How Long Does It Take To Get Addicted to Alcohol?


Often when speaking to parents or family members, we hear the question ‘how long does it take to get addicted to alcohol?’. The truth is that the answer to this question is quite complex, and is different for every individual. If you are looking for answers and more information, keep reading below to hear from the experts how quickly addiction can develop.

How Long Does It Take To Become an Alcoholic?

Many people have stereotypes about what an ‘alcoholic’ looks like, but the truth is that addiction does not discriminate based on age, gender, income, or race. In the same way, a person does not need to have been drinking for 50 years to be classed as an alcoholic.

In fact, one may be able to be diagnosed as having ‘substance use disorder’ in as short a timeframe as a few months. When being assessed by a professional for addiction, they may ask you questions such as:

  • Do you ever drink more alcohol than you intend to?
  • Have you ever tried to cut down or quit before, and haven’t been able to?
  • How much of your time do you dedicate to drinking, buying alcohol, and recovering from drinking?
  • Do you ever experience strong cravings or urges to drink?
  • Have you ever failed to do what was expected of you because of your drinking?
  • Do you keep drinking despite it causing problems in your relationships?
  • What activities did you used to enjoy that you now no longer do, or do less, because of your drinking?
  • Have you ever drank in dangerous situations, like driving drunk, or blacking out in public?
  • Do you keep drinking despite the negative physical or psychological side effects?
  • Do you need to drink more now than you used to in order to get the same effects?
  • Have you ever experienced withdrawal symptoms once you stop drinking, or used alcohol in order to relieve these symptoms (like ‘hair of the dog’)?

How Fast Can You Get Addicted to Alcohol?

Addictions can develop in as short a timeframe as a few weeks, or a few months. When asking the above questions, most professionals will include “in the past 12 months”, as this is the time frame that most psychological diagnostic criteria require. However, if you have identified with at least 2 or 3 of the above questions, you may be at risk.

It is important not to wait to seek help if you or a family member have any concerns about risk of addiction. Early intervention is key to ensuring quick recovery and preventing severe physical and psychological consequences from long term addiction.

This brings us to one of the key things about addiction: that alcoholism is actually made up of two dependencies: a physical addiction, and a mental addiction.

How Long Does It Take To Become Physically Addicted to Alcohol?

A physical addiction to alcohol describes a state where your body has come to expect and depend on the intake of alcohol in order to function. The first sign of this is developing a tolerance, meaning you need more alcohol to get drunk than you did before. The second sign is developing withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking which are alleviated when you start to drink again.

Things you can look out for to notice if a physical dependency is developing include:

  • Tolerance: being able to ‘hold your liquor’, being a ‘heavyweight’, or ‘drinking people under the table’ may indicate a high tolerance for alcohol.
  • Withdrawal: having emotional or physical difficulties after stopping drinking that are often cured by starting to drink again (for example, ‘hair of the dog’)
  • Cravings: having strong or intense urges to drink
  • Inability to Control How Much You Drink: perhaps you can never only have just one, or even if you know you should stop, you keep drinking
  • Physical Changes: gaining weight, particularly in the stomach region, a general red flush to your face, and increased skin texture
  • Health Consequences: Perhaps you’ve noticed a weak immune system, troubles with your liver, digestion issues or other health consequences

How quickly someone can develop a physical addiction depends on a variety of factors, but it can be developed in as little as a few weeks to a few months. The key factor is how often, and how much someone is drinking. The best course of action is to seek out a medical professional who can complete an assessment if you, or someone you care about, may be developing a physical addiction.

How Long Does It Take To Become Mentally Addicted to Alcohol?

A mental addiction to alcohol describes a kind of psychological and emotional dependency that can develop long before a physical dependency takes place. This occurs in most people who describe ‘needing’ alcohol for one function or another.

Some thoughts or statements that may indicate a level of mental dependency include:

  • I can’t relax without a drink
  • I’ll just have a couple pre-gamers to help me feel confident
  • It’s not fun if we’re not going to be drinking
  • I just feel more like myself when I’ve had a few
  • A couple glasses just help me to unwind after the work day
  • Are you sure they serve alcohol at that party/restaurant?
  • I get way too anxious to socialise without a few drinks
  • Alcohol really hits the spot when you’re feeling a little sad or a little lonely

How quickly someone can develop a psychological addiction depends on many factors, but a good way to consider if you have a level of emotional dependency is to ask yourself “what would happen if I couldn’t have alcohol in this instance?”. If you start to worry, feel uncomfortable, or anticipate a negative experience, this may be a sign that something serious is starting to develop.

A physical addiction may be ‘broken’ with a medically supervised detox, however a mental addiction is far more difficult to overcome. If any of the above statements felt applicable to you, or you’ve heard them from a loved one, please consider seeking professional therapeutic support.

Summary – How Long Does It Take To Get Addicted To Alcohol?

Understanding the journey from occasional drinking to addiction reveals a swift timeline, often within a few months. While exactly how quickly this can happen is not an easy answer, we can see how seemingly innocent thoughts can transcend into a psychological addiction fairly easily.

Early intervention for addiction, or potential addiction is vital; however, it is never too late to seek out professional intervention. The question should not necessarily be ‘how long does it take to get addicted to alcohol’ but more so, ‘how quickly can I get help’.

Clinically Reviewed By

Brittany Hunt

Brittany Hunt is an internationally experienced clinician, specialised in treating addictions and co-occurring disorders. Having worked in the public and private sector, she utilises holistic and evidence-based approaches designed to empower the patients in their recovery journeys. A graduate of The University of Auckland, she has a Bachelor of Health Sciences majoring in Mental Health and Addictions, a diploma in Psychology and Counselling and a Post-Graduate degree in Health Sciences, majoring in Addictions. She is a fully registered practitioner under the Drug and Alcohol Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ).

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