Alcoholism vs. Alcohol Abuse: What’s The Difference?
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Last Updated - 9/22/2023View our editorial policy
Alcohol consumption is common in the United States. A 2019 government survey found that 69.5% of adults reported drinking at some point within the past year, while 54.9% reported using alcohol within the past month.
While drinking in moderation is generally considered acceptable, the unfortunate reality is that some people may abuse alcohol and develop addiction and dependence. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can lead to serious consequences. Although both come with risks, there are some key differences between alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
What Is Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol abuse involves excessive drinking, which is defined as consuming eight or more drinks per week for women or 15 or more drinks per week for men. Binge drinking, another form of alcohol abuse, is defined as four or more drinks in one sitting for women or five or more drinks in one sitting for men. A person with alcohol use disorder (AUD) is likely drinking enough to demonstrate alcohol abuse, but it is possible to abuse alcohol without meeting the diagnostic criteria for an AUD.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
Someone abusing alcohol may not meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. However, they are likely to show some or all of the signs of alcohol abuse. These signs include:
- Frequent binge drinking
- Drinking to the point of blacking out
- Making excuses about their alcohol consumption
- Stating that they need to drink to relax or have fun
- Consuming large quantities of alcohol with the intent of becoming drunk
What Is Alcoholism?
“Alcoholism” is not an actual diagnosis. When people use this term, they are typically referring to an alcohol use disorder, which is the diagnostic term for alcohol addiction. Alcoholism generally refers to a disease in which a person is unable to stop drinking.
Signs of Alcoholism
When a person has alcoholism, they will show signs associated with an alcohol use disorder. These signs include:
- Drinking larger amounts than intended
- Experiencing strong alcohol cravings
- Being unable to stop drinking, even when there is a desire to do so
- Continuing to drink, even when it causes a health problem
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol so that larger quantities need to be consumed to achieve the desired effects
- Drinking to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms
- Giving up other activities and hobbies because of alcohol use
- Neglecting duties at work or home due to alcohol consumption
- Spending a significant amount of time drinking and/or recovering from hangovers
- Drinking in situations in which it is physically dangerous, such as right before driving
- Continuing to drink despite experiencing relationship problems caused by alcohol
What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
People often use the term alcoholism to refer to alcohol addiction, but the proper clinical term for alcohol addiction is an alcohol use disorder. An alcohol use disorder is a legitimate medical condition that involves lasting changes in the brain that make it difficult to stop drinking.
AUD is a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. When someone has an AUD, they meet diagnostic criteria that demonstrate they are unable to stop drinking despite serious consequences.
What Is the Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?
The primary difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is that alcoholism refers to a legitimate medical condition, while alcohol abuse does not. Someone who is said to have alcoholism will meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder, but it is possible to abuse alcohol without having an alcohol use disorder.
While AUD does involve alcohol abuse, not everyone who abuses alcohol has an alcohol use disorder. The difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is that someone with an AUD has a chronic medical condition and has lost control of their drinking. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, is an action; it does not necessarily mean that someone is unable to stop drinking.
When Does Alcohol Abuse Become Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism)?
Alcohol abuse can lead to AUD, or alcoholism. This occurs when misusing alcohol leads to dependence. As you misuse alcohol, your body gradually adjusts to rely on the presence of alcohol to function normally. Once alcohol dependence develops, stopping alcohol use can become difficult or almost impossible. Once this occurs, an AUD has likely developed. Many people who abuse alcohol also have AUD; someone who thinks they may have developed alcoholism should see a doctor to determine whether this is the case.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will occur when someone who is dependent on alcohol stops drinking. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:
- Mood swings
- Confused thinking
- Sweaty, clammy skin
A condition called delirium tremens can sometimes develop, causing severe confusion, seizures and changes in vital signs. In many cases, delirium tremens can lead to death if not treated.
Someone experiencing moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms should always seek medical care. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly if not treated and is the most dangerous type of substance withdrawal someone can undergo. Getting help during alcohol withdrawal is essential.
Treatment for AUD
Since AUD is a legitimate medical condition, people with this diagnosis often require treatment to help them stop drinking. Treatment typically begins with a medical detox program, which can provide support and medication to patients as they withdraw from alcohol. Attempting to withdraw on your own without a detox program can be dangerous, as alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be fatal in some cases.
After completing a detox program, patients transition into an inpatient or outpatient rehab. Inpatient rehab is more intensive and requires patients to live on site at a treatment facility. Outpatient rehab occurs in the community and allows patients to live at home and continue to work. While in rehab, patients participate in behavioral services like individual and group counseling, and they often attend support group meetings like AA.
See Related: Signs You Should Go To Rehab
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