Substance Use

The Stages of Alcoholism

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Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder

The definition of alcoholism stretches all the way back to 1956 when the American Medical Association (AMA) identified it as a disease that alters the brain and controls a person’s motivation and ability to make healthy choices. Just like any disease, there are stages of alcoholism that get progressively worse as the disease progresses.

In this post, we’ll go over the stages of alcoholism and alcohol abuse and how to seek help. If you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol addiction, help is available. Contact Zinnia Health at (855) 430-9439 to learn more about our addiction treatment programs.

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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 14.1 million adults suffered from an alcohol use disorder in 2020.

The NIAAA defines alcohol use disorder as a medical condition characterized by the inability to control or stop drinking despite adverse consequences. AUD encompasses conditions that are commonly referred to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and alcohol addiction.

The symptoms of alcohol use disorder include:

  • Not being able to limit or control the amount of alcohol consumed.
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking, but being unable to do so.
  • Feeling strong cravings and urges to consume alcohol.
  • Neglecting work, school, and familial obligations due to alcohol use.
  • Continuing to drink even though drinking alcohol is causing damaging health conditions, mental health problems, social problems, and problems in relationships and at work.
  • Continuing to use alcohol even in unsafe conditions, like when driving or caring for your children.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut back or stop drinking, such as:

The Stages of Alcohol Abuse

According to the DSM-5, the stages of alcohol abuse are:

Early Stage Alcohol Abuse

Early alcohol abuse is often hard to distinguish from social drinking. This stage usually starts when young adults or college kids are introduced to drinking at parties, particularly binge drinking.

Some binge drinkers or party drinkers never progress past the experimental phase to start drinking regularly, but some people with an increased risk of developing alcoholism, including family history, are four times more likely to progress from the experimentation phase of alcohol use to alcohol use disorder.

Problematic Alcohol Abuse

When someone is a problem drinker, they have lost control over their alcohol intake as it begins to infiltrate every area of their life.

During the problematic alcohol abuse phase, a person may not be physically dependent on alcohol, but their alcohol use will begin to start causing problems at home, work, school, and in their relationships.

If you are concerned about your drinking habits and have tried unsuccessfully to stop or cut back, it’s important to seek professional help. Zinnia Health offers a medical detox program under the supervision of mental health professionals and addiction counselors to ensure a safe and effective detox process. Learn more about detox programs here.

Severe Alcohol Abuse

People who severely abuse alcohol are heavy drinkers who are dependent on alcohol but are still able to meet their financial, familial, work, etc., obligations. These people are often referred to as “functioning alcoholics.” However, just because they are able to fulfill their responsibilities does not mean alcohol is not wreaking havoc on their body. During this stage of alcoholism, health conditions and chronic diseases can start to develop from the heavy drinking, including:

  • Anemia
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Dementia
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gout
  • Cancers
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Nerve damage

End-Stage Alcohol Abuse

During this stage, the person’s drinking problem has become so severe that they have lost the ability to stop drinking, and drinking begins to consume every aspect of their life. They may recognize the devastating effects that alcohol is having on their life and attempt to quit, but when they do, they experience severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal because their body and brain have become so accustomed to alcohol.

During this stage, serious diseases can develop, including cirrhosis and an increased risk of injury from an accident and/or self-harm. Other symptoms of end-stage alcoholism include:

  • Jaundice from liver failure
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Fluid retention
  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia
  • Heart failure

The Stages of Alcoholism on the Jellinek Curve

The DSM-5 stages are not the only way to measure alcoholism. Some healthcare professionals also use the Jellinek Curve, created in the 1950s by alcoholism researcher E. Morton Jellinek. He wanted to illustrate that alcohol addiction is a progression with a “vicious circle” that causes people to lose everything if they don’t seek help. The curve shows that life can get worse if treatment is not sought, but it can also get better through recovery.

The stages of the Jellinek Curve are:

  1. Pre-alcoholic: During this early stage of alcoholism, people may drink to numb emotional pain, stop worrying, or eliminate stress.
  2. Early alcoholic: Some warning signs that someone has entered stage two of the Jellinek Curve is blacking out from drinking too much, lying about drinking, and having obsessive thoughts about drinking.
  3. Middle alcoholic: During stage three, it becomes obvious to loved ones that someone is a problem drinker. They may start missing work, becoming irritable, and showing physical signs of alcohol abuse, like facial redness and stomach bloating.
  4. Late alcoholic: During this stage, alcohol consumes a person’s life at the expense of their livelihood, health, and relationships.
  5. Recovery: The final stage of the Jellinek Curve is when the curve starts to swing in the opposite direction during recovery. Once they are stable, the goal is to transition from detox to treatment to a sober life to the final step of recovery, transcendence.

Zinnia Health Can Help

No matter what stage of alcoholism you or a loved one are experiencing, it’s important to know that help is available. At Zinnia Health, we offer a wide range of alcohol treatment programs and and alcohol hotlines to help stop problem drinking and replace old habits with healthy and productive ones. Contact us today at (855) 430-9439.

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(855) 430-9439
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