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Alcoholism: Definition, Symptoms and Signs, Stages, Statistics

What is Alcoholism?

Addiction has many faces. Alcoholism is the addiction to alcohol. A person will drink even though it causes social, health, and even professional problems. Genetics may play a role; there is a higher risk of developing the addiction if there’s family history to it. However, even some people with hereditary risk do not develop alcoholism, while others without any family history of it do. The addiction usually develops gradually, and usually needs medical intervention to successfully battle it. The debate on whether alcoholism is a disease still continues. However, at some point, an alcoholic loses control (and logic) because the body feels that it needs alcohol to function. Yet, some will argue that it is a choice.

Stages of Alcoholism

Alcoholism (like many addictions) follow a gradual pattern. The names of these stages may change. However, there is a set pattern. It follows something like this:

Early Stage

Some people have the potential for developing alcoholism before they have ever experienced drinking. A person introduces alcohol to the body in this stage. This is the ‘normal’ drinking most of us experience. A person may only drink a few times a year. This stage usually does not foreshadow the problems ahead due to one’s drinking.

High Risk/Onset of Alcohol Dependency

Gradually, this person will develop more of a ‘taste’ for alcohol and begin to consume a little bit more. Dependency on alcohol has not quite developed, but it is heading in that direction. It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster. A person will stand in line, maybe get excited (or even afraid) but gets on the ride anyway. The ride slowly makes its way to the top of the hill (progressive drinking). And as the coaster descends, it becomes inescapable. The person still has control over his/her intake of alcohol, but that control is progressively diminishing. At this point, it becomes harder and harder for the person to deny alcohol.

Alcohol Dependency

In this stage, negative consequences become more and more likely. The inflicted person craves alcohol so much he/she may risk their job, families, or anything else to get drunk. This is the stage most people think of when they hear the work “alcoholic.” Behavior is usually disruptive. The ‘dependency’ stage gradually gets worse until the person seeks help, and hopefully, recovery. It is important to note that this stage (also combined with the others) happens gradually, but quickly enough that the person (or loved ones) may not recognize the path.


It is estimated that about 17 million people in the USA will develop a dependency on alcohol. Worldwide, alcohol comes in fifth in premature deaths. The risk of cirrhosis of the liver (hardening of the liver) greatly increases with the use of alcohol. About 50% of teenagers admit to using alcohol.

Alcoholism Symptoms/Signs

Although the onset of alcoholism may develop without much attention, there are signs and symptoms loved ones (or the person him or herself) can look out for. These include:

Using alcohol as a stress management tool.

We all get stressed out, and we have ways of dealing with that (hopefully). When a person excessively uses alcohol to relieve stress, it can be a sure sign of dependency.

Continuing to drink despite damages.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of wine or a beer once in a while. An alcoholic may neglect his/her responsibilities to their homes, loved ones, jobs, and/or society as a whole. Run ins with the law are highly possible. If the person continues to drink despite this, intervention may be necessary.

Reactions to the absence of alcohol.

Alcoholics will have some very unpleasant reactions when they do not digest alcohol. These include: irritation, the jitters, insomnia,restlessness, sweating, lethargy, headaches, and more.

Alcoholism Treatment

Once a person recognizes (or decides) that they have a drinking problem, they (or their loved ones) may seek help. This can be a very painful stage for an alcoholic and their loved ones. However, more than one option exists.

Firstly, the alcoholic will have to go through detox, which can be highly dangerous. A person going through alcohol detox may experience seizures and/or hallucinations (among other side effects). Therefore, medical intervention is advised.

After detoxing, a support group may improve the chances of success. There are treatment centers, 12 step programs, and other options available to those who want to gain abstinence from alcohol. Abstinence is the overall goal in treatment for alcoholism.

Upon completion of the program, the alcoholic may require ongoing support to maintain abstinence.

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