Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism – What’s the difference?
Last Updated: November 10, 2023
While moderate drinking may not always have consequences, alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) for some individuals.
Alcohol consumption is common in the U.S. As of 2019, 85.6%1 of American adults reported consuming alcohol during their lives, and 69.5%1 reported drinking alcohol within the previous year. While moderate alcohol consumption may not come with any consequences, the reality is alcohol use can become problematic for some people. Some individuals may struggle with alcohol abuse, whereas others may develop an alcohol addiction. Learn about the difference between alcoholism vs. alcohol abuse and how to get treatment.
What Is Alcoholism?
People often use the word “alcoholism” when referring to those addicted to alcohol, but this is no longer considered a politically correct term. Alcoholism is a colloquial term, but the proper term2 for alcohol addiction is alcohol use disorder (AUD). An AUD is a legitimate medical condition that makes it difficult for a person to control their drinking. When someone has an AUD, they experience brain changes leading to ongoing alcohol use, even in the face of consequences.
What Qualifies as Alcoholism?
A person must show at least two symptoms to meet the diagnostic criteria2 for an alcohol use disorder. An alcohol use disorder can be mild (two to three symptoms present), moderate (four to five symptoms present) or severe (six or more symptoms present). Diagnostic criteria include:
- Consuming larger amounts of alcohol than intended
- Spending a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from the effects of a hangover
- Being unable to reduce alcohol use
- Experiencing strong alcohol cravings
- Giving up hobbies in favor of drinking
- Continuing to drink despite relationship problems caused by alcohol misuse
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol so larger quantities are needed to achieve the same effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like tremors, nausea or sweating when not drinking
- Drinking in dangerous situations, such as driving while under the influence
- Continuing to drink even when it causes health problems
- Failing to meet obligations at home or work because of alcohol consumption
When a person has an alcohol use disorder, they often require treatment to help them stop drinking. No single treatment approach works for everyone; treatment should be tailored to meet each person’s unique needs. People can participate in inpatient treatment, meaning they live on-site at a treatment facility, or they may choose an outpatient program, allowing them to continue living at home and work while receiving services.
Treatment for an alcohol use disorder often involves participating in behavioral treatments like individual therapy and attending mutual self-help groups2 like AA. In therapy sessions, people can learn tools for preventing relapse and increase their motivation to stay in recovery. Medications are also available to reduce cravings and lower the risk of relapse.
For people who have been drinking heavily for an extended time, alcohol use disorder treatment should begin with an inpatient or medical detox program. In cases of severe alcohol addiction, withdrawal symptoms can be serious3 and even life-threatening. Patients may need treatment with medications called benzodiazepines to reduce the risk of severe or fatal complications. After completing a medical detox program, patients can transition to an inpatient or outpatient rehab facility where they participate in counseling and other services.
What Is Alcohol Abuse?
People often use the terms “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol use disorder” interchangeably, but each word has a different meaning. A person can abuse alcohol without meeting diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder, but alcohol abuse may lead to an alcohol use disorder over time. In general, alcohol abuse is misusing alcohol by consuming more than what is considered safe or healthy.
What Qualifies as Alcohol Abuse?
A person does not have to meet diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder to show signs of alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse occurs when someone misuses alcohol by engaging in heavy or binge drinking1. Binge drinking is defined as a man drinking five or more drinks in about two hours or a woman drinking four or more drinks over two hours. Heavy drinking is binge drinking for five or more days in a month.
Another form of alcohol abuse is drinking in a manner that could cause harm to yourself or others. Underage drinking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy both fall under this category of alcohol abuse.
Treating Alcohol Abuse
A person who abuses alcohol may not meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, but they are engaging in risky drinking behavior. They may benefit from attending mutual support groups to help reduce their drinking or talking with a doctor about what constitutes moderate alcohol consumption. If alcohol abuse goes untreated, it may become more severe, leading to alcohol use disorder.
Diagnosing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
If you or someone you love is having difficulty controlling their drinking, it may be time to seek treatment for alcohol use disorder. Awareness of the signs of alcohol abuse is helpful, but only a professional can diagnose an alcohol use disorder. A doctor or a behavioral health professional, such as a clinical psychologist, social worker or mental health counselor, can perform a screening for AUD, make a diagnosis if necessary and help develop a treatment plan.
Treatment for Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse in South Jersey
If you’re looking for AUD treatment in South Jersey, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We serve the Greater New Jersey area 20 minutes outside Philadelphia and offer treatment services for AUD, including medical detox and inpatient and outpatient rehab.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” March 2022. Accessed August 26, 2022.
- National institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed August 26, 2022.
- McKeon, A.; Frye, M.A.; Delanty, Norman. “The Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry, 2008. Accessed August 26, 2022.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.