When alcoholism is left untreated, all of the major organs and systems of the body can eventually be affected.  The American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization define alcoholism as a disease.  This is because it has identifiable signs and symptoms that have a biological basis.  Without alcoholism rehab treatment, the disease will follow a predictable course and have a predictable outcome.  Alcoholism is recognized as the third leading cause of death in the U.S.  Because many alcohol-related deaths go undetected, the rate could actually be even higher.

The early physical changes from alcoholism are in a drinker's appearance.  The hands may shake if too much time passes between drinks.  Because alcohol disturbs REM sleep, the drinker may become nervous and irritable.  The skin may take on a jaundiced appearance, indicating the early stages of liver damage.  Poor circulation caused by alcoholism can cause the tips of the fingers to swell and the nose to increase in size and become red.

Over time, alcohol damages the brain.  It impairs short-term memory and may lead to blackouts and seizures.  Sleep disruption can lead to long-term insomnia and nightmares.  Delirium tremens symptoms which occur during alcohol withdrawal include extreme agitation, convulsions, seizures, delusions and hallucinations.

As alcoholism progresses, the gastrointestinal tract can be impacted.  Poor digestion, nausea, vomiting and recurrent diarrhea are signs of alcohol's affect on the stomach and intestinal tract.  Drinkers who avoid alcoholism rehab treatment may experience chronic abdominal pain and after a decade or more of heavy drinking may develop pancreatitis.  Bleeding ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver also occur in chronic drinkers who avoid alcoholism rehab.

The cardiovascular system can be damaged by chronic alcohol abuse.  In the early stages, heart palpitations are common.  Anemia and slow blood clotting are additional symptoms of how alcoholism can damage the cardiovascular system.  About 3% of alcoholics who resist alcoholism rehab develop heart disease and experience congestive heart failure.

The earliest symptoms of alcoholism are behavioral rather than physical.  Because alcoholism is a progressive disease, behavioral problems are eventually eclipsed by physical maladies.  If alcoholism is diagnosed and alcoholism rehab treatment is sought in the early stages, most of the serious medical problems described here can be avoided.