Alcoholism Stages: Five Steps of Alcohol Addiction

Last Updated: August 7, 2019

alcoholism stages

Alcoholism has a host of negative repercussions on society. One of them is DUI – 2012 data of the Bureau of Justice show that almost 30 million people admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol. Up to one and a half million DUI arrests were made by US law enforcement agencies in 1996. Moreover, 50% of sex crimes reported in the US involve one or both parties drinking. Here’s how to recognize the alcoholism stages and prevent the risks of alcohol use.

Excessive Drinking vs. Alcohol Addiction

Most adults will not experience any negative effects from drinking a few glasses of beer or wine or shots, even if they drink this amount of alcohol daily. It is when the volume of alcohol consumed keeps increasing, and alcohol tolerance develops that problems may start to arise. Alcohol abuse can lead to AUD (alcohol use disorder) as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which lists 11 symptoms connected with the signs and stages of alcoholism.

These signs of alcoholism that call for rehab include drinking more or longer than intended, cravings and urges to drink, being unable to stop or reduce alcohol intake, continuing to drink despite obvious risks, falling behind on work-related tasks because of drinking, developing mental or physical problems due to use, and developing tolerance – needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect.

Alcoholism is a process, which takes place in stages. What are the stages of alcoholism? Expert opinions vary on this. Some report 3 stages of alcoholism. Other researchers speak of 4 stages of alcoholism, and still, others find that there are 7 stages of alcoholism. We have established five, as discussed below.

Stage 1 – General Experimentation

Description of the Beginning of Alcohol Addiction

This is the first of 5 stages of alcoholism. In this stage, people aren’t familiar with different types of alcohol, as a rule, so they tend to try different kinds of alcohol in different quantities out. The early stages of alcoholism are typically defined by the aim of drinking just to get drunk. Alcohol is used to self-medicate and escape negative feelings and thoughts. This is how one can recognize problem drinking. People in the first of the stages of alcoholism don’t drink every day, and they are still able to carry out daily activities. Although consumption doesn’t consume them, so to say, they will need to drink longer or more to achieve the desired effect.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Of all stages of alcohol addiction, this one can be the easiest or the hardest for an alcoholism professional to treat. It can be easy because there are still no physical health problems associated with drinking. It can be hard because the person who is drinking excessively is convinced they don’t have a problem. They still have a job despite alcohol abuse and are able to maintain good social relationships.

hung over man lying in bed with a headachee

Stage 2 – Problematic Use of Alcohol

Description of the Early Stage of Alcohol Abuse

Mental obsession with drinking defines the second of the alcoholic stages. A lot of people drink alcohol to relieve stress and relax, but those struggling with problematic use may see drinking as the only way to cope with the pressures of everyday life. With time, constructive coping skills will fade away, and alcohol will be used to address each and every existential challenge.

Diagnosis and Treatment

This stage is often characterized by heavy drinking, and the person may suffer from binge drinking disorder. They may not be addicted to alcohol physically yet, but emotional dependence on drinking is there. The person’s physical appearance won’t change, but they may be “hung over” due to excessive alcohol use all the time. They will then explain they were just looking for a good time, which involved drinking. Treatment of alcoholism in this stage is relatively challenging because of the heavy denial that is present and the psychological dependence on alcohol.

Stage 3 – Severe Alcohol Abuse

Description of the Middle Stage of Alcoholism

This is the first of the three late stages of alcoholism. Typically, the person’s loved ones will begin to express concern about their misuse of alcohol. Their struggles are manifested in managing the consequences of abuse. Individuals in the last stages of alcoholism will attempt to set boundaries for themselves, such as drinking less or drinking only beer, but find they cannot adhere to them. Efforts at reducing alcohol tolerance are made without result.

“Functioning Alcoholics”

This term is used by professionals and laymen alike to make a distinction between a person who abuses alcohol, but still has a job and a normal social life, and the “stereotypical” alcoholic, unkempt and homeless. In the middle stages, individuals suffering from alcoholism insist on being able to function despite all the changes alcohol has brought to their lives. These changes are not always negative – they may include changing jobs very often or finding a new social circle, which partakes in drinking more actively.

Common issues accompanying alcoholism in this stage can include isolation, anxiety, depression, and legal troubles. Isolation occurs because the person feels uncomfortable drinking in the presence of concerned friends or relatives. One may feel ashamed about having to answer questions about their use of alcohol and isolate him- or herself. Common legal problems include DUI charges and domestic violence. Extensive alcohol abuse can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other emotional and mental disorders in this age. Excessive consumption can amplify negative feelings when all coping methods come down to alcohol use alone. This concludes the first three stages of alcoholism.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Denial is very strong at this stage as well. Although most people will realize they have a problem, they’ll pass it off as “not that bad” because they don’t meet the stereotype of a person struggling with alcoholism. Losing one’s property and other possessions and loved ones and becoming homeless and down-and-out due to alcohol abuse is the outcome of a much longer process.

Another challenge to treatment is that the changes drinking has brought to the person’s life aren’t always negative. Treatment outcomes can depend on the addict’s personality. There are 5 types of alcoholics, and it’s easier to help some than others.

man suffering from severe alcoholism drinking alcohol surronded by wmpty and half-empty bottles

Stage 4 – Heavy Alcohol Addiction

Description of the Late Stage of Alcoholism

This is the second of the two final stages of alcoholism. In this stage, one has to stop drinking, and rehabilitation centers for alcoholics are absolutely imperative. The body has sustained obvious physical damage from excessive drinking. Physical changes such as bags under the eyes, flushed skin, ruptured nose capillaries, and the proverbial “beer belly” that not only beer leads to will be present.

Many people in this stage will suffer internally as an aftermath of drinking too much as well. There are a constant heartburn and high or elevated blood pressure. Hands are shaky. People face a high risk of delirium tremens and alcoholic polyneuropathy, a condition characterized by shakiness of the legs and/or arms. Liver damage is almost always present. Long-term alcohol abuse can cause cirrhosis, a severe liver disease that requires a liver transplant in 33% of all cases. Every second American who dies of cirrhosis or liver cancer partakes in excessive drinking.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Typically, drinking too much doesn’t prevent most people from going to work even now. Of course, job performance has deteriorated considerably. It is easiest to diagnose a person with alcohol use disorder in this final stage of it, but treatment, when one has been drinking so much, is most difficult.  Medically-supervised detox will be required in almost all cases. This is one of the first stages of recovery from alcoholism.

Stage 5 – End Stage

This is the last of five stages of alcoholism to death. Many people who have reached it are firmly convinced that dying from alcoholism is not possible. However, this is not particularly true. Many disorders caused by heavy alcohol abuse can eventually result in death. Cirrhosis can turn into liver cancer at this stage, which can be impossible to treat.

Getting Help for Alcoholism: What You Need to Know

There are several stages of quitting drinking, the first being making a commitment to stop drinking. Detox followed by a residential treatment program can increase the likelihood of successful recovery and help you regain control of your life. Deciding to quit drinking comes with a whole new series of challenges, such as having to take time off work. An employer who appreciates his staff’s quality work will want someone struggling with alcoholism to go to rehab and get healthy again. If you’re not lucky enough to have an understanding employer, an outpatient rehab facility, where you keep going to work and check in for treatment and therapy one or several times a week, is a better option than residential treatment.

Do you or your loved one have any questions about getting help for drinking? Call us at (866)-520-2708 now to speak to one of our kind, caring experts. All the conversations are free and confidential.


Brian Obinna Obodeze

Brian Obodeze

Content Writer

Brian Obinna Obodeze is a professional health-niche content developer for with six years of experience as a research writer. He is an expert in medical content development, especially in the field of addictions, general health, homeopathic medicine, and pharmaceuticals.

Brian has a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from the University of Benin and has worked as a Lab Scientist and as a public healthcare officer. His hobbies include physical fitness, reading, and social entrepreneurship.

Medical review by Dr. Gregory Okhifun

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  • My sweet loving son is struggling with alcoholism and we need to get him some help.
  • I believe my brother is in either the forth or the fifth stage of alcoholism. He lives with my mother and at times gets verbally abusive with her. The last time I saw him his face was very red and swollen. He drinks every day, he uses her car and drinks and drives. He hides alcohol all over the place. He hardly eats and he sleeps all day and is up all night. He is a veteran. I’m not sure how to go about getting him help. I’m worried he is going to himself or worse yet hurt my mother.