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The 8 Stages of Alcoholism from First Sip to Alcohol Addiction

No one becomes an alcoholic overnight. Alcoholism, which can also be called alcohol use disorder, tends to develop gradually, sometimes over a period of many years. The path to alcohol addiction treatment typically starts with younger adults, even teenagers or children, who are experimenting with alcohol for the first time, with no idea that their casual alcohol use will one day spiral into a chronic disease. A young potential alcoholic might start with a glass of beer or wine, and then gradually progress to the “hard stuff” to find out what it tastes like and how it affects them.

Some people decide early on that drinking alcohol is not for them. Others, however, like how alcohol makes them feel in this early stage of their alcohol use. Drinking might make a shy person feel more extroverted since their inhibitions are lowered. It can also make someone lower their perceptions about how risky various behaviors are—like driving while under the influence, trying other risky substances, or engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners.

Eventually, this early experimentation can escalate into a full-blown alcohol use disorder as someone gradually moves through all the different stages of alcoholism. In addition, some people have a higher risk of becoming an alcoholic than others due to genetic factors, social factors, and other individual differences. The age at which a person starts drinking is also another important factor, since the younger someone begins relying on alcohol abuse, the more likely they are to end up with a long term alcohol problem and irreversible damage to their physical health.

Stages of Alcoholism 1: Occasional Overdrinking and Binge Drinking

While over drinking and binge drinking are not technically defined as alcoholism at this point, this type of drinking is usually a precursor to developing the disease of alcoholism. People who become alcoholic usually start here, with only the occasional indulgence.

During this stage of alcoholism, experimentation still occurs. The drinker is finding out and testing their limits as to how much they can drink. Unfortunately, they are also building a tolerance to alcohol and its effects.

They are drinking occasionally and socially with others. They like to attend parties and other social events. When they drink, there are times they will drink too much or engage in binge drinking.

Binge drinking is characterized by drinking an excessive number of alcoholic beverages within a two-hour period. Typically, this is about four to five drinks every two hours, but younger drinkers tend to exceed this, especially when drinking is the primary focus of the social gathering or party. However, someone who has a high weight may need to consume more alcohol than average before they start feeling the effects of this dangerous substance, and women tend to get intoxicated more quickly than men do because they process alcohol differently as well as to have a lower weight than most men.

Many binge drinkers like the feelings they experience when they get drunk, so they will start to binge drink more often, even if the rest of the group isn’t as interested in alcohol use. But a friend network for alcoholics may start to form with drinking at its center as more wholesome family members take a back seat.

While this drinking is still not an every day occurrence, at least not yet, it is still very characteristic of things to come if someone progresses to the next phase of this threatening illness and all the way to the end stage of alcohol abuse. It might even be apparent early on that the individual is not drinking like everyone else. They will experience blackouts more often than healthier drinkers and just seem to overdo it more often than not, showing a lack of control over their use.

Binge drinking might not seem risky, but it’s important to remember that it can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can cause blackouts, the person to pass out, go into a coma, and even die. They might also get into a fatal accident if their binge drinking invites them to engage in other risky behavior, such as drunk driving.

Stages of Alcoholism 2: Drinking Alcohol Becomes More Frequent

During the second stage of an alcohol use disorder, drinking becomes more frequent. Rather than just drinking at parties or social events, the person starts to drink on a regular basis. They might start to have a few drinks each day and drink excessively on the weekends. Consuming a glass of beer doesn’t simply set the stage for a fun night out; it is one of the early symptoms of an eventually devastating disease.

Some people realize they could have a drinking problem at this stage and take steps to address the problem. For instance, rather than drinking all the time, they might have a drink or two with a meal, cutting back while they still can rather than moving on to the next stage of alcohol abuse.

Someone who is on the path to becoming an alcoholic, however, drinks because they like how it makes them feel even though they realize they face a dangerous risk of becoming addicted. They start to develop an emotional and psychological attachment to drinking.

They might use drinking as an excuse to socialize with friends or to deal with mental health issues like stress, anxiety, loneliness, or sadness. Some people also start to drink when they are bored or simply want to experience the feelings of being drunk. At this point, true alcoholism, the kind that comes with the risk of long term struggles with alcohol and often only ends after rehab or death, might become more apparent. The inability to slow down or stop as seen in their binge drinking will become more and more noticeable. For those on the path to alcoholism, moderating their alcohol use is nearly impossible from the start. However, their ability to stop lessens and lessens as they continue to drink.

The reason for this is that, eventually, their bodies start to develop a higher tolerance for alcohol, so they need to drink more and more to achieve the same effects. This also starts to lead to a dependence on alcohol.

Stages of Alcoholism 3: Drinking Becomes a Problem

At this stage of alcoholism, the person’s drinking habit starts to lead to problems that affect their behavior, family health, social life and livelihood. Their friends and family may say something about their drinking habit, which can lead to relationship issues. A boss or employer may also realize how dangerous the alcoholics’ new habits are and remove him or her from their job.

The drinker may seek out other problem drinkers and start socializing with these new friends while ending current friendships and relationships to protect their alcohol abuse. They may find they are drinking to the point that they are getting sick all the time or suffering from other issues with their mental health and sleep, but continue anyway because they like the effects of alcohol use more than they dislike the aftereffects and bad feelings the next morning.

It is also not uncommon for problem drinkers to get into trouble with the police. They may be arrested and charged with a DUI or for public intoxication. Gradually, drinking becomes a psychological escape and coping mechanism for everyday issues.

Stages of Alcoholism 4: Dependence on Alcohol

It is important to understand that someone can have a psychological dependence on alcohol but not yet have an addiction. Dependence is where the person is aware that their drinking has become a problem. They also are aware of the negative effects that drinking alcohol is having on their life.

However, they have lost control over their drinking and can no longer regulate how much they consume the way they once could. Rather than cut back to spare themselves from serious health conditions, they drink more and more to achieve the desired effects. Another common sign of alcohol abuse is that the drinker experiences alcohol withdrawal when they go for long periods of time without drinking.

When they stop drinking, they will be craving alcohol almost irresistibly. They can feel nauseated; have a headache; experience chills, tremors, and uncontrolled sweating; be irritable, and have elevated blood pressure and insomnia. Family and others can detect the smell of alcohol on the dependent drinker, as the body attempts alcohol detox when they aren’t drinking.


Stages of Alcoholism 5: Addiction to Alcohol

Stressed out businessman drinking whiskey

This is the first stage of alcoholism. Dependence has led them to the full-blown illness of alcohol addiction. At this point, the disease has become so serious that rehab or treatment is probably a good choice if someone wants to get in recovery from their alcohol use disorder.

In some cases, the person may appear like they are functioning normally even though they are drinking almost constantly. These “functional alcoholics” tend to not have any problems at work or school or while taking care of other daily routines, and are able to keep up with their job and other obligations and play a meaningful role in their community and family despite their alcohol abuse.

But a secret world of alcohol abuse lurks behind their picture perfect charade. They may start their day off with a drink to give them a boost of energy. They might then enjoy several more drinks at lunch. Many people in this stage of alcoholism feel like their alcohol abuse allows them to function better and to think more clearly even though it is destroying their physical as well as mental health.

However, internally, the body is changing for the worse. The liver is working harder to break down alcohol, which could lead to major liver damage and eventually to even more serious health conditions, such as cirrhosis of the liver. Stomach problems like alcoholic gastritis may also negatively impact physical health, with symptoms like nausea and vomiting. In the brain, chemical imbalances caused by alcohol are being counteracted with increased neural activity and brain functioning, further worsening any pre-existing mental health disorders. If a rehab or treatment program is not sought as soon as possible, these health problems will only continue to worsen.

Due to an increase in alcohol tolerance, the person no longer appears intoxicated or exhibits other signs of drinking. Despite their problem drinking, people in this stage often do not think that they actually have a drinking problem, and they will become hostile and defensive if anyone brings it up.

Stages of Alcoholism 6: Middle-Stage Addiction

Now, alcoholism has advanced to the middle-stage, which is when the craving for alcohol becomes extraordinarily strong. The person is no longer drinking for fun or socialization. They are drinking to avoid the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and alcohol detox.

The alcoholic will plan their day around when they can drink. They even will start skipping meals because they don’t want food filling them up, as it slows the effects of alcohol by delaying its digestion and dispersement into the blood. Socially, they will continue to drink even when their friends stop, or start drinking before anyone else in their group.

It is not uncommon for the middle-stage alcoholic to go to the bar after work and stay there drinking until it closes, seemingly reveling in their alcohol abuse. Plus, some people will start to experience blackouts where they don’t remember what they did for several hours or longer.

Their alcohol drinking problem starts to become noticeable to others at this stage. Performance at work and school starts to decline, as the alcoholic only cares about drinking. The person will show up at work or school already intoxicated.

If they are confronted about their drinking problem, they will make excuses and downplay the seriousness of the alcohol related problem. They may even try to hide their drinking from others by avoiding drinking in social settings, instead drinking in secret.

Someone who is at this stage of alcoholism can look bloated, have a reddened face, and look unhealthy overall. The impact of their disease is now fully visible on their body. They may have lost a lot of weight since they are subsisting mostly on alcohol and eating very little food. Though weight loss is one of the symptoms of alcohol abuse, it’s also possible that someone struggling with their alcohol use will gain weight instead, as they fail to put effort into making healthy food choices and also start to care less about their personal hygiene and anything else that may have once interested them.

Stage 7: Final Stage of Alcoholism

The final stage or end stage of alcoholism is when drinking has consumed the individual and they are now suffering from alcohol use disorder. They no longer care about work, school, family, or friends. Their disease has become so all consuming that, to them, they are drinking to just stay alive. If they stop, the alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal symptoms will be so severe that they could actually die from these symptoms without medical supervision and proper treatment in a skilled rehabilitation facility..

Many people in this stage have lost their jobs. Family and friends can distance themselves even though they still care. Some people will even end up homeless on the streets, with nothing to live for but their alcohol abuse.

Health problems are quite common as well, depending on the amount of years someone has been struggling with a long term alcohol use disorder. The liver has usually been damaged. The brain’s chemistry and functioning have been severely altered. The person can have severe malnutrition, look emaciated, and have a noticeable loss of muscle mass.

Even in this end stage, though, someone who is suffering from an alcohol use disorder may still decide to take the necessary steps to turn their life around and seek out treatment options and recovery. With rehab or therapy, they can still find a way back into a healthy lifestyle instead of continuing to drink themselves to death.

Stage 8: Alcohol Addiction Treatment

stressful male is member of alcoholics club

Alcohol addiction treatment can occur at any of the stages of alcoholism. However, most people do not seek help until they are in one of the end stages of addiction. Yet, it is not uncommon for people who are dependent on alcohol or who notice they are developing a drinking problem to seek help through a treatment program before reaching the full illness of addiction.

Regardless of the stage in which someone seeks treatment, the first step on the road to recovery is undergoing medically supervised alcohol detox. Alcohol detox could take several days or weeks. After alcohol detox, the person will have a treatment plan customized to fit their specific needs, which could include treatment options like inpatient treatment, residential treatment, and outpatient programs.

If someone with alcohol addiction fails to get addiction recovery help, eventually they will die, either from liver failure, malnutrition, or some other health problem. If their cirhosis of the liver doesn’t catch up with them first, their despair might even lead them towards death by suicide.

How Do I Support Someone Who Is Suffering From An Alcohol Use Disorder?

In the end, nothing you do can make someone else get or stay sober. However, you can support a family member who is struggling with their alcohol consumption and mental health by encouraging your loved one to seek treatment. Alcohol may have acquired a problematic place in your loved one’s life, but with the help of professionals and a comprehensive treatment program, they can still make an effort to achieve a full recovery and take back control of their mental health.

While you can support your friend or family member in other ways, such as by offering to attend support groups with them and helping them find the resources they need to reintegrate into the community after their rehab, it will probably take a professional treatment center to kick-start their recovery.

The risk of serious health conditions during withdrawal if your friend or family member tries to stop drinking on their own means that someone who has reached the end stage of alcoholism or another sufficiently serious phase of their disease should not try to recover without the help of a professional treatment center with a medically trained team of doctors.

Knowing that they will not have to fight their way through recovery alone and that you will always be there to support them through their recovery could be very important to your loved one. Despite their disease, you can help them find the strength they need to get treatment for alcohol abuse and enroll in rehab.

Moving Forward After Serious Alcohol Use Disorder

Substance abuse, whether it be problem drinking or problematic use of another drug or substance, is notoriously difficult to achieve recovery from. But that doesn’t mean that it cannot be done, or that someone in recovery cannot progress towards a healthy and sober lifestyle. By continuing to attend support groups or therapy after an initial stay in a rehab or treatment program, they can keep alcohol abuse at bay and stay strong in their recovery.

If you are ready to take the first steps on the road to recovery from alcoholism, please feel free to contact RECO Intensive at 561-501-2439 today! We offer inpatient, residential, and outpatient treatment programs in beautiful Delray Beach, FL. If you need help, please reach out.


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