alcoholic recovery stages and stages of alcoholism

The 3 Stages of Alcoholism Explained: Your Ultimate Guide

What does it mean to be an alcoholic? How often do you have to drink to become one? And, what’s the difference between early stage and late stage alcoholism?

Alcoholism progresses in many different alcoholism stages, and there are different symptoms for each stage.

According to the WashingtonPost, 1 in 8 Americans is an alcoholic. This disease affects a tremendous amount of people, with over 88,000 people a year dying of alcohol-related causes.

If you’ve ever wondered “what are the stages of alcoholism?” or if you’ve come across this issue personally, this article is the perfect read for you.

We’ll explore what’s the difference between the various stages, as well as what it means to be an alcoholic.

Problem Drinking vs Alcoholism

Just because you drink often, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an alcoholic.

Before we dig deeper into the different stages of alcoholism, let’s explore the differences between problem drinking and alcoholism.

30% of Americans abuse alcohol; however, just because you abuse alcohol, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are addicted to it. You might just have a drinking problem.

So, what’s the difference between the two?

Problem drinkers usually fall into the following criteria:

  • Binge drinkers:  men who have more than 5 drinks or women who have more than 4 drinks on one occasion.
  • Heavy drinkers: men who have more than 15 drinks and women who have more than 8 drinks in a week.
  • Pregnant women who continue to drink
  • Anyone under 21 who drinks.

Problem drinkers may not necessarily be tolerant to alcohol. They might still get drunk even after drinking only a little bit.

They may also not be dependent on liquor, and may not experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.

So, where do you draw the line between a drinking problem and alcoholism?

Alcoholism is classified as both a tolerance and dependence on alcohol. Unlike a problem drinker, an alcoholic will experience withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit drinking. They may also feel under the weather if they start their day without a drink.

Also, there are fundamental differences in the brain chemistry of an alcoholic and a problem drinker.

Alcoholics will typically have a harder time maintaining a stable neurochemical level in their brain. For example, they may have lower levels of dopamine on a regular basis.

3 stages of alcoholism

How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Alcohol?

The time that it takes to go from being a problem drinker to an alcoholic is actually quite short. If you have a drinking problem, it usually won’t take you long to develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

With that said, there isn’t a set timeline. The amount of time that it takes for someone to develop an addiction will vary quite a bit depending on many factors, like one’s biological makeup.

Some people may start to get addicted to alcohol after a week of continuous drinking. While others may be able to drink responsibly for up to a year before they develop an addiction.

Alcohol is one of the easiest substances to get addicted to. Especially, since liquor is legal and can be easily found everywhere.

Many factors come into play to determine how long it takes for a person to get addicted to alcohol. Some of these factors include:

  • The age of the individual when they started drinking. 

Studies show that those who started abusing alcohol at an early age are more prone to get addicted. This is because young minds may have a dopamine deficiency and may get a bigger thrill from drinking alcohol.

  • The frequency of which the person is drinking. 

Binge drinking once or twice a month is not as harmful as someone who is binge drinking every other day.

  • Whether the individual was abusing other substances at the same time. 

Those who abuse other substances are much more likely to get addicted to both alcohol and the substance in question.

Now that we fully understand the difference between problem drinking vs alcoholism, let’s look at the 3 stages of alcoholism.

stages of alcoholism and how long does it take to get addicted to alcohol

Stage #1

The Early Stage of Alcoholism

If you have a drinking problem, it’s easy for you to slip into the early stages of alcoholism.

At this stage, the alcoholic will have just started to develop a tolerance and dependence on liquor. They will often feel as if they need to drink more and more in order to achieve the results that they desire. This may mean drinking a whole bottle of wine instead of just a glass during dinner.

As alcoholic beverages don’t have a particularly huge effect on the drinker, these individuals may start to drink daily. They may even start to rely on drinking to cope with problems that they are facing in their lives. For example, they may depend on a drink to help them get through a stressful day.

It’s often difficult to detect the early stages of alcoholism because these people can easily hide their drinking problem. They can still go to work, go to school, or fulfill other obligations that they have.

Often times, these individuals may not even realize that they have a drinking problem either. They may think that they are drinking healthy amounts. Or, they may think that their drinking isn’t a big problem because they’re not getting drunk.

Stage #2

The Middle Stage of Alcoholism

Second stage alcoholism is also known as middle stage alcoholism.

At this stage, an alcoholic will start to develop strong cravings for alcohol. These individuals no longer drink for enjoyment. They need to drink to survive.

Those who try to quit will often experience painful and overwhelming symptoms, and these withdrawal symptoms can even become life-threatening.

One of the more dangerous withdrawal symptoms to look out for is known as delirium tremens. This is a severe alcohol withdrawal symptom that involves tremors, hallucinations, seizures, vomiting, disorientation and nausea.

Not all withdrawal symptoms are as intense though. Some of these symptoms are still manageable. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Tremors
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia

Most symptoms will start to emerge within 6 to 24 hours after one last drink.

It’s easiest to identify alcohol addiction in an individual with middle-stage alcoholism. This is when many telltale signs start to emerge. For example, the individual in question may have difficulties sleeping or may be nauseous all the time. You might find empty alcohol bottles in their home.

If you or someone you know are stage 2 alcoholics, you’ll likely need professional help to quit. Alcohol addiction treatment includes services like medical detox, which can give you a better shot at recovery.

Stage #3

The End Stage of Alcoholism

After years of reckless drinking, many alcoholics will develop end stage alcoholism, also called late stage alcoholism.

At this point in time, the alcohol will have ravaged the alcoholic’s body and mind. They struggle with many health complications, like fatty liver or cardiac problems.

Often, these individuals will find that their entire world revolves around drinking. Without it, they feel lonely, hopeless and depressed.

Those with end stage alcoholism are physically compelled to drink. They may not necessarily want to, but their drinking has become a compulsive habit.

Those who try to stop may experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Delirium tremens, which is mentioned above, is one of the most dangerous ones. The mortality rate for this symptom falls between 5% to 25%.

People at the end-stages of alcoholism will need a tremendous amount of care at an alcohol addiction treatment center to recover. These individuals will benefit a lot from a residential treatment program, as they may need a complete change in environment to correct their drinking habits.

They will likely need to rely on medical detox services in order to ease their withdrawal symptoms. As severe alcohol withdrawals can be deadly, these individuals need to be cautious when quitting.

Health Diseases Found Among Those in Late Stage Alcoholism

By the late stage alcoholism, the bodies of the alcoholics will already have sustained quite a lot of damage, which is usually noticeable.

Individuals undergoing end-stage alcoholism will develop liver, heart, respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders like:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis.

Signs and symptoms of acute alcoholic hepatitis include hepatomegaly, jaundice, ascites, hepatic encephalopathy, splenomegaly, fever, hemorrhage, malnutrition and abdominal pain.

  • Cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking alcohol can increase your chances of getting the following different types of cancer — mouth and throat, larynx, esophagus, colon and rectum, liver and breast (in women).

  • Cirrhosis.

This is a life-threatening disease that involves permanent scarring of the liver. It is perhaps one of the most common and serious disorders seen amongst end-stage alcoholics. Anywhere from 10% to 20% of heavy drinkers will develop cirrhosis after 10 or more years of drinking.

This disease is caused by smoking, so it doesn’t have too much to do with drinking; however, alcoholics have a high likelihood of developing these diseases as they are three times more likely than a non-drinker to smoke. As you can see, excessive drinking can lead to many health complications and issues, hence, a need for medical attention is crucial at this point.

alcoholic recovery stages

Extra Stage

Pre-Alcoholism stage

While the three stages of alcoholism described above are the most commonly known, many people argue that there are actually four stages of alcoholism. Those who believe that there’s a stage 4 alcoholism will add an extra stage to the beginning: pre-alcoholism.

Pre-alcoholism isn’t usually considered a stage of alcoholism because it can be difficult to tell whether someone may become an alcoholic or not.

With that said, those who are at the pre-stage of alcoholism are casual drinkers. Differently from casual drinkers though, they may start to depend on alcohol mentally in order to get through a stressful day. And this mentality can lead to overdrinking. 

They may also rely on a drink or two to perk themselves up after experiencing something that makes them sad. For example, if you want to grab a drink after a stressful day at work or even after having a fight with a friend, you may be at risk of developing an addiction.

Those who drink a little too often should be wary of whether they exhibit signs of an alcoholic personality. Alcoholic personalities are often associated with certain risk factors and some people are more prone to becoming alcoholics than others.

What Are Some Risk Factors of Alcoholism?

As mentioned earlier, not everyone who drinks heavily or frequently will develop an alcohol addiction, as some people have a higher disposition to alcohol addiction than others.

There are some factors that may put a person more at risk of developing alcoholism, such as:

  • Having a parent or close family member with an alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism appears to run in families, as confirmed by recent studies. It’s not unusual for someone to be addicted to alcohol if their parents were addicted as well.
  • Having a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression.

Co-occurring disorders are incredibly common. Studies show that those who struggle with a mental health disorder are more likely to get addicted to drugs or alcohol. Why? It’s because they are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol and may use it as a depressant. Or, they may use it to numb any pain that they may be experiencing.

While this risk factor may not seem very obvious, it does play an incredibly large role in addiction rates. Those with low self-esteem are more likely to rely on alcohol and drugs to feel better about themselves. After drinking, these individuals may feel more confident and attractive, and this may lead them to continue to abuse alcohol.

  • Drinking a lot frequently.

Males who drink more than 15 alcoholic beverages a week, and females who drink more than 12 drinks a week are more likely to get addicted to liquor. Their body may begin to rely on the artificial influx of neurochemicals to feel normal.

As you can see, there are many risk factors and signs of an alcoholic personality to consider.

Due to these reasons, it can be difficult to tell whether you or someone that you know may have a higher risk of addiction than others. With that said, if you can check off some of the factors above, you should be careful when drinking.

what are the stages and signs of alcoholism

How to Tell if a Loved One May Be Struggling with Alcoholism

Quick action can stop someone from becoming an alcoholic. Those who treat their alcoholism while it is still in the early stages will have a better shot at success.

Usually, signs of addiction start showing up during the middle stages of alcoholism. An alcoholic becomes so obsessed over drinking that it becomes difficult for them to hide their addiction.

There are many telltale signs that you should keep an eye out for. An individual may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder if they are:

  • Hiding liquor bottles around their home
  • Slurring their speech and acting differently
  • Neglecting home and school duties and responsibilities
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms whenever they try to quit drinking
  • Having difficulties quitting even though they want to
  • Experiencing mental or health complications as a result of drinking too much
  • Not acting like the person that they used to be
  • Avoiding social or even work events in favor of drinking at home
  • Hiding the amount that they drink from others
  • Experiencing financial difficulties as a result of drinking

Addiction is a sensitive issue and many alcoholics may be in denial or feel ashamed about it. This is why it might be a good idea to speak with a professional interventionist before approaching an alcoholic.

You can learn more about how to help an alcoholic in this article.

Recovery Is Possible at Every Stage of Alcoholism with Rosglas Recovery

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the ins and outs of alcoholism. Many people feel as if they are trapped in a cycle of abuse, and that there’s nothing that they can do about it.

No matter what you do, don’t give up hope – recovery is achievable if you keep at it.

Regardless of which stage of alcoholism you or a loved one may be in, it’s still possible to get your lives back on track to sobriety.

RósGlas Recovery is a luxury addiction therapy retreat provider that offers substance abuse therapy programs for those struggling with an addiction to alcohol. Our therapy retreats are located in the Irish countryside, so our patients can enjoy a beautiful, serene new environment while recovering.

At RosGlas Recovery, we offer a unique program that treats only one client at a time. Those who receive help from us get our undivided attention and will slowly go through alcoholic recovery stages.

To learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment programs, give us a call at  +353 1 458 3575 to reach our office in Ireland or +1 646 918 8223 to reach our office in New York. You can also email us at We have a team of specialists available 24/7 to answer your questions and inquiries.

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NOTE: Rosglas Recovery DOES NOT provide detoxification or rehabilitations services

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