First Signs of Alcoholism

Man holding drink in hand
Social drinker or budding alcoholic?
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A person doesn't simply wake up one day to find that he or she is in the throes of an addiction to alcohol. The journey from the first signs of addiction to the final stage of alcoholism is a slippery slope that can be years in the making. Being alert to the initial stages can help a person recognize a growing dependence on alcohol in his or herself or a loved one so that appropriate help can be obtained.

First Signs of Alcoholism

One of the first signs that a person who enjoys social drinking has started to cross the line to a more serious issue is that alcohol use is no longer part of a social activity only. One sign that the individual is starting to move toward an addiction is when he or she begins to use alcohol as a way to deal with stress, boredom or emotional issues. The alcohol is used as a way to smooth out the rough edges of life and make the individual feel better.

Increased Tolerance to Alcohol

An individual who drinks regularly will begin to develop a higher tolerance for alcohol. This person will consume larger amounts of alcohol than his or her friends and family members who drink. The higher level of tolerance becomes apparent when the drinker does not appear to be intoxicated after consuming a relatively high level of alcohol.

No Hangover

Common symptoms of a hangover include feeling tired, having a headache and being dehydrated. Some people experiencing the aftereffects of significant alcohol consumption experience a lack of appetite or diarrhea. For a person who is a light-to-moderate drinker, consuming between five and seven drinks in four or six hours will likely trigger a hangover.

The person who is in the initial stages of alcoholism is less likely to experience these symptoms after a similar level of consumption. If he or she does develop a hangover, it will result from heavier alcohol use.

Functioning Alcoholic

A person who exhibits the first signs of alcoholism is not likely to show any physical signs of addiction, such as stomach upset, ulcers and a red, bloated face. He or she is probably able to hold down a job, and relationships with friends and family members have not yet been significantly affected by alcohol use. The individual is also probably keeping up with hobbies and interests in spite of his or her drinking.


If a person who is in the early stages of an addiction to alcohol is confronted about his or her drinking, the first response will be denial. At this stage, statements such as the following are common:

  • I don't have a problem with alcohol.
  • I can stop drinking any time I want to.
  • If you would just stop nagging at me and leave me alone, I wouldn't have to drink.
  • You don't know what you are talking about.
  • If you had gone through what I've been through, you would be drinking too.
  • I drink because of (experience or stresser).

Take Care with Confrontation

Confronting someone in the first stages of addiction is something that should be considered very carefully before proceeding, and it's always best to do so under the guidance of a professional counselor trained in intervention techniques. Doing so may drive the problem underground as the individual takes steps to conceal when and how much he or she is drinking. Family members who are concerned about a loved one's drinking should consult their family doctor to dicuss the entire issue and receive medical guidance. They may also wish to contact Al-Anon/Alateen for advice and support in this challenging situation. Alcoholism is a serious, life-threatening illness. If you can recognize those first signs of addiction, you or your loved one can get help sooner and have a better chance for recovery.

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First Signs of Alcoholism