Understanding The Five Stages Of Alcoholism

It’s no secret that alcoholism is a widespread problem. Impacting nearly 12 percent of all American adults at some point in their lifetime, alcohol dependence is a public health issue. Advances in medical research have given rise to the “disease” model of alcoholism. As a part of this model, experts have outlined distinct stages of a typical alcohol addiction. In this post, we’ll walk you through the commonly accepted five stages of alcoholism.

Early Stage

The beginnings of alcoholism is known as the “early stage.” During this period, a person will begin to both consume larger quantities of alcohol and develop a significant tolerance to its effects. Alcoholism is particularly hard to detect at this point, as an individual will likely be able to maintain a level of normal functioning ability. Often unware or unwilling to admit that a problem yet exists, the early stage alcoholic soon moves on to more damaging stages of the disease.

Middle Stage

It is difficult to distinguish precisely between the early stage and the next, called the “middle stage.” Overall, the difference is signified primarily through the onset of physical withdrawal symptoms (shakes, nausea, anxiety, vomiting, etc.) when an individual does not ingest their “usual” amount of alcohol.

The physical need to drink is ultimately what drives the behavioral changes that begin in this stage. During this stage of alcoholism, an individual may begin to drink at socially inappropriate times and locations in order to stave off the unpleasant and even painful symptoms of withdrawal. Other cognitive effects, like memory blackouts, frequently occur during this period.

Late Stage

An alcoholic then enters the “late stage” of the disease, characterized first by a worsening of the physical withdrawal symptoms of earlier stages. Serious health damage and more substantial memory loss also present themselves. Specific, alcohol-related medical conditions like cirrhosis of the liver and pancreatitis are often diagnosed at this stage.

Treatment Stage

The disease model of alcoholism also covers possible interaction with forms of external treatment. While not all alcoholics will seek help or even admit their health situation, many do seek some form of assistance. Recovery programs usually include various forms of counseling or group therapy, and some feature 24-hour care or detox centers.


Even for individuals in the treatment stage, recovery often remains a serious challenge. The “relapse stage” refers to the potential for recovering alcoholics engaged in recovery to resume drinking. Of course, relapsing does not eliminate the possibility of overcoming an alcohol addiction. Frequently, relapses are triggered by predictable factors and reflect a need for further attention to one’s current mental state, lifestyle, and past patterns of alcohol use.

Carefully designed recovery programs include contingency plans for relapse and offer tools and techniques to help conquer this stage of the disease.

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