Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse

This article has information on the warning signs of alcohol abuse, including warning signs directly and indirectly related to teenage alcohol abuse. Keep reading for more on warning signs such as hangover, withdrawal, alcohol poisoning symptoms, and more...

Being alert to warning signs of alcohol abuse with a teen that may have an alcohol problem involves paying attention to possible direct effects of the alcohol, as well as behaviors that the teen may develop to enable or conceal alcohol use. Data collected in 2002 - 2006 for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reveals that children between 12 and 17 who use alcohol are frequently able to do so without their parents’ awareness, and mothers were more likely to know than fathers, although more parents tend to figure it out as their children grow older. Overall, parents knew about the alcohol abuse only a third of the time. So here are some pointers to clues that may be helpful.

Behavioral Changes Linked to, but Not Caused by, Alcohol Use

Creating opportunities for and concealing alcohol use may lead to other risky teen behaviors that indirectly point to alcohol use. For example, if the opportunity to drinks unfolds on Friday nights as Pat’s house, then a teen who is intent on drinking may only seem to be intent on going to hang out with Pat and company. A teen who wants to have enough money to contribute to the purchase of alcohol may only seem to be interested in getting a job to have cash to add to a DVD collection. On the other hand, hanging out with Pat because of good company or wanting money for DVD’s could be the real reason.

Alcohol concealment may include a sudden interest in gum or breath fresheners or incense and room fresheners, or a sudden claim to more privacy, but here, again, these could result from normal and appropriate adolescent concerns. Skirting questions about plans and whereabouts is another potential warning sign of alcohol abuse, but this could happen if your teen was planning a surprise party, too. Cans and bottles are an obvious warning sign of alcohol abuse, so a teen who suddenly begins to take out his or her own garbage might be having a fit of cleanliness or avoiding revealing what’s in the wastebasket. 

In short, all of these behaviors are more useful for confirming suspicions than for suggesting a specific problem. Behavior problems that are more worth noting include:

  • sudden changes in long-term friendships and/or choosing to be with teens who are known to have substance abuse problems
  • stealing
  • lying, and missing school or other appointments or plans without your knowledge/consent
  • involvement in a vehicle accident
  • sharp downward turn in grades and/or other types of performance

Though most of these may have a reasonable explanation, they are all worth investigating to find the cause, whatever it may be.

Warning Signs and Behaviors Directly Caused by Alcohol Use

If a teen is using alcohol, you may see physical signs that signal hangover, withdrawal, alcohol poisoning, or - in users who have been using over a longer period of time - behavior or a doctor’s visit may reveal long-term alcohol-related health issues.

Hangover Symptoms

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Nausea
  • Lethargy
  • Shakiness

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

  • Loss of Concentration
  • Lack of Inhibition
  • Loss of Memory
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of Physical Coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Coma

Long-Term Health Issues

  • Peptic Ulcer
  • Liver Damage
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

If you see signs that suggest alcohol poisoning in anyone including a teen, you should call 911 immediately. “Sleeping it off” is not an acceptable option. The fact that a person can die of alcohol poisoning must outweigh any embarrassment, pain, guilt, or concern for legal consequences.



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