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Stages of Alcoholism

Stages of Alcoholism

Just like many things in life, no one takes a single drink and suddenly has an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol consumption is a normalized part of socializing, especially in instances like weddings, sports bars, or as a way to enjoy an evening with your friends. At what point does this consumption transition into “alcoholism”? While there are studies that show some substance use, like alcoholism, can have hereditary ties, this doesn’t mean that these people can’t enjoy a drink or two every once in a while. When it comes to the stages of alcoholism, it builds over time. 

We understand the importance of education at SUN Behavioral Health. Having access to informative resources regarding substance use of any kind can help people make informed decisions about their health. Today we’re going to be breaking down how someone might go from having a few drinks to being classified as someone with an alcohol use disorder.

The Four Main Stages of Alcoholism:

The progression from alcohol consumption to an alcohol use disorder can be broken down into four steps. Let’s go through them together.

The Pre-Alcoholic Stage

The first drink someone partakes in doesn’t always lead to alcoholism in the long run, however as with any journey there’s always a first step. About 9% of youth in Ohio admit to having participated in alcohol use within the past month. 

While not everyone who is managing an alcohol use disorder starts drinking at a young age, studies show that there is a correlation between how young someone is when they have their first drink and a higher frequency of binge drinking and alcohol consumption later in life.  

During the pre-alcoholic stage, people might start experimenting with what kind of drinks they prefer. This can lead to trying multiple kinds within one sitting, which contributes to binge drinking. After these levels of experimentation, if someone chooses to continue drinking on a more frequent basis, this leads to stage 2.

Early-Stage Alcoholism

Once alcohol consumption becomes normalized in someone’s life, during times of high stress or during transitional phases in life, it might become a go-to choice for helping to “destress.” It can also become an option when people are experiencing loneliness or trying to manage other mental health disorders like depression or anxiety. 

Everyone’s journey down the road to continued alcohol consumption is different. It can vary based on life circumstances, culture, and even social groups. In this stage, people might start to slowly cut out some activities that they used to be interested in. This could be either them not choosing actions because they want to drink, or refraining from activities due to the after effects of drinking.

The Middle Alcoholic Stage

This stage is usually considered the peak, where many symptoms become more known. The symptoms a person is experiencing denote the “severity” in the eyes of the DSM. For example, those only noticing 2-3 symptoms might have a mild alcohol use disorder, while having 6 or more symptoms constitutes a “severe” case. Here are the symptoms you might start seeing in this stage:

  • Stopping activities you used to enjoy, normally choosing to drink instead 
  • When the majority of your time is spent drinking or experiencing the aftermath of drinking
  • Continuing to drink even after experiencing negative physical or mental effects
  • Drinking for longer periods, or having more drinks than you intend to
  • Having urgent cravings or having your thoughts focusing solely on drinking
  • Regularly engaging in risky activities while drunk, such as drinking and driving, having unsafe sex, or operating heavy machinery
  • Having to drink more alcohol in order to experience the effects
  • Being unable to cut down on or stop drinking
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after you finish drinking

At this point in the stage of alcoholism, the effects on a person’s physical and mental health start to increase drastically. It’s during this time that many people start to experience more social impacts from drinking, such as losing a job or relationship. They might also develop depression or anxiety as a result of regular alcohol use, or show a lack of interest in things regarding personal well-being like hygiene.

End-Stage Alcoholism

The word “end” can sound a bit scary, especially in regard to a substance use disorder. This is where, without intervention or other choices, some of the consequences of long-term alcohol use can start to be deadly. Most people in this stage might feel like they have lost control over their drinking and they have started to notice the more severe alcohol-related medical problems that have developed as a result. 

Long-term alcohol consumption can negatively impact many vital organs within the body, from your liver to your heart, brain, and even the pancreas and bones. It can even negatively impact the immune system, and also lead to a higher risk of cancer. 

For problems that develop in the liver, many of them can be reversed if detected early enough. Some of these complications include: 

  • Fatty liver disease - this is considered to be the beginning stages of liver damage. Some symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, and excessive fatigue.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis - this occurs when the liver continues to be damaged and involves scarring due to the liver being unable to properly process things. This stage can remain largely undetected until it gets worse.
  • Cirrhosis - this includes fluid buildup in the abdomen, an enlarged spleen, confusion, and bleeding from the veins. 

There are other risks involved with end-stage alcoholism, including the withdrawal symptoms that come when someone decides to stop drinking. Withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as 6 hours after the last drink and can range in severity from tremors and nausea to hallucinations and seizures. 

Despite all of this, even end-stage alcoholism is still treatable. It’s never too late to work towards recovery and get your life back onto a path of your choice.

What Are Some Signs of Problem Drinking?

If you start to experience the inability to stop drinking, if it starts to interrupt your daily life, or if you’re spending most of your day either drinking or feeling the aftereffects, it might be time to consider if this is the life path you want to be on.  

Should Your Drinking Concern You?

Overall, you shouldn’t be concerned about having a drink or two every once in a while or even getting drunk on special occasions. If you feel that your drinking is concerning, then maybe it is. If you’re aware of it and are able to cut back on your own, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you feel you need further help because you’re unable to stop on your own, that’s where SUN comes in.

Strategies for Dealing With a Loved One’s Drinking

If you notice a loved one is being impacted by alcohol use, there are some things you can keep in mind. When approaching them, make sure to be open-minded; coming into a talk with judgment won’t encourage them to listen or seek help. Remind them that you care and offer to help them if they want it, whether it's going with them to their first appointment or being a supportive shoulder when they need it. 

Get Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or a loved one is looking to start the journey to recovery from alcohol use disorder, SUN Behavioral Health in Columbus has you covered. We offer assistance with every step of the process, from alcohol detox to inpatient and outpatient. 

If you have any questions or want to get started, don’t be afraid to give us a call today at 614-706-2786.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is when  a person feels they can no longer stop or reduce their drinking. If this individual’s health or life is being impacted by alcohol use, they may be living with alcoholism. 

Why should we be concerned about AUD and alcohol addiction?

Long-term alcohol use can lead to an increased risk of cancer, liver and heart complications, dementia, and other potentially fatal alcohol side effects.

How to help a loved one with alcoholism?

Be supportive, open-minded, and non-judgmental. Remind them you care and offer your help if they want it. 

Get Help Today!

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