Addiction and especially alcohol addiction, is a complex thing. It is a unique experience for each person struggling with excessive drinking and an alcohol dependency. This means that there is no simple answer to how long it takes to get addicted to alcohol.

It depends on many different factors that can come from biology, history and mental illness. There’s no set amount of alcohol any person can have that will cause them to become addicted to alcohol.

How do people become addicted to alcohol?

Like with any other chemical-based addiction, alcohol addiction is caused by your brain being introduced to a stimulant.

When a person first starts drinking, they cause their brain to experience a rush of dopamine which is a chemical that causes people to feel pleasure. Also, as alcohol is a depressant, it causes people to be able to ignore their inhibitions and, in some cases, relax and have some fun.

In small amounts, the occasional drink continues to cause these rushes of dopamine. However, the danger begins when people use alcohol regularly.

Over time the brain becomes used to the chemical substance creating the extra dopamine and begins to believe that it needs it in order to produce any dopamine at all. It will be at this time when people begin to experience cravings when they are not drinking.

These cravings can often be triggered by places or people that are either associated with drinking alcohol, for example, walking past a pub. Or from triggering situations that cause a large amount of stress, for example, an important meeting at work.

When a person ignores their cravings, they will likely soon begin to experience withdrawal symptoms as their bodies are essentially panicking due to the lack of alcohol. These withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Light sensitivity
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Goosebumps
  • Fever
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Diarrhoea

It is also possible to experience an alcohol withdrawal seizure in some cases, which can be very dangerous if experienced alone.

It is recommended that if you begin to experience withdrawal symptoms, you make your way to a medical facility as soon as possible to complete an assisted alcohol detox programme.

It is also recommended that you never purposely try to work through the withdrawal symptoms alone through quitting alcohol cold turkey. Instead, you should seek assistance from an alcohol addiction rehab centre in your area.

How biology can effect the chances of alcohol addiction

As each person has a unique biology, it takes different amounts of time and different amounts of alcohol in order for someone to develop an alcohol addiction.

A person’s biology plays a big role in the formation of an alcohol addiction.

For example, some people living with a dopamine deficiency are able to develop an alcohol addiction more easily as their brains are unable to make enough dopamine. This causes the dopamine-producing alcohol to be craved much more quickly than in a healthier brain.

As alcohol is a depressive substance, many people living with some form of chronic pain are more likely to develop an alcohol addiction through self-medication.

In recent years it has become more and more common for people to self medicate using drugs and alcohol in order to try and manage their pain. But unfortunately, many of them don’t realise this will only cause the problem to get worse and real medical help is needed in order for improvement to be seen.

It is also possible for addiction to be passed down genetically.

It is not uncommon for people who have a family history of alcohol addiction or any addiction really to more quickly develop one of their own. This can be done through a number of reasons. Still, most commonly, it will be a genetic dopamine deficiency that has been passed down the family line.

Any of these biological factors can cause alcohol abuse to develop into alcohol addiction much quicker than for other people.

Does my family history of alcohol addiction put me at a higher risk?

A person’s past can massively contribute towards the development of an alcohol addiction.

If you were, for example, exposed to alcohol abuse from a young age, you might have had excessive drinking normalised.

In this case, you may begin drinking younger than others, at an age where your developing mind and body are more susceptible to quickly becoming addicted to a substance.

Trauma can also lead to someone developing an addiction for a couple of reasons.

The first one is that it can change a person’s brain chemistry and make them more vulnerable to chemical stimulants such as alcohol.

It can also be something people use the depressive qualities of alcohol in order to self medicate so that they can live a normal life.

Your history can help you miss warning signs for a developing alcohol addiction, or it can allow it to start at a vulnerable point in your life where you are able to develop an alcohol addiction much quicker.

What impact does mental illness have on addiction to alcohol?

As alcohol is a depressant, many people with certain mental illnesses such as anxiety or PTSD will use it to calm down. But unfortunately, they can quickly become reliant on alcohol in order to function in their day to day lives and develop a mental addiction even before a physical one.

A mental addiction is different to the physical one that comes from alcohol misuse. With a mental addiction, it tends to be the calming effects that keep people dependent, similarly to how cannabis works.

People living with untreated mental illness self medicate with alcohol, and then they believe they need it in order to function.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to mental illness and prolonged alcohol use and addiction can make your mental health much worse. The best way to manage your mental illness or mental health issues is to seek help through therapy which is available through an alcohol addiction rehab centre.

The stages

Where there is no definitive amount of time it takes to develop an alcohol addiction, there are stages that can help track a progression and let you know if you or a loved one has developed an addiction.

  1. Pre-alcoholic: you drink for the buzz and the enjoyment, not the need.
  2. Early alcoholic: You build a higher tolerance, start drinking in secret and may start blacking out.
  3. Middle alcoholic: Your daily life is affected, including your work and home lives. Physical symptoms such as redness and swelling will start to appear.
  4. Late alcoholic: alcohol has taken over your life. It is all you think about, and you experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms if you go too long without some form of alcohol.
  5. Recover: It is never too late to get help.

There is no ticking clock or pressure with recovery. However long it takes, you can achieve sobriety. You just have to take the first step and ask for help on 0800 012 6088.