meets 2 of the following 11 criteria within the same 12-month period can be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Let’s take a look at the eleven criteria:
- Have you ever ended up drinking more than you intended to?
- Have you ever tried to cut down or quit drinking, but couldn’t?
- Do you spend a lot of time drinking or do you spend a lot of time hungover?
- Do you ever experience intense cravings when you haven’t had a sip of alcohol in awhile?
- Has your drinking ever interfered with your work, familial or school responsibilities?
- Do you continue to drink even if it causes trouble for your family and friends?
- Do you cut down on once-pleasurable activities in order to have time to drink more?
- Have you ever engaged in risky activities when drunk?
- Do you continue to drink even though it makes you feel depressed or anxious? Have you ever blacked out from drinking?
- Do you find yourself needing to drink more and more in order to achieve the same effects as before?
- Have you ever experienced withdrawals when coming off of alcohol?
AUDs can be characterized as mild, moderate or severe. Depending on the severity of the addiction, addicted women will need different levels of care when seeking substance abuse treatment.
Why Does a Person Become an Alcoholic?
There are many reasons why a woman might develop a drinking problem. Women can be at high risk for developing alcoholism when certain life experiences happen. For example, consider the following:
- Women who have never married or have divorced are more inclined to drink than women who are married.
- If a woman is dating a functional alcoholic, she is more likely to drink.
- Some women have a hard time maintaining close friendships and romantic relationships. They are prone to drinking alone, which is a sign of alcoholism when it happens often.
- Women who were sexual abuse victims in either their childhood or adulthood are more likely to develop an alcohol problem to numb the pain.
- Women with a family history of alcoholism will be at risk of the disease.
- Mental health issues like anxiety or depression can result in an increased risk of an alcohol addiction. A population study by Wang and Patten (2001) found that women who are depressed ran a greater risk of becoming alcoholics.
- Women who drink to handle stress in their life are more likely to become alcoholics. Most women will agree that they have many responsibilities. The average woman faces a great deal of stress.
There are many reasons for why someone may turn to liquor. Alcoholics can be mothers, daughters, teachers, grandmothers, coworkers and more. They can be someone close to you. Or, you may be an alcoholic yourself.
Alcoholism does not discriminate. It can affect anyone. Previously, men were more likely to be alcoholics than women. Nowadays, many studies show that alcoholism risk for women is on the rise.
Signs of Alcoholism in Women
So, what are the telltale signs of alcoholism in women? We mentioned some of the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD) above. Now, we’re going to dive into a little bit more detail. If a woman shows two or more of these signs and symptoms within the past year, she may have a problem with alcohol.
1. Drinking More Than Planned
Alcoholics will have a problem with limiting their alcohol consumption. Most women recognize this and will set limits on how much or how long they plan to drink. It’s normal to be able to follow the guidelines you’ve set for yourself. The problem is when you can’t even honor your own decisions.
When a woman is an alcoholic, she won’t be able to control herself once she starts drinking. But, how much is too much? Is a glass of wine okay? What about several cocktails?
According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women should limit their drinking to just one drink per day. This guideline refers to the amount consumed on a single day, not the average over several days.
A drink is defined as 14.0 grams or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This is basically 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
2. Unable to Cut Down or Control Alcohol Consumption
Most women will try to cut down on their drinking when they realize it has gone too far. Once a person becomes addicted to alcohol, she will be unable to cut down or control their alcohol use regardless of how much she want to. Addiction affects the brain in a negative way. It impairs judgement and impulse control.
This phenomenon is backed up by many studies. These studies show that alcoholism can actually affect your brain in a negative manner. In fact, fMRI scans of alcoholics show that an alcoholic’s brain activity at cognitive control regions is different than the activity in normal individuals. Alcoholics are much more impulsive.
The scans also show that alcoholics often have difficulties with decision-making and higher-order executive cognition functions. They don’t have as much control over these regions of their brain. Their brains are geared toward reward-evaluation regions.
In short, alcoholics want their rewards now. They don’t want to wait. They’re not going to delay their decision for a larger prize at a later date. Instead, they’ll take what they can in the moment. These feelings encourage them to drink.
3. A Lot of Time Spent Managing Alcohol
If you’ve ever wondered, “Am I an Alcoholic?” One of the first things you should ask yourself if whether you spend a lot of time obsessing over alcohol. Consider whether you waste most of your time:
- Getting alcohol or finding ways to get your hands on it
- Drinking it, regardless of whether it’s alone or with someone else
- Recovering from a hangover and the effects of drinking too much
If you can relate to any of the above, there’s a good chance that you have a problem. It would be difficult to not notice these signs of alcoholism in a woman you’re close to. This abusive cycle will wreak havoc on her life.
An addicted woman may spend most of her time managing her problem with alcohol. She will slowly have less and less time for once-pleasurable activities and for those around her.
It’s not unusual for many alcoholics to disappear days at a time because they were drinking. In fact, many women will drink alone. Is drinking alone a sign of alcoholism? It may be if the individual is only focused on that, and if it happens often.
4. Cravings to Drink
One of the symptoms of alcoholism is that the addicted individual will experience strong cravings to drink. These urges may make women struggling with alcoholism feel restless.
Sure, many people enjoy a drink on occasion, but women with an alcohol problem will feel that they need to drink. If they don’t, they may feel empty, anxious, depressed, hollow or down. You may notice that someone struggling with an alcohol addiction will make excuses to celebrate every time you’re with them.
Fortunately, there are now many different alcohol addiction treatment plans that help ease cravings. Alcohol detox is particularly helpful and important to sobriety. Medication-assisted treatment rebalances neurochemical levels in the brain. This makes it easier for alcoholics to stop thinking about liquor.
Alcohol detox programs use many different types of medications. Some of the more popular ones include acamprosate and aripiprazole.
5. Neglecting Responsibilities
The effects of alcoholism will include impaired judgement. Things that once mattered to a woman with an alcohol problem won’t be as important. They may miss out on work, school, or household chores.
Women struggling with alcoholism often have a hard time managing their lives because they’re either drunk and under the influence, nursing a hangover, or having to manage withdrawal symptoms from not drinking in the daytime. They may be non-responsive to the needs of those around them. They may also be less affectionate or may seem less pleasant to be around. This can lead to a lot of resentment or to a lot of issues among family and friends.
Recovering alcoholics will usually later realize the damage they’ve done to those they love. They may have strained relationships. This is why many alcohol rehab centers offer family programs, family therapy and counseling.
6. Drinking Regardless of Consequences
When a woman drinks regardless of whether it is causing problems in her life, she has a drinking problem. Most of us will stop drinking when it starts to become a problem. This is because the damages outweigh the fun of drinking.
When a woman has become an alcoholic, she cannot abstain even when she considers all the problems alcohol has caused in her life. Her drinking becomes out of her control.
She may get in trouble with the law and get charged with a DUI. She may lose her job or may ruin her relationships with her family and friends. None of that matters. Someone who is addicted to alcohol will continue to drink even if everything else in her life goes wrong.
They simply can’t stop. This is why they need professional help to get them moving toward a healthier, sober lifestyle.
7. Drinking Regardless of Relationship Problems
Alcoholism affects not only the alcoholic, but also those around them as well. The drinking causes a great deal of problems for loved ones. Risky behavior and moodiness can create negative situations. It can also cause many issues to escalate out of control. Minor issues can easily become major ones. Someone who is under the influence of alcohol may say or do things that they normally wouldn’t if they were sober.
Those who understand that their drinking is straining their relationships, but continue to drink, have a drinking problem. This is one of the sure signs of alcoholism in women. While her love for friends, family, and significant others hasn’t changed, she is incapable of putting the bottle down.
One of the keys to sobriety is to mend these strained relationships. Those who are serious about their recovery should reach out to family and friends. They need to admit their wrongdoings and try to make amends for them.
The key to a successful recovery is to reach out. Alcoholic women need to stop isolating themselves from society. Studies show that social connections and support groups are fundamental to one’s recovery.
8. Drinking in Dangerous Situations
Being under the influence can cause someone to misjudge the danger of a situation. It can cause you to face difficulties involving your memory or your attention. Alcohol can cause a person to engage in riskier behaviors and activities. They may choose to do things that put either themselves or those around them in danger.
In fact, this is where driving under the influence (DUI) comes into the picture. Many alcoholic women will continue to get behind the wheels after having a drink or two. For example, if she has to pick up her child from school, she may see being a little bit drunk and driving a lesser evil than not picking up her child at all. Unfortunately, she may not be able to gauge how drunk she actually is.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a dangerous situation because of drinking, you might have a problem with alcohol.
9. Drinking Regardless of Health Issues
Long-term alcohol abuse is harder on a woman’s body than it is on a man’s body. Even if a woman drinks less than a man and for a shorter period of time, the adverse effects of drinking will hit her earlier than it will affect a man.
When a woman continues to drink despite experiencing medical or mental health issues like co-occurring disorder, she likely struggles with an addiction to alcohol. In fact, this is considered a sure sign of alcoholism. This is especially true if the drinking is the root cause of the health problems.
10. Getting a DUI
Anybody can get a DUI so it isn’t necessarily an alcoholic trait in women. While not a part of the diagnostic criteria, it is common for alcoholics to run out of luck and get caught drinking and driving.
A DUI is a lot more serious than what most people make it out to be. There are many long-term consequences that follow a DUI. Those who are convicted may face jail time and hefty fines. Even after paying the fines and fulfilling all legal obligations, the DUI can still follow the convicted individual for some time.
A woman with a DUI may have difficulties finding employment. Her auto insurance rates may also skyrocket, as she is seen as a liability on the road. She may even get her driver’s license revoked or suspended depending on the severity of her charge.
11. Tolerance Builds Up
Much like with other drugs, it’s easy to develop a tolerance to alcohol. Someone who has built up their tolerance will need to drink more and more in order to feel the effects of alcohol. They have a higher risk of experiencing alcohol poisoning. In extreme cases, an overdose can be life-threatening and deadly.
If you notice someone drinks excessively, this is likely a sign that she has built up her alcohol tolerance. Tolerance is also an indication of alcoholism.
12. Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms start to kick in once the alcohol has left the body. When a woman drinks excessively, her body will adapt to having a certain amount of alcohol in the body.
When there’s no more alcohol in her system, painful side effects will begin to kick in. This is due to a neurochemical imbalance in the brain. These side effects are also known as withdrawal symptoms.
Depending on the degree of the alcohol abuse and the severity of the addiction, the symptoms can actually be life-threatening. Some of the telltale withdrawal symptoms for alcohol abuse include:
- Flu-like symptoms such as nausea and vomiting
- Shakiness and weakness
- Cold sweats
- Inability to sleep
- Seizures or delirium tremens
In extreme cases, the withdrawal symptoms can also lead to coma or death. It’s no laughing matter. Delirium tremens is particularly deadly. It happens in 5% of all withdrawal cases. Those who don’t receive treatment for these withdrawal symptoms may die.
It’s important to note that the severity of the withdrawal symptoms will differ from one woman to another. It all depends on the length of the alcohol abuse, the amount that was consumed, and other factors. Each person’s biological makeup will also play a part.
The intensity of the withdrawal symptoms is the main reason why many recovering alcoholics relapse. In fact, relapse is surprisingly common among recovering addicts. Most people will need to go through several relapses before they are able to shake off an alcohol addiction for good.
To ease withdrawal symptoms, patients go through alcohol detox. In general, the detox process lasts about 7 days. The physical symptoms will usually subside by then. It’s the psychological symptoms that take the longest to disappear. These symptoms can emerge out of nowhere up to several years after someone has stopped drinking. This is why some recovering alcohol abusers may slip up even after being sober for years.
13. Drinking Alcohol in the Morning
Some women drink in the morning claiming that it relieves them from a hangover. They may feel shaky or unstable if they don’t drink an alcoholic beverage. The reality is that these physical symptoms are not symptoms of a hangover. They are actually symptoms of having a physical dependence on alcohol. While sleeping, the body metabolizes the alcohol, which causes withdrawal symptoms upon waking up.
Physical Signs of a Female Alcoholic
Physical characteristics of an alcoholic vary between men and women. The body weight and body fat percentage between men and women have a lot to do with how alcohol affects the body differently. Another thing that plays a part is how alcohol affects the brain. Alcohol affects the brains of men and women in a different manner.
It’s often harder for women to hide their addiction to alcohol. There are fewer female functioning alcoholics than male functioning alcoholics. This is due to the fact that alcohol abuse affects women in much harsher ways.
Here are some physical signs of alcoholism in women.
14. Physical Signs of Liver Damage
Women are more prone to liver damage. Alcoholism in women often leads to inflammation of the liver, which is also known as alcoholic hepatitis. Women who struggle with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are also more likely to die from cirrhosis than men who are in the same situation.
When estrogen and alcohol are combined, it causes a greater risk of liver damage. Physical signs of liver damage include yellow skin and eyes (jaundice), and swollen legs and ankles. Dark urine, abdominal pain, itchy skin and chronic fatigue are also other possible symptoms.
15. Difficulties with Menstruation
When women drink heavily, their fertility can be affected. They may not menstruate anymore or may fall into early menopause. This is because alcohol appears to affect a woman’s hormonal cycle. Alcohol will affect each woman differently depending on where they are at their menstrual cycle.
Hormonal fluctuations can affect how a woman connects with alcohol. Studies show that women may drink more before their period. The alcohol may also cause more pronounced mood swings and changes during these times.
Another issue with heavy drinking is that it may cause cycle irregularities. Women who drink a lot may have difficulties keeping track of their menstrual cycle. Their cycle may be inconsistent all the time. These women may also be at a higher risk for amenorrhea. This is a condition where one does not get a period for 3 months or more.
Heavy drinking can also cause anovulation. This phenomenon causes ovulation to occur out of sync with one’s menstrual cycle. Alcohol abuse can have many other effects on one’s menstrual cycle. Check out the video below for more information:
16. Alcohol Induced Brain Damage
Women are also more vulnerable to alcohol-induced brain damage than men. These damages can include the brain shrinking, memory loss or learning difficulties.
Many studies often look at alcoholism in men rather than women. As a result, not much is known about how alcohol affects a woman’s brain. There have been studies that show that alcoholism and its damages progress much more rapidly among women than men. However, these studies have been unable to determine why that is. These studies have also been unable to provide a solution to this problem.
17. Risk of Breast Cancer
Women also have a greater risk of breast cancer if they drink heavily on a regular basis. The Journal of American Medical Association said that women, who consume anywhere between 2 to 5 drinks on a daily basis, are 41% more likely to get breast cancer. Heavy alcohol consumption can also be linked to other cancers, such as cancers to the neck, the head, and the digestive tract.
18. Alcohol-Related Heart Disease
Women are more prone to getting alcohol-related heart diseases than men even if they consume less alcohol. Chronic drinking is the leading cause of heart disease. This is a huge problem, as 35.3% of deaths among American women each year are caused by heart diseases. It’s definitely an issue that needs to be addressed.
There are many possible reasons for why alcohol may have more of an effect on women than men. For one, studies show that there may be sex differences in alcohol pharmacokinetics. Men may have more efficient metabolisms in breaking down alcohol.
Other studies suggest that alcohol’s effect on a woman’s hormonal fluctuations may cause greater harm and damage to their cardiovascular system. Once again, more research is needed in this field. There are still a lot of uncertainties.
19. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
Women who drink during their pregnancy put their baby at risk of being born with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). The characteristics of this syndrome include abnormal facial features and learning problems. It can also lead to permanent and severe developmental and learning disabilities. Many babies born with FASDs will need some type of assistance for the rest of their lives.
When a mother drinks, the liquor gets passed on to the baby through the umbilical cord. The effects of the alcohol will then interfere with the baby’s development. There is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. There also isn’t a good time to drink. Those who are pregnant should abstain from all alcoholic beverages.
All alcohol is equally as harmful to pregnant mothers. It doesn’t matter whether you decide to drink a beer or a glass of wine.
FASDs can come in different severities. It all depends on when the mother drank during the pregnancy and the amount of alcohol that was consumed.
Unfortunately, all FASDs will last a lifetime. There’s no cure for these disorders at all. There are, however, treatment options that can lessen the effects of the FASDs. Some of these treatment options include medications, specific parent training, behavior therapy and education therapy. These babies will need additional care for their entire life. They’ll need extra help even when they’ve reached adulthood.
20. Potential of Dementia
Alcoholism is linked with dementia. Studies show that a large percentage of early onset dementia cases are triggered by AUDs or alcohol abuse. More than 33% of the early onset dementia cases researched were directly linked to alcohol. This is surprising although not unexpected.
This relationship and correlation between dementia and alcohol abuse is strongest among women. No one really knows why at this moment. More research is needed.
Alcohol consumption can cause early onset dementia because it causes cognitive abnormalities. Alcohol has amnesia-like effects. It prevents the brain from creating new memories. This is why many people ‘black out’. Alcohol can also reduce short-term memory and target higher-executive cognitive functions.
These effects are even more pronounced among those who participate in heavy drinking. Alcohol has neurotoxic effects on the brain. They basically poison and kill your neurons.
21. Anemia, Hypertension, and Malnutrition
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that women, who drink, develop anemia, hypertension, and malnutrition easier than men do. These health problems usually appear during the later stages of alcoholism in women.
22. Alcoholism Mistaken for Age-Related Conditions
As a woman gets older, her body will often have a harder time managing alcohol. These problems can be misdiagnosed as age-related problems. They’re not seen as the effects of heavy drinking. These problems are easily missed. They are, however, life threatening.
23. Other Serious Diseases
Women are more likely to develop serious disease like osteoporosis and pancreatitis. These issues are likely to happen because liquor will affect a woman’s menstrual cycle. Large fluctuations in hormonal levels can cause the body to go haywire. It can cause important organs to cease to function properly.
24. Facial Changes
Women who drink all the time are going to witness negative changes to their appearance. Physical signs of alcoholism are obvious in one’s facial appearance. Heavy drinkers tend to look older and more fatigued.
It’s easy to spot alcoholism. All you need to do is look for broken capillaries on the nose and face. An alcoholic’s nose will also usually be more bulbous. It may also be red and bumpy. This phenomenon is also known as rhinophyma. It’s caused by constant inflammation to the body and skin.
An alcoholic’s face is also more prone to swelling and cellulite. Alcohol causes the face to look bloated and puffy. Once again, these effects are most obvious among women who are long-time heavy drinkers.
Why Alcoholism in Women Is on the Rise
There was a time when alcoholism was mainly seen as an issue among men. Nowadays, both men and women struggle with alcoholism. Signs of alcoholism in women differ from the signs of alcoholism in men. Many studies have tried to uncover how alcohol affects women differently. Unfortunately, a lot of research is still needed.
Many studies have also looked at why alcoholism rates are rising among women. The University of Washington did a large study after World War II. Their conclusion was that cultural changes were responsible for more women becoming dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol consumption was more acceptable for women once they started working. The stereotypes of what women could and could not do changed. On top of all this, women also started to have their own money. Financial dependence allowed them to make purchases for themselves. Many women started to drink like the men in their lives. In fact, research shows that women drink in a similar way to their spouse, siblings, or close friends.
While young women aged 18 to 34 will have a more severe alcohol addiction than older women, there is a higher rate of alcohol dependence among women aged 35 to 39.
Many women who are alcoholics are good at hiding their addiction. They can still function in their day-to-day lives, so it can be challenging to spot the signs of alcoholism. The list above is intended to be a guide. It’s not a definite diagnosis, but it can help you figure out whether you or someone you love has an addiction to alcohol. If you notice that a loved one is struggling with a drinking problem, consider staging an intervention in order to put a halt to this destructive cycle.
If you’re not sure whether you’re an alcoholic, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our addiction specialists can offer you a free addiction assessment. We’ll help you figure out whether you need alcohol addiction treatment.