Key takeaways:

  • Also a common by-product of liver disease, jaundice is characterized by yellowing of the skin and sclera (the whites) of the eye. Some alcohol abusers suffering from jaundice will also experience darkening of the skin around the eyes, mouth, and legs.
  • The appearance of rhinophyma, the large bulbous swelling of the nose, has long been associated with alcoholics, often being referred to as ‘drinkers nose’.
  • ‘Alcoholic eyes’ is often used to describe the bloodshot eyes of heavy drinkers. Alcohol widens the blood vessels in the eyes, causing more blood to flow through them, increasing their appearance and volume.

Alcoholism often has a devastating impact on both mental and physical health. It can also greatly affect outward appearance, ranging from minor skin abnormalities to potentially life-threatening conditions.

Alcoholism and skin

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it removes water from the body, causing dehydration. Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause the skin to become dry and flaky as well as causing irritation to the eyes, scalp, and other inflammation. [1]

Other skin-related side effects of alcohol abuse include:

Acne - Alcohol abuse reduces the body’s ability to process vital nutrients and vitamins that the skin needs to remain healthy. Over time, this can lead to impurities in pores and can cause aggressive acne. If left untreated, acne can lead to facial scarring. 

Facial redness - Alcohol abuse reduces vascular control in the brain which can lead to blood vessels in the face becoming enlarged. Another cause of red skin around the face is due to acetaldehyde, a product of alcohol that can cause flushed skin by stimulating the release of histamine.[1] This is often referred to as ‘transient flushing’ and is common amongst alcoholics. 

Spider Veins - Spider telangiectasis, commonly referred to as ‘spider veins’ are characterized by a series of thin blood vessels radiating out from a larger central blood vessel. These are most commonly found on the face, chest, arms, and abdomen. Large clusters of spider veins are considered to be signs of liver disease as a result of hightened estrogen levels. [2]

Jaundice - Also a common by-product of liver disease, jaundice is characterized by yellowing of the skin and sclera (the whites) of the eye. Some alcohol abusers suffering from jaundice will also experience darkening of the skin around the eyes, mouth, and legs.  

Generalized pruritus - Alcohol abuse causes the body to be unable to metabolize certain substances such as bile salts, corticosteroids, and histamine. The build-up of these substances causes generalized skin itching, which can lead to irritation, inflammation, and rashes. 

Porphyria cutanea tarda - Porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT) is another indicator of liver disease and is most commonly caused by alcohol use disorder. [3] Type 1 PCT occurs when porphyrins (part of red blood cells) build up due to a deficiency in the production of the enzyme uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase (UROD), which is used to synthesis haem, a blood protein. The symptoms of PCT include fragile skin, blistering, photosensitivity, crusts, milia (small white bumps), scleroderma (hardened skin), erosions, and hypertrichosis (increased hair growth).

Skin cancer - The links between alcohol and various types of cancer are well documented. Along with liver, breast, and pancreatic cancer, alcohol abuse also increases the risk of skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

Get help during covid-19

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

Speak to SAMSHA

Alcoholism and the face

While alcohol also affects the skin on the face, there are various other symptoms that manifest specifically on different parts of the head as a result of alcohol abuse. Some of these are strong warning signs that someone might have an alcohol use disorder. These include:

Oral changes and bad oral hygiene

Alcohol causes poor oral hygiene both through the build-up of bacteria and through dehydration. The most common oral symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Dry lips (cheilitis)
  • Tooth decay (caries)
  • Inflamed swollen gums/gingiva (gingivitis)
  • Bright red and smooth tongue, mainly associated with Vitamin B deficiency
  • Hairy tongue due to excessive bacteria

Combining alcohol and certain drugs causes the negative effects on oral hygiene to become worse. One of the most common forms of oral damage from substance abuse is through smoking meth, often referred to as meth mouth

Rhinophyma (alcohol nose)

The appearance of rhinophyma, the large bulbous swelling of the nose, has long been associated with alcoholics, often being referred to as ‘drinkers nose’. In fact, studies have shown little support that alcohol directly causes the condition. Instead, most experts believe that rhinophyma can be caused over time by rosacea, a condition where the skin on the face becomes red and inflamed, hardening the skin.[4] Alcohol abuse increases vasodilation which in turn makes the effects of rosacea worse.

Eyes

‘Alcoholic eyes’ is often used to describe the bloodshot eyes of heavy drinkers. Alcohol widens the blood vessels in the eyes, causing more blood to flow through them, increasing their appearance and volume. Alcohol also affects sleep, meaning eyes are often saggy and darker after long periods of alcohol consumption. It also means that individuals who abuse alcohol are more likely to be drowsy during the day, making driving and working potentially dangerous

Facial bloating

‘Alcoholic face’ or ‘puffy face’ is a result of the dehydrating effects of alcohol. It can also cause the stomach to become swollen and bloated due to gas build-up, which can be uncomfortable and painful.

Thinning or dry hair

Alcohol not only dehydrates your skin but also your hair and hair follicles. This can lead to hair becoming brittle and prone to damage, as well as hair loss.

Alcohol and weight gain

The calories contained in alcohol are commonly referred to as ‘empty calories’, meaning they hold no nutritional value for the body. This means the body adds these calories onto the ones consumed via food every time we drink, which can often put people way over their calorie limit if they drink excessively. Our bodies also prioritize getting rid of alcohol as it is a toxin and can’t be stored like carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. This slows metabolism as the body prioritizes getting rid of alcohol calories, leading to weight gain.

Other physical symptoms of alcoholism

There are many other areas of appearance outside of the skin and face that can be affected by alcohol abuse. 

Odor

The liver processes most of the alcohol we drink but is unable to deal with all of it. For heavy drinkers and those with an alcohol use disorder, the remaining alcohol leaves the body via breath, sweat, and urine. This often causes an unpleasant smell that resembles rancid alcohol.

Nails, fingers, and hands

Some conditions that affect the hands, specifically the nails, are associated with liver disease and may be exacerbated by alcohol abuse.[6] These include ‘clubbing’ where the tip of the finger bulges around the nail plate, koilonychia (the nail plate is concave or spoon-shaped), and muehrcke nails which is characterized by white lines running parallel to the lunula (the moon of the nail). These conditions are linked to vasodilation and iron deficiencies which are indicators of liver disease.

Feet

As with water retention in the face and body due to the dehydrating effects of alcohol, the feet can also become swollen and discolored due to excessive alcohol abuse. Recurrent swelling of the may suggest an underlying issue with the kidneys, liver, or heart and should be seen by a doctor if continuing for more than two days in a row. 

Alcohol-related physical symptoms can vary in how well they can be treated and how permanent the effects are. Inflammed blood vessels, rashes, sagging eyes, and odor issues can all be eased or eradicated through reduced alcohol consumption and medical treatment. Others, such as jaundice caused by liver disease and skin cancer are less treatable and are often a sign of end-stage alcoholism

The best way to combat the physical symptoms of alcoholism is to address the underlying addiction before it becomes too late. Contacting an alcohol use disorder treatment center can help offer advice on where to begin with recovery and how to get help immediately. If you are worried that your or a loved one's drinking has become out of control, then contact a treatment provider today.