How Does Alcohol Abuse Differ From Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse refers to a mild form of alcohol use disorder (AUD), while alcoholism typically refers to alcohol dependence. Although these disorders can differ, both alcohol abuse and alcoholism often require professional treatment.

differences between alcohol abuse and alcoholism

The terms used to describe problem drinking have changed over time, and for people who aren’t required to know these changes, understanding the differences between them can be confusing.

As of 2013, the clinical diagnosis to describe problem drinking is alcohol use disorder (AUD). Prior to 2013, the AUD diagnosis was split up into two distinct disorders: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

Alcoholism is a term that is sometimes used interchangeably with AUD or alcohol dependence, whereas people who struggle with alcohol abuse are not always dependent on alcohol. The signs, symptoms, and effects of these two alcohol-related conditions can therefore differ.

Despite their differences, both alcoholism and alcohol abuse can have a negative impact on overall health and wellbeing, and commonly require some form of professional treatment.

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Differences Between Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse both refer to harmful patterns of drinking, but they are not entirely the same. Understanding the differences between the two can help determine a suitable plan for treatment.

Some important differences between the two include:

Dependence: Not every person who abuses alcohol is alcohol-dependent, whereas alcohol dependence is a key symptom of alcoholism.

Dependence refers to a physical reliance on alcohol. People who are dependent on alcohol often experience withdrawal symptoms (e.g. sweating, nausea, insomnia, irritability) and strong urges to drink.

Severity: Alcohol abuse is considered a milder form of alcohol use disorder. Without treatment, people who abuse alcohol are at greater risk of developing a more serious drinking problem, resulting in higher tolerance, addiction, and dependence.

Signs: People who abuse alcohol are not as likely to feel as reliant on alcohol as someone with alcoholism. This can result in different physical signs of alcohol use.

In addition to physical dependence, key signs of alcoholism include an inability to control one’s drinking, craving alcohol, and continuing to drink despite negative effects on physical and mental health.

Treatment: The type of treatment required for alcohol abuse may differ from the treatment required for alcoholism as a result of how the disorders can differ in severity. People who are dependent on alcohol will likely need to undergo alcohol detox.

Both alcohol-related issues, however, may be effectively treated through a combination of behavioral therapy, medications, and support groups.

Unlike alcohol abuse, alcoholism (alcohol dependency) is considered a chronic mental and physical disease that can impact all areas of a person’s life.

Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, can refer to acute instances of abusing alcohol. The frequency of alcohol abuse, and the amount a person drinks can vary for each person.

Examples of how a person can abuse alcohol include:

  • drinking in order to cope with stress or emotions
  • continuing to drink despite its interference with work, school, or people in your life
  • underage drinking
  • drinking during pregnancy
  • taking serious risks while drinking (e.g. driving drunk)
  • mixing alcohol with a prescription or illicit drugs to achieve more intense effects
  • regularly drinking more or for longer than intended

How Is Someone Diagnosed With Alcohol Abuse Or Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are clinically diagnosed as an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which can be further classified as mild, moderate, or severe.

How alcohol use disorder (AUD) is classified:

  • mild: two to three symptoms
  • moderate: four to five symptoms
  • severe: six or more symptoms

In order to receive a diagnosis, a person must experience at least two of the 11 primary symptoms of AUD, shown below.

When being assessed for a drinking problem, a doctor will ask if, in the past year you have:

  • been unable to cut down on your drinking
  • ended up drinking more alcohol than intended, or drank for longer than intended
  • felt overwhelmed by urges to have another drink, struggling to concentrate
  • spent a significant amount of time drinking and recovering from the effects of drinking
  • found that your drinking (or being sick from drinking) has led to problems at work, school, or in the home
  • expressed less interest in activities or hobbies you used to enjoy
  • continued to drink despite it causing trouble with family, friends, or other loved ones
  • experienced problems with physical or mental health due to how much you drink, or have experienced memory blackouts
  • noticed you have to drink more than you used to in order to experience the same effects
  • experienced symptoms of withdrawal when the effects of alcohol have worn off (e.g. shakiness, trouble sleeping, sweating, nausea, racing heart, or seizure)

Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism

Struggling with any kind of drinking problem can have negative effects on multiple areas of someone’s life, ranging from health problems to strained relationships with your loved ones.

If you believe you or someone you know is struggling with a drinking problem, treatment is available.

At Vertava Health of Massachusetts, our treatment center offers effective treatment that is personalized for each person upon admission, based on their unique needs. This may include any previous history of substance abuse or the presence of other mental or medical health issues.

Vertava Health of Massachusetts is located in the peaceful, mountainous area of Western Massachusetts. Our facility offers a comfortable environment for patients to heal from the physical, mental, and emotional harm of their drinking through traditional and holistic treatment services.

Contact us today for more information about alcohol abuse and treatment options offered at Vertava Health of Massachusetts.


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