The terms “alcoholism” and “alcohol abuse” are often used interchangeably. But what is the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism? Although both refer to problematic drinking behaviors that can impact a person’s day-to-day life, there are certain distinctions to be aware of. Today, our Clearbrook rehab is sharing a comparison of alcohol abuse vs. alcoholism to understand their differences and help you identify their symptoms in others.
What Is Alcohol Abuse?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), alcohol abuse refers to a pattern of drinking that causes significant and recurrent adverse consequences, both physical and psychological. Alcohol affects everyone differently, and while some people can have a glass or two of wine and stop there, others don’t have that sense of control.
People who abuse alcohol may have repeated run-ins with the law, such as frequent DUIs. They may struggle to maintain their relationships or to hold down a job as a result of their drinking.
It’s important to point out that you don’t have to drink every day to abuse alcohol. While those who engage in alcohol abuse tend to be frequent heavy drinkers (men who consume more than 15 drinks or more in a week, and women who consume 8 or more drinks in a week), these individuals may also be occasional binge drinkers.
A man is binge drinking when he consumes 5 or more drinks in less than two hours, and a woman is binge drinking when she consumes 4 or more drinks within two hours. Regardless of how frequently you drink, if you fit any of these descriptions, then you may have a drinking problem.
Common signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Frequently experiencing temporary blackouts or short-term memory loss
- Frequently engaging in binge drinking (having 5 or more drinks in two hours for men and 4 or more drinks in two hours for women)
- Frequently engaging in heavy drinking (consuming 15 drinks or more in a week for men and consuming 8 or more drinks in a week for women)
- Frequent irritability
- Extreme mood swings
- Making excuses for drinking such as to relax, deal with stress, or feel normal
- Choosing to drink over other responsibilities
- Reduced performance at work or school
- Relationship problems caused by your drinking
- Isolating yourself from friends and family
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Feeling hungover when not drinking
- Changing your appearance
- Changing the group of acquaintances you hang out with
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. People with alcoholism or alcohol addiction are unable to function without drinking.
They may struggle to control a persistent compulsion to drink, despite being aware of the repercussions of their habit. The major signs that someone has alcoholism are tolerance and withdrawal.
Tolerance is when they need to increase the amount of alcohol they drink to experience the same side effects. As their tolerance to alcohol increases, the more of it they’ll consume. Increased tolerance then gives way to physical dependence, which is when an individual physically needs to consume alcohol to feel normal.
When a person with alcoholism goes too long without drinking or does drink their usual amount, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can include uncomfortable and possibly life-threatening side effects like anxiety, tremors, headache, nausea, insomnia, hallucinations, confusion, fever, and more.
Alcohol is one of the most difficult substances to detox or withdraw from, which is why people with alcoholism who want to quit drinking usually undergo medically supervised alcohol detox to reduce the risk of complications.
People with alcoholism may also struggle with the compulsion to drink or have a lack of control when it comes to drinking. No matter how much they want to stop, they physically can’t.
Some common mental and physical signs of alcoholism include:
- Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but being unable to
- Feeling annoyed or defensive when people ask you about your drinking
- Feeling guilt or shame over your drinking
- Having to drink alcohol constantly to feel “normal”
- Continuing to drink despite any anxiousness, depression, or shame it causes
- Frequently experiencing situations where you drink more than you intended to
- Losing interest in hobbies or activities you previously liked since you started drinking
- Feeling urges or cravings for alcohol
- Getting into situations where your drinking increases your chances of harming yourself or others (risky behaviors like driving under the influence)
- Getting in trouble with the law because of your drinking
Alcoholism can affect both your personal and professional life, in addition to your mental and physical health. From liver disease to cancer to depression, various complications can result from untreated alcohol addiction.
How Does Alcohol Abuse Differ From Alcoholism?
The difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is that people who abuse alcohol don’t need it to function and can generally control their drinking, whereas people with alcoholism or alcohol addiction are physically dependent on alcohol and aren’t able to control how much or how often they drink. Not everyone who abuses alcohol is physically dependent on it, but alcohol dependence is a key sign of an alcohol use disorder.
Additionally, another difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is the severity of drinking. People who abuse alcohol may engage in heavy drinking or binge drinking, but they don’t need to drink every day to feel normal or satisfy an urge, unlike people with alcohol addictions.
DSM-5 Criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are diagnosed as alcohol use disorder (AUD), which may range from mild to severe depending on the severity of the person’s symptoms. To be diagnosed with alcohol addiction or AUD, a person must experience at least two of the following symptoms:
- Being unable to cut down on your drinking
- Drinking more alcohol than intended or drinking longer than intended
- Feeling overwhelmed by urges to have another drink, struggling to concentrate because you want alcohol
- Spending a significant amount of time drinking and recovering from the effects of drinking
- Noticing that your drinking (or being sick from drinking) has led to problems at work, school, or in the home
- Expressing decreased interest in activities or hobbies you used to enjoy
- Continuing to drink despite the trouble it’s causing with family, friends, or other loved ones
- Experiencing troubles with physical or mental health due to how much you drink or experiencing memory blackouts from drinking
- Noticing that you have to drink more than you used to, to experience the same effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol have worn off
Alcoholism Treatment at Clearbrook
Struggling with drinking problems can negatively impact every area of a person’s life, from their physical health to their relationships. If your drinking has gotten out of control, or if you know someone who’s struggling with alcohol abuse, our Wilkes Barre alcohol treatment can help.
Our alcohol rehab in Pennsylvania offers treatment at an inpatient level of care, which includes everything from medically monitored detox to therapy to individual and group counseling sessions. We also offer family therapy for the loved ones of our patients to help them recover from the impact of alcoholism and help build a strong support system for the individual.
If you have a drinking problem, you don’t have to deal with it alone. The specialists at our Northeast addiction treatment center are ready to help you regain control of your life.