Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of Alcohol Abuse & Withdrawal

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from alcohol addiction and withdrawal, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding Alcohol Addiction & Withdrawal

Learn about alcohol addiction

In the United States, the problem of teen alcohol abuse is nothing new; underage drinking continues to be a major public health crisis. Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by youth in the U.S., surpassing tobacco and illegal drugs, and is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths each year among individuals under the age of 21. While underage drinking in the U.S. is not new, kids are experimenting with alcohol at earlier ages than they had historically. Today, the average age that girls begin drinking is 13 and for boys, the average age is 11. Teen drinking is far more than having a good time or relaxing at a party; it is a serious epidemic that can lead to deadly consequences. However, with the right interventions, a treatment program, therapies, and self-care techniques, many teens are able to recognize the problems associated with drinking and stop using alcohol.


Alcohol addiction statistics

Alcohol is the most frequently used drug by teenagers in the United States, with nearly half of junior high and high school students admitting to drinking on a monthly basis and 14% of teens reporting having been intoxicated at least once in the year prior. While illegal, people between the ages of 12 and 20 drink 11% of the total amount of alcohol consumed in the U.S. Of that, more than 90% of this alcohol was consumed in the form of binge drinking, which occurs when a woman drinks four or more alcoholic drinks in a row or a man drinks five or more alcoholic beverages in a row. Each year, nearly 2,000 people under the age of 21 die in motor vehicle accidents in which alcohol is involved. Additionally, alcohol is involved in almost half of all violent deaths among youth.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for alcohol addiction in teens

The precise cause for teen drinking and addiction has yet to be determined, despite extensive research on the subject. Researchers tend to believe that the development of abuse and addiction to alcohol is caused by a number of genetic, environmental, and physical risk factors working together. These may include:

Genetic: Teens who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, who have abused drugs or alcohol are four times more likely than their peers to develop an addiction to alcohol. However, many teens who abuse alcohol do not have a family history of addiction.

Physical: Many people who engage in alcohol use and abuse do so in an effort to self-medicate the symptoms of an undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorder, such as teen anxiety or teen depression, both of which have a brain-based component in their development.

Environmental: The earlier a person begins to drink alcohol, the more likely he or she is to develop an addiction to alcohol later in life. Other environmental factors may include peer pressure and the positive portrayal of teen drinking in the media, social media, and advertisements.

Risk Factors:

  • Low levels of parental supervision or communication
  • Inconsistent or severe parental discipline
  • Problems managing impulses
  • Perception that alcohol abuse is low-risk
  • Emotional instability
  • Thrill-seeking behaviors
  • Teens who use alcohol to reduce social inhibitions

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction in teens

The effects of alcohol do vary widely from teen to teen for a number of reasons, including prior experience with alcohol, presence of medications that interact with alcohol, medical conditions, and blood alcohol concentration. The most common signs and symptoms of teen alcohol intoxication include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Acting vivacious and overly happy
  • Oddly passive
  • Unusually argumentative and aggressive
  • Violent, erratic behaviors
  • Impaired coordination
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors, such as having unprotected sexual intercourse or driving while intoxicated
  • Using alcohol in dangerous situations
  • Repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Drinking as a way to relax and reduce stress

Physical symptoms:

  • Flushed, red or pink face
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Half-closed eyes
  • Smell of alcohol on clothes or breath
  • Glazed, bloodshot eyes
  • Deterioration in hygiene and personal appearance
  • Severe balance impairments
  • Sleepiness

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Difficulties thinking clearly
  • Impaired decision-making ability
  • Memory loss
  • “Black outs” or periods of time in which a person cannot recall events

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Decreased social inhibitions
  • Erratic mood swings
  • Severe depression
  • Extreme anxiety


Effects of alcohol addiction in teens

As alcohol is legal for those over the age of 21 in the United States, many teens erroneously believe that drinking alcohol does not have any consequences. Unfortunately, this could not be farther from the truth. Long-term effects of teen drinking include:

  • Decrease in ability to pay attention
  • Disruption in normal growth and development
  • Teens who have experienced alcohol withdrawal often have difficulties paying attention
  • Teens tend to mix alcohol with other drugs – most notably marijuana
  • Male teens who drink heavily tend to complete fewer levels of education than those who do not
  • The younger a person experiments with alcohol, the more likely they are to develop an addiction to alcohol or other drugs later in life
  • Teenage brains that have been exposed to alcohol are at risk for being smaller in certain areas, damage which may be permanent
  • Eighth-grade girls who drink heavily are over three times as likely to report attempting suicide compared to those who do not drink
  • Extreme alcohol use can lead to or mask the symptoms of other emotional problems such as depression or anxiety
  • Teens who drink alcohol are more likely to be sexually active, engage in unprotected sex, have sex with a stranger, or be the victim or perpetrator of a sexual assault
  • Unintentional, serious injuries such as falling, drowning, or major burns
  • Delinquency, truancy, poor scholastic performance
  • Legal problems associated with underage drinking, driving under the influence, or hurting someone while intoxicated
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors (alcohol intoxication is associated with suicide attempts using more lethal means; positive blood alcohol levels are often found in those who complete suicide)
  • Death by suicide or motor vehicle accident
  • Death from alcohol poisoning


Effects of alcohol withdrawal

Acute alcohol poisoning (or alcohol overdose) is a medical emergency as it can very easily lead to death and serious complications. Anyone who suspects a loved one has alcohol poisoning should go to the nearest emergency room or call 911 immediately.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Severe confusion, unpredictable behavior, and stupor
  • Sudden lapses in and out of consciousness
  • Vomiting while unconscious or semiconscious
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory depression
  • Cyanosis (pale, bluish, cold, clammy skin due to lack of oxygen)

Alcohol withdrawal is a potentially life-threatening situation that can happen in teens who have been engaging in heavy drinking for weeks, months, or years, and suddenly stop or dramatically cut down their intake. Symptoms tend to begin as early as two hours after the last drink and may last for weeks. Alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition that should only be performed under the guidance of trained medical staff.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Shaky hands
  • Sweating
  • Mild anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations

Symptoms of delirium tremens (a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that involves severe, sudden mental or nervous system changes):

  • Disorientation, confusion, severe anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Hypertension
  • Racing, irregular heartbeat
  • Severe tremors
  • Low-grade fever