Are you concerned your drinking is becoming excessive or unhealthy? If you’re worried about your drinking habits or witnessing concerning alcohol consumption in a loved one, you’re not alone. One in eight Americans meets the criteria for an alcohol abuse disorder.

People tend to use the terms “alcohol abuse” and “alcoholism” interchangeably, but these two mental health conditions are categorized differently. It’s possible to abuse alcohol without being an alcoholic. Find out what constitutes alcohol abuse, the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism and when it might be time to seek professional help. 

Understanding the Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they have distinct differences. It’s possible to abuse alcohol without being an alcoholic, while alcoholism typically involves an addiction to the substance. Alcoholics depend on alcohol to function in their daily lives, while alcohol abusers may not drink daily but simply develop unhealthy habits surrounding alcohol consumption. 

Knowing the difference between alcoholic vs. alcoholism enables you to determine whether seeking professional treatment is necessary. In some cases, alcohol abuse may be managed through lifestyle changes rather than therapy or other treatment methods. 

What Is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse occurs when alcohol consumption results in repeated adverse consequences. Essentially any time drinking alcohol has a negative impact on your life, it’s become a problem that requires attention.

Abusive alcohol consumption can look like binge drinking (consuming 5+ drinks within 2 hours for men or 4+ drinks within 2 hours for women) or excessive drinking that results in bad behavior and reckless decision-making. People who abuse alcohol may find themselves frequently in legal trouble, having relationship problems or being unable to secure regular employment.

The CDC recommends no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink per day for women to avoid the risk of harm and chronic disease. Therefore, individuals regularly consuming drinks in excess of these guidelines may be defined as abusing alcohol.

Is Alcohol Abuse the Same as Alcohol Dependence?

No; although many people believe these are the same, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are two separate issues. People who are abusing alcohol may have unhealthy habits when they’re drinking (such as bingeing), but that doesn’t mean they’re physically dependent on alcohol and require it daily. In fact, the CDC found that 9 in 10 people who consume too much alcohol aren’t alcoholics or alcohol dependent.

People with alcohol dependence experience physical symptoms when they don’t consume alcohol. Alcohol dependence is classified as a chronic medical condition where an individual has a craving for or continues engaging in drinking even though they can’t control their consumption. While 1 in 3 adults reports excessive drinking, only 1 in 30 is actually alcohol dependent. Alcohol dependence is a component of alcoholism.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a mental and physical dependence on drinking alcohol. It’s a disease where the individual requires alcohol in order to function normally (without withdrawal symptoms) on a daily basis. Alcohol dependence can look like:

  • Increased tolerance levels
  • Withdrawal (feeling ill without alcohol consumption within a certain timeframe)
  • Cravings 

While the CDC reports that 90% of people who abuse alcohol don’t fit the criteria for alcoholism, it’s still a serious concern in the United States. Ten percent of Americans who drink excessively are classified as alcoholics, according to Reuters

Reuters also notes that a key difference between alcoholics and alcohol abusers is the dependency. While alcoholics typically require treatment to stop consuming alcohol, alcohol abusers may be able to choose to limit their consumption based on circumstances like their financial situation. 

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) encompasses alcohol abuse, alcoholism and alcohol dependence. It’s a brain disorder that can be measured on a scale of mild, moderate or severe depending on the level and frequency of consumption and adverse effects. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the risk for developing AUD increases when you engage in behaviors like binge drinking and heavy alcohol use.

The NIAAA says it assesses the level of AUD a person is experiencing based on how many symptoms from this list a person exhibits: 

  • Mild = 2-3 symptoms 
  • Moderate = 4-5 symptoms 
  • Severe = 6+ symptoms 

Any number of symptoms is concerning and indicates treatment for alcohol use or abuse is necessary. 

How To Evaluate When Drinking Is a Problem

While the above metrics provided by the NIAAA can be used to measure the level of abuse taking place, any amount of excessive alcohol consumption is a problem. However, while abusers may be able to choose to cut back, people with alcohol dependency disorder require professional treatment to get and stay sober. 

Symptoms indicating you or someone you love has an alcohol dependency disorder (alcoholism) include: 

  • Drinking beyond your control 
  • An inability to stop drinking voluntary 
  • Being constantly intoxicated
  • Drinking every day 
  • An increased tolerance (needing to drink more to feel the effects)
  • Overreacting to criticism of your drinking habits 
  • Lying about your drinking habits 
  • Getting into financial trouble as a result of purchasing alcohol excessively 

If you or someone in your life is exhibiting any or all of these symptoms, it’s time to seek professional help. Long-term alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency can increase the risk of several health problems, including some types of cancer and liver disease. 

Start the Journey to Recovery

At Sunlight Recovery, we have a team of compassionate counselors on hand 24/7 to take your initial call and discuss the available treatment options. We offer inpatient detox programs with medical support to assist with the withdrawal process. However, we also have outpatient programs to support alcohol recovery, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy and more.  

Call us today at (888) 402-3647 to start your path to recovery and a better quality of life through our treatment programs.