Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse describes risky drinking, more than what’s healthy. Alcohol abuse can lead to an alcohol use disorder, a diagnosable condition commonly known as alcoholism. 

Alcohol consumption is common in the United States. In fact, nearly 70% of American adults state that they consumed alcohol in 2019. Unfortunately, around 26% of adults also reported engaging in binge drinking — a form of alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse can eventually lead to alcoholism, a condition that can affect physical and mental health in many damaging ways.

Not everyone who abuses alcohol develops alcoholism, but alcohol abuse does increase the risk of addiction. Alcohol abuse and addiction can be difficult to recover from alone, but help is available at professional rehab centers like The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper.

Table of Contents

How Does Alcohol Abuse Differ From Alcoholism?

  • Alcohol abuse describes risky drinking, or drinking more than what is considered healthy. Alcoholism is a term generally used to refer to alcohol addiction. 
  • A person who abuses alcohol doesn’t necessarily have an alcohol use disorder — the clinical term for alcohol addiction.
  • An alcoholic has lost control over their drinking and requires treatment to stop drinking. Someone who abuses alcohol but is not addicted can take steps to control their drinking, such as deciding not to drink during the workweek. 

Alcohol Use Disorder: DSM-5 Criteria

Alcoholism generally refers to an alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term used for alcohol addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes specific criteria a person must meet to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. 

There are 11 different diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder, but a person only has to meet two or three of them to be diagnosed with a mild alcohol addiction. Someone who meets four to five criteria has a moderate alcohol use disorder, and meeting six or more criteria indicates a severe alcohol use disorder.

Diagnostic criteria include:

  1. The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use of the substance.
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from its effects.
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use the substance, occurs.
  5. Recurrent use of the substance results in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. Use of the substance continues despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of its use.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of use of the substance.
  8. Use of the substance is recurrent in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Use of the substance is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    1. A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect.
    2. Withdrawal syndrome for that substance (as specified in the DSM-5 for each substance).
  11. The use of a substance (or a closely related substance) to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

What Is Considered Alcohol Abuse? 

Although people with alcoholism do abuse alcohol, not everyone who abuses alcohol will meet the criteria for an alcohol addiction.

The drinking levels described by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) can help to define alcohol abuse. According to the NIAAA, moderate alcohol consumption is one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks at once for a woman and five or more for a man. Heavy drinking can be defined as five or more instances of binge drinking over the course of a month. This means consuming more than seven drinks in a week for a woman and more than 14 for a man. 

Both heavy drinking and binge drinking constitute alcohol abuse, and these behaviors come with numerous risks. In addition to increasing a person’s chances of developing addiction, alcohol abuse is linked to

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Automobile accidents
  • Drownings
  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Falls
  • Drownings
  • Violence
  • Sexually transmitted infections

Alcohol Abuse Symptoms 

Someone who abuses alcohol may or may not have an alcohol use disorder. For example, alcohol abuse can involve sporadic instances of drinking more than what is considered healthy, which doesn’t typically meet criteria for alcoholism.

Some signs of alcohol abuse are:

  • Engaging in heavy drinking, such as drinking until intoxicated at bars or restaurants
  • Experiencing blackouts 
  • Feeling “hungover” the day after drinking due to consuming such a large quantity of alcohol
  • Vomiting or otherwise becoming ill after drinking 
  • Drinking to the point of participating in risky behaviors like unprotected sex or drunk driving

What Is Considered Alcoholism?

Someone who abuses alcohol may not necessarily be an alcoholic. The difference between alcohol abuse vs. alcoholism is that a person with alcoholism will meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. This means that they have a legitimate medical condition that makes it difficult for them to control their drinking without professional intervention.

People with alcoholism are at risk for many of the consequences that come along with alcohol abuse, including health problems and potentially fatal accidents. Alcoholism also causes lasting changes in the brain and leads to compulsive alcohol consumption. This can cause a person to drink to the point that they face legal consequences, job loss and problems caring for their family.

Alcoholism Symptoms

Some symptoms of alcoholism may be similar to those seen with alcohol abuse. Still, there are several symptoms related specifically to alcohol addiction. These include:

  • Continuing to consume alcohol, even when it makes health problems like high blood pressure worse
  • Having arguments with loved ones about drinking
  • Consuming excessive quantities of alcohol
  • Trying to cut back on drinking but not being able to do so
  • Giving up hobbies because of drinking
  • Drinking so much that one is unable to function at work or take care of household responsibilities 
  • Showing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as sweating, tremors, sleep problems and nausea
  • Experiencing frequent alcohol cravings 
  • Having a high tolerance for alcohol; large quantities of alcohol do not create a feeling of being drunk 

Alcohol Dependence Scale (ADS)

When diagnosing alcoholism, addiction professionals may use the Alcohol Dependence Scale. Researchers have found that this tool is reliable, meaning that it gives consistent results. It is also valid, which indicates it can accurately identify those who have an alcohol use disorder. 

Addiction professionals can use this scale to help determine if a person meets criteria for an alcohol use disorder. The tool can be administered in just five minutes. 

How Long Does It Take To Become an Alcoholic?

People often wonder how long it takes to become addicted to alcohol, and there isn’t a clear answer that applies to everyone. Some people can binge drink regularly and never develop an alcohol addiction, while others may quickly become addicted once they begin drinking. Of course, drinking larger quantities and frequently consuming alcohol increases the risk of addiction. For example, someone who binge drinks every weekend is more likely to become addicted than someone who drinks only in moderation.

Individual factors also determine how quickly someone develops alcohol addiction. For example, people who begin drinking during the early teen years are more likely to develop alcoholism compared to those who begin drinking later in life. Family history, genetic factors and psychological concerns can also increase the risk of alcohol dependence. 

Alcohol Abuse Treatment and Alcohol Rehab

Treatment for alcohol abuse often begins with a professional detox program, where patients receive medical support as the body rids itself of alcohol. In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can lead to serious and potentially fatal symptoms like seizures and a condition called delirium tremens. For this reason, it is important to seek a medical detox program where staff can monitor your symptoms and give medications to prevent withdrawal. 

After detox, patients transition to an ongoing treatment program to help them address the underlying issues that led to alcohol addiction. Some patients transition to an inpatient program that involves living onsite at the facility while recovering from an alcohol use disorder. These programs remove triggers for drinking and are often a starting point for alcohol rehab after a person completes detox. Some patients begin with an outpatient program, which involves living at home and visiting the clinic or rehab facility for regular appointments. In many instances, a person begins with an inpatient program and then transitions into outpatient care once inpatient treatment ends.

For those seeking alcohol rehab services in the state of New Jersey or the Philadelphia area, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help. We offer a full continuum of care, including medical detox, inpatient rehab and outpatient services. Contact us today to learn about our programs or complete the admissions process.

Get Help

If you or someone you love is facing an alcohol use disorder, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help. We offer medical detox and comprehensive rehab programs that are tailored to suit your needs.

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.