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What Are the Stages of Alcoholism?
Author: AE user
Published: February 8, 2022

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic disease that progresses from problematic drinking to a severe and sometimes life-threatening chronic illness.

Those who engage in problematic drinking can become physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol, leading to a range of health issues, as well as relationship breakdowns and financial trouble.

Whether you are hoping to find out more about the stage of alcoholism for yourself or a loved one, we delve into them in this blog.

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Is There a Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Addiction?

Recognizing the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction can be complex as the terms are often used interchangeably. However, the major difference between them is how severe the problem is. Identifying how severe a person's drinking problem is can help medical professionals make a diagnosis.

The following behaviors characterize alcohol abuse:

  • Being unable to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Engaging in dangerous behavior while under the influence of alcohol
  • Finding it challenging to stop drinking

People who abuse alcohol do not necessarily drink regularly. Some people, for example, may have cycles of staying sober followed by a period of binge drinking. However, to identify if someone abuses alcohol, the number of drinks they consume in a given week is often observed.

For example, excessive drinking occurs when women drink more than four drinks in a two to three-hour period. Meanwhile, men engage in excessive drinking when they consume more than five drinks in the same time frame.

Although the above is a good indicator of a problem, we can't use this information alone to diagnose a problem. If a large amount of alcohol is consumed and has a negative impact on a person's life, they may have an alcohol use disorder.

Unlike alcohol abuse, those living with an alcohol addiction will be physically and psychologically dependent on the substance. By this point, problematic drinking has progressed into a chronic disease. Somebody with an alcohol addiction will experience side effects that affect them and their friends, family, and colleagues. These can include:

  • Physical illnesses
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Intense cravings

Otherwise known as alcoholism, alcohol addictions have been described as an 'epidemic' in the United States, with recent research finding that 95,000 deaths a year are caused by excessive alcohol. Research also highlights that alcohol addictions decrease a person's life span by almost 29 years.

What Are the Stages of Alcoholism?

There are generally three stages of alcoholism. However, within these stages, individuals may have unique experiences.

Alcoholism is progressive; therefore, if alcohol abuse is left untreated, people move from one stage to the next as the problem intensifies.

For example, if a person occasionally binge drinks, they could develop an alcohol use disorder or the late stages of chronic alcoholism.

By learning the stages of alcoholism, professional help can be secured to treat alcohol use disorders and any alcohol-related medical problems.

Stage One - Early Stage Alcoholism

In the early stages of alcoholism, many people live in denial and fail to recognize that they have a problem with alcohol. During this stage, it's likely that they will have begun to develop a tolerance for alcohol, meaning they will need to drink more to achieve the same results as they once did.

Not all early symptoms are easy to recognize, though. Those with functioning alcoholism may still be able to fulfill obligations and responsibilities such as work, school, or family commitments. This can make it difficult to detect a problem because it's easy to hide.

Sometimes at this stage, individuals may convince themselves that their alcohol consumption is typical. They may also deny having a problem because they don't drink all the time. This is a common defense response when someone cannot accept that they might have a problem. It’s one of the many indicators that they could be in the early stages of an alcohol use disorder.

Denial can be affirmed by several things. For example, some people will compare themselves with others who have more extreme levels of alcoholism and convince themselves that they have nothing to worry about.

Stage Two - Middle Stage Alcoholism

Middle stage alcoholism surfaces when an individual loses control over their drinking habits. At this stage, mental and physical dependence will be present.

Due to the impact alcohol has, those at this stage of alcoholism may experience some, or all, of the following symptoms:

  • Regular hangovers
  • Strong urges to consume alcohol
  • Drinking alcohol in risky situations
  • A high tolerance to alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • High blood pressure

Due to an ever-increasing tolerance to alcohol, it is not uncommon for those at this stage to drink more significant volumes of alcohol to feed their addiction.

People who attempt to give up alcohol at this stage are likely to experience distressing physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Untreated alcoholism at this level can pose life-threatening health problems.

Withdrawal symptoms at this stage could include:

  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Restlessness

If you suspect that you or someone you know is in this stage of alcoholism, accessing help through a doctor or treatment specialist is advised.

Alcohol addiction disorder treatments include medical detox, which offers the best chance of sustained recovery, and behavioral therapy.

Stage Three - End-Stage Alcoholism

The third stage, or end-stage alcoholism, occurs when a person's drinking habits begin to cause severe physical and mental health problems, such as:

  • Changes in behavior or attitude
  • Increased anger
  • Secrecy
  • Withdrawal from family members and friends
  • Liver disease
  • Abdominal pain and vomiting
  • Cancer

In addition to the above, those at this stage may suffer from infections and other illnesses, such as pneumonia, as alcohol weakens the immune system.

As mental illnesses can cause and impact alcoholism, some people use alcohol to manage untreated mental health conditions. In contrast, drinking can create problems in life and relationships, leading to mental health disorders.

It is common for someone with an alcohol addiction to isolate themselves from their loved ones. Excessive alcohol use can also lead to:

  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive problems
  • Depression
  • Brain development problems
  • Memory loss

Seeking Treatment for Alcoholism

Social and relational issues that often come hand-in-hand with alcohol addictions can be severe, leaving those impacted severely distressed. The good news is that these connections can be healed if quality addiction treatment is administered. Likewise, if treatment is sought, the physical problems of alcoholism can be reversed.

Treatment programs, however, are more successful in the early stages of alcohol abuse as withdrawal symptoms at this stage are not as severe, and the risk of relapse is lower. In contrast, people in the end stages of alcoholism may experience more intense withdrawal symptoms.

Although they differ from person to person, common withdrawal symptoms in the later stages of alcoholism include hallucinations, delirium tremens (DTs), and other serious consequences. DTs are one of the most powerful symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and typically occur after a period of binge drinking.

While it doesn’t occur in everyone who withdraws from alcohol, some symptoms of DT's include:

  • Aggression
  • Confusion
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Blackouts
  • Hallucinations.
  • Tremors or seizures

Irrespective of when treatment is sought, it is essential to remember that treatment providers can help those in recovery manage any symptoms and offer treatment for the physical or mental health side effects of alcoholism.

Support To Reduce Alcohol Consumption

Whether a person is in the early or late stages of alcoholism, medication, therapy, and attending support groups can help them get on the right track for a life free of alcohol abuse.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a physical dependence or severe alcoholism, please reach out to us today. Our team of medical experts is on hand to support you or them and can provide a wealth of guidance and advice when it comes to addiction treatment.

Pick up the phone and take the first step in recovering from an alcohol addiction today.