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Alcoholism Vs. Alcohol Abuse: Why They Aren’t Exactly The Same

Drinking culture is alive and well in the United States. When it comes to imbibing alcoholic beverages, millions of people appear to have no hesitation about having their fair share or more.

According to a recently released study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. adults consumed more than 17 billion binge drinks in 2015, or about 470 binge drinks per binge drinker. The research, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, shows that alcohol continues to be in demand and widely accessible to any who would have it.

“This study shows that binge drinkers are consuming a huge number of drinks per year, greatly increasing their chances of harming themselves and others,” said study co-author Robert Brewer, M.D., M.S.P.H., lead researcher in CDC’s alcohol program in a news release about the study, which the federal agency calls the first of its kind. “The findings also show the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to prevent binge drinking, focusing on reducing both the number of times people binge drink and the amount they drink when they binge.”

The widely accepted practices around alcohol, including overindulging in it, has desensitized society’s attitude toward it and those who drink it. As a result, it often is difficult for drinkers (and those around them) to know when their alcohol habit has crossed the line into alcohol abuse and when that abuse has become alcoholism.

While alcohol abuse and alcoholism are used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same. However, regardless of their slight differences, one can lead to the other, and both can harm one’s health and lead to permanent injury and death.


A person abuses alcohol when their pattern of drinking disrupts or interferes with daily activities. If a person drinks too much at one time or the person drinks several times throughout the week and finds it difficult to take care of personal responsibilities, then alcohol abuse may be the issue. Other common signs of alcohol abuse include:

  • Turning to alcohol to drink, relax, manage stress or attempt to feel “normal”
  • Blacking out temporarily or experiencing short-term memory loss
  • Avoiding responsibilities just to drink
  • Increased social isolation from friends, family members, colleagues
  • Choosing to drink alone and hiding alcohol use
  • Experiencing hangovers or feeling hungover when not drinking
  • Decreased performance at school, work


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines excessive drinking as drinking behavior that includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.

Also, according to the CDC, binge drinking is the most common form of excessive drinking. For women, four or more drinks in one single occasion is considered binge drinking while for men it is five or more drinks. Heavy drinking is different from binge drinking. For women, it is eight drinks or more a week while for men, it is 15 drinks or more.

Alcohol abuse can be thought of as the doorway to alcohol dependence, which is also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder.


Not everyone who drinks too much is going to develop an alcohol use disorder. The CDC reports that “about 90 percent of people who drink excessively would not be expected to meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder.”

As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports, problem drinking that becomes severe is given the medical diagnosis of “alcohol use disorder,” or AUD, when a person has developed a chronic relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive alcohol use. Other symptoms of AUD are a loss of control over alcohol intake and when a person experiences a negative emotional state when not using alcohol.

The NIAAA says that about 16 million people in the U.S. have an AUD. Because AUD is a medical diagnosis, there are criteria that must be met before it is determined that AUD is the case. The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) says anyone who meets two of the 11 criteria within the same 12-month period can receive an AUD diagnosis. An AUD can be mild, moderate, and severe depending on the number of criteria met.

It is important also to note that some drinkers are predisposed to alcoholism because of genetics and other major factors. As someone begins to go from abusing alcohol regularly to becoming dependent on it, their main motivation for many of their decisions is to get alcohol and drink it just to consume more. This behavior is also known as alcohol addiction. The signs of alcoholism, or AUD, include:

  • Having a high tolerance for alcohol (needing to drink more to feel high)
  • Feeling like alcohol is needed to get through the day
  • Feeling unable to stop drinking despite repeated attempts
  • Rationalizing drinking behavior
  • Regularly engaging in binge drinking or heavy drinking (as defined above)
  • Drinking more alcohol than intended
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if alcohol isn’t used
  • Drinking alcohol just to avoid withdrawal symptoms (such as fatigue, anxiety, nausea, headache, tremors, insomnia, depression, irritability)
  • Drinking despite the negative consequences that can result, such as losing a job, relationship
  • Drinking in high-risk situations, such as when operating a car

Alcoholism can lead more to serious problems for the drinker and anyone around them. Among these problems are run-ins with the law and situations that can quickly spiral out of control. Alcoholism-related troubles can include:

  • Legal troubles, arrests
  • Domestic disputes that can turn violent
  • DUI charges or accidents
  • Child-welfare concerns
  • Hospitalization or being involuntarily admitted


If you are unsure if you are suffering from alcoholism or abusing alcohol, these questions can help you determine which one you or your loved one may have.

  • Have you ever drunk more than you planned to?
  • Have you tried to stop drinking on your own but were unsuccessful?
  • Do you constantly desire to drink alcohol?
  • Have you kept drinking despite physical illness or increased depression or anxiety?
  • Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms from consuming alcohol?
  • Did you experience legal issues while intoxicated?
  • Have you had to drink more or more often to feel the desired effects of alcohol?

Questions such as these will give you or your loved one a general idea of the symptoms associated with alcoholism or alcohol addiction. Also, asking these questions to someone who may be dealing with alcohol addiction can be the deciding factor in getting the person help. There are short-term and long-term risks to alcohol use.

The CDC has outlined the following as the short-term and long-term risks of alcohol.


Excessive alcohol use has immediate effects that increase the risk of many harmful health conditions. These are most often the result of binge drinking and include the following:

  • Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns
  • Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence
  • Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels
  • Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women


Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon
  • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
  • Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment
  • Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism

Source: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC advises that drinkers cut down on their alcohol consumption so risks in both groups can be reduced.


Whether one is engaged in alcohol abuse or grappling with the challenges of full-blown alcoholism, both conditions need prompt attention. Once the alcoholism stage is reached, it can be difficult and dangerous to attempt to quit alcohol use on one’s own. Doing so can lead to dangerous alcohol withdrawal that can bring on deadly seizures, tremors and more. People at this stage may opt to seek professional treatment from a licensed drug or alcohol rehabilitation center.

Seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder will first require a medical detox that takes place at a treatment center or hospital. This kind of detox ensures drinkers who are in alcohol withdrawal are safe and kept as comfortable as possible as they are monitored and given medications for symptoms. Detox can last three to 10 days or longer depending on the severity of one’s situation.

After the detoxification process ends, clients will be evaluated for recommendations on where they should enroll in alcohol addiction treatment. An inpatient or residential treatment program gives recovering alcohol users time away from distractions so they can focus on their illness and start the early stages of recovery. These supportive environments are also structured and offer medical supervision. Staying in such a program also offers:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Addiction education
  • Relapse prevention
  • Individual therapy sessions
  • Group therapy
  • Amenities to introduce you to society without the use of drugs or alcohol
  • Introduction to support groups
  • Constant support and supervision from staff and peers

A long-term stay in an inpatient or residential facility can last 30-90 days. After an inpatient stay, an outpatient program may be recommended. These programs require fewer hours of intensive therapy and keep clients accountable for their sobriety. Recovering alcohol users also can join 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous to stay committed to their post-treatment goals.


Alcohol abuse no doubt can lead to alcohol dependence, addiction, or alcoholism. We can label it whatever we want, but the result is the same—affected individuals need help, and they need it now. If you or someone you know can’t stop abusing alcohol or is struggling with alcohol addiction, call Pathway to Hope now at (866) 643-9415. We can help you find the right facility for you or a loved one suffering from alcohol abuse. Our trained professionals are available 24/7 to assist you with any questions or concerns regarding alcoholism and where to get help. Addiction is not curable, but it is treatable, and we can help. Call us today.


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