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5 Stages of Alcoholism

stages of alcoholism

It’s estimated that 16 million people have alcohol use disorders. People progress toward alcohol addiction through several stages. There is always a chance at any of the stages of alcoholism to find help, hope and healing. Alcoholism can ruin individual lives and devastate families. But it is never too late to find help through alcohol treatment programs.

Alcoholism Stage 1: Social or Experimental Drinking

Some people who drink socially will never become alcoholics. However, before the onset on problem drinking, there is social drinking in which people begin to experiment with alcohol. Some people begin these stages of alcoholism early on, in adolescence. Perhaps they begin as college students. They may drink to be part of the crowd or self-medicate underlying symptoms of mental health issues or a serious mental health disorder. Drinking to cope with emotional pain can easily become a pattern. But because many people drink and alcohol is widely accepted, problematic patterns often go unnoticed at first. For some, this is the first step toward a drinking problem.

Alcoholism Stage 2: Alcohol Abuse/Problem Drinking

Alcohol abuse often means drinking more often than not and drinking too much. As the pattern of drinking to cope with difficult feelings continues, tolerance to alcohol develops. This means the person needs more alcohol to get the same effect, so they begin drinking larger amounts.

Some people can drink a lot and still function at work, school or in relationships. They may think they have their drinking under control, but find they are drinking more. Maybe weekend social drinking grows into drinking on weekdays too. Or they begin to drink alone, at home, rather than on social occasions.

The patterns of drinking may subtly shift, at first, but will become more noticeable. In this stage of alcoholism, people may start binge drinking more often and become so intoxicated they can’t remember what happened. They begin to feel the effects of alcohol and they are in danger of developing an addiction. Intervention, support groups and addiction treatment should be considered before substance abuse progresses.

Alcoholism Stage 3: Alcohol Dependency/Early Alcoholism

As the stages of alcoholism continue, people begin to develop psychological and physical dependence on alcohol. They build alcohol tolerance, needing more and more to get inebriated. The days of only drinking at parties are replaced with drinking whenever and wherever possible. The person consumes alcohol, or has the urge to, all the time. Even a high-functioning alcoholic will struggle more with urges to start drinking throughout the day. They become accustomed to using alcohol to help them feel better. They may use it to help with depression, only to become more depressed. They may sense they have a problem, but will deny it. They often hide their increased drinking.

Usually it is the person’s family and friends who notice an alcohol problem first. Things begin changing. The person may begin hiding things or lying about their alcohol intake. They participate less in family life. While their bodies build a tolerance to alcohol, their thoughts become more focused on the next drink. They suffer from deep guilt and shame about their drinking yet cannot control their urges. They ignore or deny health problems that will get worse over time. The progression of alcohol addiction takes a toll on their lives and they continue drinking despite the consequences. In this stage of alcoholism, they may need medical alcohol detox to quit drinking.

Alcoholism Stage 4: Addiction and Alcoholism

The alcoholic is living a painful and depressing existence. The compulsion to drink is the person’s primary motivation. They think of drinking from the moment they wake up and drink whenever possible.

Loved ones notice significant changes. The person with alcoholism often becomes more irritable and argumentative, and is agitated when not drinking. They become isolated, drinking alone and avoiding family obligations and gatherings. Financial problems and legal issues, such as accidents or arrests, may develop.

In this stage of alcoholism, drinking is out of control and the only one who cannot see it is the alcoholic. It often takes a major crisis, such as job loss, threat of divorce or a DUI charge, to show them they need help. They are dependent on alcohol and feel helpless to control urges to drink without help. They may develop gastrointestinal problems as well as heart and liver issues. Detox from alcohol and a strong recovery program is the only way they can survive the disease.

Alcoholism Stage 5: End Stage Alcoholism

All stages of alcoholism are difficult, but this stage is one of the darkest phases of an alcoholic’s life. The years of alcohol abuse are apparent in medical problems, ranging from cirrhosis of the liver to heart disease, dementia and paranoia. They have frequent blackouts, sweats and disorientation. They’ve lost all sense of self. In the end stage of alcoholism, there is no separation between the individual and their addiction. They are compelled to drink and lose control of their lives. They will die from alcoholism if not treated.

Alcoholism Kills

Alcoholism kills people and destroys the lives of those who love them. People who drink too much are at risk of negative consequences in all stages of alcoholism. If you or a loved one is in one of these stages of alcoholism, reach out for help before things progress. You can find a supportive rehab facility with a treatment plan that includes evidence-based approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and a family program. It’s not too late to save a life.

Posted on May 3, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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