What Are the Stages of Alcoholism?

Home > What Are the Stages of Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease in which an individual can’t control their drinking due to a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. One person’s alcohol addiction often looks very different from the next person’s. The effects of the disease depend on someone’s specific drinking habits, lifestyle, co-occurring medical conditions, genetics, and which stage of alcoholism they’re currently in.

What are the stages of alcoholism? Here at Northbound, we offer alcohol addiction treatment for people from all walks of life. Our rehabilitation center is committed to providing individuals and their loved ones with the information they need to begin the journey to sobriety. Keep reading for a detailed breakdown of the various stages of alcoholism.

Recognizing the Stages of Alcoholism

When it comes to alcoholism, there is no official number of stages. That said, the progression of the disease can be broken down into four main phases: the beginning stages, problematic drinking, severe alcohol abuse, and the final stages of alcoholism. 

If you or someone dear to you is struggling with alcohol addiction, having a clear idea of the stages can be useful in getting the necessary help. While these phases are somewhat predictable, it’s important to note that people react very differently to alcohol abuse, and the time it takes for alcoholism to progress can vary drastically.

Beginning Stages of Alcoholism

In the beginning stages of alcoholism, substance abuse can be extremely difficult to detect. Many people are social drinkers, which doesn’t necessarily imply they have a problem with alcohol. Not only that, but those with a higher alcohol tolerance may be able to “hold their liquor” better than others, which makes concerning habits particularly hard to spot. However, the earliest phases are pivotal for those who end up developing severe alcoholism.

At this point, a person might be going out or socializing more than usual, during which they may drink more than they intend to. In social settings, they may occasionally drink or behave in ways that concern those around them. Friends and acquaintances might overlook these behaviors, especially in a party environment, but the early signs of alcoholism could be indications of progressive alcohol abuse.

Additionally, in the early stages, a person may mention that they want to stop or cut down on drinking. Some people might say this in passing or play it off as if it’s a joking matter, but it should be taken seriously. It’s not uncommon for people to declare a desire to drink less for self-improvement or fitness purposes. And yet, if your close friend, family member, or romantic partner expresses to you that they’d like to stop drinking, be sure to take it at face value.

Problematic Drinking

The next phase is when drinking becomes blatantly problematic. At this stage, a person’s alcohol abuse starts to concern their close friends and family members, and the negative effects of heavy drinking become more serious.

During the problematic drinking stage of alcoholism, alcohol tolerance typically builds. In other words, the individual gets used to the effects of alcohol on their body and needs to drink more to achieve the desired effects. If you’re concerned about a loved one, high tolerance is a definite red flag. Previously, they may have been able to get a “buzz” from drinking one or two drinks, but now they might feel the need to drink several to feel a similar effect.

Another issue with high tolerance is that a person’s alcoholic personality might get used to functioning under the influence of alcohol. This physical dependence on alcohol can make them feel uneasy or unable to function without it. When they go without drinking, they might experience withdrawal symptoms, which can include anxiety, irritability, headaches, nausea, vomiting, or other flu-like symptoms.

Other signs of problematic drinking include:

  • Aggression
  • Financial problems
  • Missing work or school
  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Relationship struggles
  • Risky and reckless behaviors
  • Various health problems
  • Violence
  • Weight gain or weight loss

In the problematic drinking stage, individuals might also face legal troubles as a result of alcohol-fueled reckless behavior. For instance, they could get into a physical altercation, be charged for public intoxication, or get arrested for driving under the influence. 

During this period, a person may realize others are concerned for them and attempt to hide their drinking. This may involve withdrawing from family and friends, drinking alone, or hanging out in new social circles.

Severe Alcohol Abuse

The next stages of alcoholism are characterized by severe alcohol abuse. This is when alcohol dependency intensifies and the desire to drink starts to be uncontrollable. At this phase, individuals are typically aware that they’re addicted to drinking alcohol but unable or fearful of quitting. Negative behavioral issues may also intensify, including poor work performance and the inability to follow through with commitments.

With chronic alcohol abuse, many people start to experience memory problems. They might seem confused, disengaged, or not like their usual self when communicating with others. When confronted about their alcoholism, they might become defensive, dishonest, or simply unwilling to talk about the issue. 

Other indicators of severe alcohol abuse include extreme mood swings and what may appear to be a substantial personality shift. If an alcoholic is aware of others’ concern for them, they might avoid family members and friends entirely and only spend time with other heavy drinkers. As liver damage sets in, health issues might worsen as well.

Final Stages of Alcoholism

During the final stages of alcoholism, a person’s health and psychological state are in serious distress. At this point, excessive drinking becomes an obsession, and the physical and emotional dependence on alcohol is stronger than ever. Individuals can also become even more resentful of those who try to intervene.

An alcoholic will be under the influence more often than not, and they’ll maintain an inebriated state for extended periods. In the end stage of alcoholism, a person’s liver may become severely damaged, which can lead to a range of health problems.

During the final stages of alcoholism, individuals may experience:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Brain damage
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Liver disease
  • Complications due to infections
  • Debilitation
  • Delusions
  • Frequent confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Respiratory issues
  • Tremors
  • Vitamin deficiencies

Many of these symptoms are reversible, but the final alcoholism stage can be fatal if a person doesn’t get addiction treatment and stop drinking.

Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), binge drinking is not only the most common but also the most deadly type of excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S. But what constitutes binge drinking, and how does it differ from alcoholism? Definitionally, binge drinking involves consuming large quantities of alcohol within a relatively short period — typically four or more drinks for women and five or more for men over the course of a couple of hours. While binge drinking is a form of alcohol abuse, it doesn’t necessarily mean a person suffers from alcoholism.

As outlined in the various stages above, alcoholism involves a physical dependence on alcohol. However, frequent binge drinking can lead to alcoholism. With alcohol addiction, prevention is key to avoiding the potentially fatal end phase. For this reason, it’s vital to stay aware of the dangers of both binge drinking and alcoholism and seek treatment when needed.

Northbound’s Approach to Alcoholism Treatment

At Northbound, we specialize in treatment for alcoholism and provide a comprehensive continuum of care to help our clients be successful in their journey to sobriety. For many, detox is a critical first step. We don’t recommend attempting to detox at home, as withdrawal symptoms can be extremely challenging to face on your own, which increases the risk of relapse. At Northbound’s accredited facility, patients are able to detox from drinking alcohol in a safe and comfortable environment with around-the-clock clinical care and support. 

After completing detox, our clients enter into the next phase of recovery: residential rehabilitation. This is the time when an individual learns more about their addiction and its root causes. They’ll participate in one-on-one therapy and group counseling sessions, learn about their triggers for drinking, and develop tools for coping. The short- and long-term residential rehab programs at Northbound Treatment are designed to help patients heal from their addictions physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Outpatient treatment typically follows residential rehab. At this phase of care, therapy sessions will continue while clients live in the comfort of their own homes. Northbound offers both in-person and telehealth appointments for outpatient treatment, including intensive outpatient programs. For many, outpatient treatment is crucial for maintaining sobriety and finding satisfaction with everyday life. We also provide addiction support services that help clients adjust to the realities of a sober lifestyle, find happiness, and ultimately thrive.

If you or someone close to you is struggling with alcoholism, please contact us at Northbound Treatment as soon as possible. We’re accepting new patients every day and can also provide guidance about alcohol rehab insurance. Give us a call anytime or fill out our admissions form online.


  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/stages-alcoholism
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

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