Cirque Lodge > Blog > Alcohol Addiction > What Are the Stages of Alcoholism?

As adults, alcohol surrounds us almost every day. It is a buffer for social situations, a reason for a catch-up with an old friend, and the center of celebrations, such as birthdays. What may start as a casual drinking habit can slowly advance into alcohol addiction, also known as an alcohol use disorder and alcoholism.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that stems from a pattern of drinking. Usually, it takes years to reach the point of addiction. Still, by familiarizing yourself with the stages of alcoholism and possible behaviors and signs, you may be able to spot if you or a loved one is developing an alcohol abuse problem.

What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says that an alcohol use disorder is a "problem drinking that becomes severe." When a person has an alcohol addiction, they continue to drink despite harmful consequences to their day-to-day life, social relationships, and physical or mental health. The all-consuming disease alters the brain and changes a person's ability to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Related: Alcohol and sleep

Many people can drink alcohol and not become addicted, but it can quickly develop into an addiction for some. Alcoholism is extremely complex, and no two individuals will have the same experience. However, despite variations, the disease follows a pattern and is commonly described as having four stages.

What Are the Stages of Alcohol Addiction?

E. Morton Jellinek was a key scientist in the 1950s, and his research helped form a better understanding of alcohol addiction as we know it today. In his work, he suggested that problem drinking follows a trajectory through various stages of decline, and in 1952 published a research paper called Phases of Alcohol Addiction.

Creating the Jellinek Curve to show the typical phases and progression of alcoholism, Jellinek was able to exemplify the vicious cycle of alcohol abuse. The four main stages include:

  • Pre-alcoholism stage
  • Early-stage alcoholism
  • Middle alcoholism phase
  • End-stage alcoholism

It is important to remember that no two experiences of an alcohol use disorder or addiction are the same. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5 Journal) has eleven factors that can be used as a guide for a diagnosis.

If a person experiences two of the symptoms, they qualify as having a mild disorder. Experiencing six or more criteria is considered severe, otherwise recognized as an alcohol use disorder.

Pre-Alcoholism Stage

This stage is difficult to spot as it occurs before drinking has caused any problems and is yet to become compulsive. It typically begins with the experimentation of alcohol, which increases your drinking pattern. Frequent drinking is more common at this stage.

This stage also includes binge drinking, which consists of consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period. A common sign of early symptoms of alcohol abuse, research suggests that 26.9% of adults in the United States have reported binge drinking in the last month.

Binge drinking has different definitions for men and women. They are:

  • Women - Having four or more drinks within two hours.
  • Men - Having five or more drinks within two hours.

Binge drinking is very common when a person starts experimenting with alcohol, especially in young adults. Not everyone who drinks will develop alcohol dependence, but many binge drinkers are at risk. Some other signs of the early stages of alcoholism are:

  • Using alcohol to relax or unwind
  • Needing alcohol to engage in social situations
  • Drinking to deal with negative emotions

Not all early symptoms develop into an alcohol abuse disorder, but as a person grows from experimenting to obsessive drinking, they eventually move into the next stage.

Early Stage Alcoholism

This second stage of alcoholism is associated with how much a person drinks, how often, and why. Although they may not drink every day, they will associate alcohol with a 'good time' and use it as a relaxer after a long day. Trying to regulate moods with alcohol will eventually lead to an emotional or psychological attachment, also known as alcohol dependence.

A dependence on alcohol causes cravings throughout the day and can eventually develop into problem drinking. If alcohol dependence is present, it is harder to stop drinking as a person may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Those in this stage often drink until they blackout and cannot see an issue with their drinking habits. This stage is more noticeable than the first. If drinking problems are identified at this stage, it is easier to work towards a healthier relationship with alcohol with the help of medical professionals at a rehab center, such as our own.

Middle Alcoholism Phase

People in this middle phase have an evident lack of control over their drinking problem. They start to lack care for other aspects of their lives, such as their jobs, family, and social life, and routinely put alcohol first.

Alcohol use disorders create a physical dependence that changes the body, causing symptoms such as stomach bloating, shaking, facial redness, and memory lapses. Eventually, the effects of drinking become apparent to those around the individual.

However, some people in this phase can abuse alcohol and go about their lives as usual. Around 20% of people with alcohol use disorder are classified as 'highly functioning' drinkers. Despite appearances, those in this stage will experience more severe withdrawal symptoms, which can impact their physical and mental health.

Some withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Alcohol cravings

Reaching beyond this middle stage can cause severe medical conditions and may induce a form of mental illness. However, if you recognize any of the behaviors or patterns in yourself or a loved one, this is the most beneficial time for treatment. By reaching out to us, we can offer help and support, enabling you or a loved one to overcome any struggles with alcohol.

End-Stage Alcoholism

People who reach this stage completely lose control over their alcohol consumption. This can sound frightening, but there is help available every step of the way. Attempts may have been made to cut down, but priorities will have changed to enable drinking, causing the adverse effects to trickle into everyday life, affecting finances, relationships, and employment.

Heavy and long-term alcohol abuse can cause serious life-threatening health problems throughout the body. Vital organs, such as the heart, kidneys, and brain, are at risk of damage due to severe alcohol abuse, and liver disease is often the result of years of heavy drinking. It is essential to know that seeking help at this stage can help reverse some of the alcohol-related medical problems and can even prevent them from becoming worse.

Many people in this end-stage alcoholism feel like they are beyond help, but treatment is available no matter how long a person has been suffering. However, due to the experience of severe withdrawal symptoms and potentially life-threatening illnesses, it is highly recommended to seek addiction treatment in a safe and structured environment to allow support throughout the whole process.

Getting Help

If you believe you or a loved one can relate to any of the four stages of alcoholism listed above, the most effective way to stop drinking is through an addiction treatment program at our rehab center. Substance abuse and alcohol use disorder are both complicated and complex diseases, and seeking help for either should not be seen as a weakness.

Many people who experience any of the four stages of alcoholism seek treatment and find a solution to their drinking. It has been clinically proven that a combination of behavioral therapy, medication, and attending support groups are the most effective and beneficial means for treatment.

The first step for many is speaking to a doctor or treatment specialist to discuss whether an inpatient or outpatient treatment is more suitable for you. Remember, no signs of alcohol abuse should be ignored. If you're concerned for yourself or a loved one, please reach out to us to discuss treatment today.

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