The Stages of Alcoholism

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on March 24, 2023
3 min read

No one becomes addicted to alcohol overnight. You don’t catch alcoholism the way you do the common cold. However, there are some early signs you can look out for. 

Alcohol use disorder—the name experts give to problem drinking that becomes severe—is a relatively new term that combines alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, including a level that is sometimes called alcoholism. It is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that includes:

  • Compulsive use of alcohol
  • Loss of control when it relates to alcohol
  • A noticeable bad mood when not drinking

Alcohol dependence is progressive, too. What might seem harmless at first can get worse if it’s not treated. And the worst of alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be deadly.

Close to 88,000 people in the U.S. die from alcohol-related causes every year. Only smoking, poor diet, and lack of physical activity kill more. About 31% of all driving-related deaths are linked to alcohol.

AUD affects nearly 16 million Americans. It can range in seriousness from mild to moderate to severe.

Knowing what AUD looks like is the first step in combating it.  <!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}--> Learn more about the stages of alcoholism.

Officially, AUD is diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The manual lists 11 questions used to uncover typical symptoms. If you or someone you know has two of the symptoms in a 12-month period, they’ll be diagnosed with AUD.

The severity of the AUD depends on how many of the symptoms they have. A hit on six or more questions can be considered a severe case of AUD.

A doctor will ask the questions, which all start with, “In the past year, have you ... ”

They will include:

  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or spent time being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
  • Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want, or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that drinking -- or being sick from drinking -- often interfered with life responsibilities?

The DSM is the latest attempt by doctors to understand and diagnose this disorder. It builds on evolving research on the dangers of alcohol.

In the earliest stages of alcoholism and AUD, behavior can include:

  • Drinking more than planned
  • Continuing to drink despite concerns from others
  • Frequent attempts to cut down on or quit drinking

The disorder progresses as the drinker becomes more tolerant to alcohol and has to have more to get the desired effect. If a person becomes dependent on alcohol and a drink isn’t available, they can have symptoms of withdrawal that can include:

As the disease becomes more severe, blackouts and loss of control can happen. Personality changes begin to show. And the physical costs of excessive alcohol use become noticeable.

It can cause (or make worse) problems like:

E. Morton Jellinek, a pioneer in the study of alcohol abuse and dependence, suggested “progressive phases of alcoholism” in 1950, which led to the Jellinek curve, which is still widely used.

The curve, tweaked over time, begins with the start of problem drinking and advances through physical problems like neglecting food and blackouts, and mental problems like guilt, resentment, and a change in moral compass that often accompany AUD.

It bottoms out with obsessive drinking.

But the Jellinek curve doesn’t end at the bottom. It moves upward after that into the “rehabilitation” phase.

Treatment can help most people who have AUD. First, reach out to your doctor. They can assess your needs and help you figure out where to get help, including:

  • Group therapy
  • Family counseling
  • Long-term rehab programs
  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Outpatient treatments

In addition, medications may be able to help ease or stop drinking and guard against relapses.

For those who need help right away, WebMD Connect to Care specialists are standing by to get you started on the road to recovery today.