There are different ideas about how many stages of alcoholism exist, but it is generally agreed that this common addictive behavior can be broken down into about four stages, which could be loosely classified as:

  • Habit, including occasional abuse such as binge drinking
  • Early Stage, including using alcohol to cope
  • Middle Stage, including excessive drinking and the onset of physical, psychological, and social difficulties
  • End Stage, including loss of control, noticeable physical and psychological changes, and inability to function without alcohol

This could be further broken down into stages like risky versus problematic usage in the middle stage, as well as increasing degrees of dependency throughout the end stage, just for example.  However, these four basic categories cover the general range of stages that most alcoholics progress through if they don’t enter treatment and recovery at a qualified facility like an Orange County detox center for men or women, just for example.

The ultimate result of failure to treat alcoholism is death due to alcohol-related disease or accident.  If alcoholics are lucky, they’ll recognize the symptoms of alcoholism before they get too far into addiction.  Many have to “hit rock bottom” before seeking treatment.  Some can never admit that they have a problem, or they simply feel powerless to fight their addiction.

The only way to truly recover from alcoholism is to admit to having a problem, seek help, learn to recognize harmful behaviors and avoid triggers, and understand that recovery is a lifelong process.  Just as drug addicts must go through heroin or MDMA detox, alcoholics must enter a recovery program to learn about their addiction and fight it effectively.

This starts with fully understanding the different stages of alcoholism.  Here’s an in-depth look at what is involved in each stage of alcoholism.


Believe it or not, the early stages of alcoholism can be virtually indistinguishable from your average social drinking, and it may not seem at all problematic.  The difference between a non-alcoholic and someone entering alcoholism at this stage is often defined by a couple of key factors.

One is heredity, although this isn’t always an indicator of alcoholism.  Not all children born to alcoholic parents are going to become alcoholics, but the predisposition is definitely present.  This isn’t to say that people with no family history of alcoholism or other addiction can’t or won’t become alcoholics, but they simply don’t have the same risk factors.

Another factor is the amount of alcohol being consumed.  This stage could also be called pre-alcoholism, and while it is not typically characterized by the same need for alcohol as later stages, it often involves an urge to drink, although perhaps only in social situations.  In some cases, people who don’t drink frequently may instead drink to excess, or binge, when they do imbibe.

stages of alcoholism

A person developing alcoholic habits may not be comfortable in social situations without a drink in hand, even if others aren’t drinking.  Early signs of addiction also include experiencing hangovers after every drinking episode, indicating drinking to excess and a notable lack of control when drinking, as well as needing more alcohol than the average person to experience the same level of intoxication.

The habit stage could involve experimenting with different types of alcohol.  It could involve testing one’s limits, such as by taking shots until one vomits or passes out.  While the average person might drink to enjoy the taste of expensive liquor, enhance the flavor of a meal, or simply enjoy a pleasant buzz, many alcoholics in the habit stage drink expressly to “get drunk”.  These are all early warning signs that a person has the type of addictive personality or tendencies that could lead to alcoholism.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease.  Whether you are worried about becoming an alcoholic due to family history or you feel you are starting to exhibit dangerous behaviors, early recognition and treatment offer the best opportunity to avoid the ill effects of alcoholism and maintain recovery.  If you even suspect there is a problem, you may want to start attending local AA meetings or even consider a qualified rehab facility like an Orange County detox center for men or women.

Early Stage

This stage occurs when a habit becomes an urge that is difficult to ignore or even an obsession with drinking.  Alcoholics in the early stage may drink to relieve boredom, reduce stress, or cope with negative situations, emotions, or thoughts.

Early stage alcoholics are beginning to build up a tolerance to the effects of alcohol due to consistent usage, so they may be able to drink noticeably more than before, and certainly more than the average person.  At this stage, alcoholics may already be capable of drinking others “under the table”, so to speak.  Hangovers may be more frequent, leading to behaviors like daytime drinking to alleviate mild withdrawal symptoms.

Family members and friends may start to notice that something is off, even if they’re not sure exactly what’s wrong.  Patterns of alcohol abuse are beginning to become apparent to those paying close attention and looking for signs, while others may simply notice that you drink a lot.

You may also start making poor decisions while under the influence of alcohol, such as having unprotected sex with strangers or multiple partners, or thinking you’re sober enough to drive even when you’ve clearly exceeded safe limits of consumption.  Your choices could endanger yourself and others, but you likely choose to ignore or downplay these risks.

Even in this stage, you and those around you may simply attribute your excess drinking to a desire to socialize or be the life of the party, but there are definitely warning signs here that you are becoming an alcoholic.

Middle Stage

In the middle stage of alcoholism, there start to be serious consequences associated with drinking, from physical and psychological issues to legal problems, to functional difficulties in jobs, relationships, and other social situations.  At this stage, drinking has clearly become excessive and is impacting your ability to lead a normal life.  This is the stage at which you can no longer claim to be entirely functional.

Physically, you may start to suffer from a variety of symptoms related to long-term, excessive drinking, including not just frequent blackouts, hangovers, and cravings for alcohol, but also withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have alcohol, including headache, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, sweating, chills/clamminess, rapid heartbeat, and even shakiness or tremors.

Psychological difficulties could include insomnia, fatigue, nightmares, mood swings, anxiety, and depression, just for example.  You may try to hide these symptoms, as well as your excessive drinking, by making excuses and lying.  You may become angry and defensive when confronted about your behavior and you will almost certainly start to have problems interacting socially with family members, friends, and coworkers.

Although you could be in denial about your alcoholism or believe that you are a functional alcoholic, others will notice and likely comment on your condition.  You might also begin to experience legal problems such as citations for DUI, public intoxication, disturbing the public, and potentially more serious concerns like fights and domestic incidents.  During this stage of alcoholism, you may suffer the loss of relationships and employment as a result of your drinking and associated behaviors.

stages of alcoholism

End Stage

The final stage of alcoholism involves serious and life-threatening behaviors.  It may be characterized by significant physical and psychological deterioration, as well as detrimental social behaviors and grave legal issues.  It is common for alcoholics in this stage to drink daily and to excess. They will go through withdrawal symptoms when they don’t drink regularly.  At this point, alcoholics have lost all control of their disease.

Serious health problems are often associated with end-stage alcoholism. Chronic issues include cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, hepatitis, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, brain damage, and other disorders.  Alcoholics in this stage can’t go more than a few hours without drinking. Usually, they cannot fall asleep without the aid of alcohol.

Isolation is common at this stage because relationships have been so badly damaged by alcohol-related behaviors.  Fighting with loved ones, coworkers, and even strangers is common, as is abuse.  Alcoholics at this advanced stage are almost certainly in denial about their condition. Many suffer from severe depression, as well as anxiety related to strong dependency on alcohol.

End-stage alcoholism is frequently tied to extreme legal issues such as citations, arrests, and even criminal charges, depending on infractions.  Many end-stage alcoholics experience such extreme health conditions that they must be hospitalized.  This is where most alcoholics hit rock bottom and realize that without treatment, they will die from their disease.

It’s never too late to seek treatment and begin recovery.  If drug addicts can go to facilities for a prescription drug, crack, heroin, and opiate detox at the height of their addiction and recovery, severe alcoholics can, too.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step.  From there you can seek the help you need to begin the recovery process.

If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 949-625-4019.