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Alcohol & Health
Helping Alcoholics
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Updated on September 18, 2023
6 min read

Problem Drinking Vs. Alcoholism

For many people, alcohol is enjoyed in social gatherings and celebrations. However, some people can develop an unhealthy relationship with it.

If you cannot stop drinking or constantly need to drink, you might have a drinking problem. Unhealthy alcohol use can lead to alcohol use disorders (AUD) and alcohol dependence.1

It’s essential to recognize a drinking problem early to prevent negative consequences. Alcohol use disorder can lead to long-term health problems and complications.

Understanding AUD

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic relapsing of the brain. It develops with alcohol abuse or a dependency on alcohol. It encompasses all alcohol problems, including binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism. 

Various factors can influence an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. These include:2

  • Genetic factors: A genetic predisposition to alcoholism or a family history of alcohol addiction
  • Psychological factors: Caused by stress, mental health disorders, or trauma
  • Environmental factors: Early exposure to alcohol, poverty, or easy access to alcohol

It’s important to understand the difference between drinking problems and alcoholism. This way, if you or someone you know is struggling with too much drinking, you can get the appropriate help.


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What is “Problem Drinking?”

Problem drinking is considered the use of alcohol in such a way that it negatively impacts one's health and, ultimately, their life. However, their body isn’t physically dependent on alcohol.

Problem drinking occurs when you start drinking too much — often for the wrong reasons. While many people drink a glass of wine or a beer to enjoy in social situations, others may drink it to escape or self-medicate. 

You may be a problem drinker if you’re drinking to avoid reality or reduce stress or suffering.

Signs & Risks of Problem Drinking

If you or someone you know may be a problem drinker, here are some signs to look out for:

  • Drinking to escape reality
  • Drinking to feel better
  • Drinking to avoid responsibilities
  • Drinking to calm down or destress
  • Social drinking excessively
  • Worrying about the next drink
  • Wanting alcohol in high-stress situations

Problem drinking is risky because it can quickly escalate to alcohol misuse and alcoholism. If you or someone you know is problem drinking, it may be time for an intervention.

Seeking out therapy can also help unpack the causes of problem drinking.

What is Binge Drinking?

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that elevates your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08 g/dL.3

However, BAC levels are different for everyone since your BAC level depends on several factors.

It’s important to note that not all binge drinkers are alcohol misusers. While binge drinkers have control over their excessive drinking, alcohol abusers continue to drink despite the consequences.

Alcohol misusers will keep drinking even if they face alcohol-induced health problems. They’ll also keep drinking even if they experience social, occupational, and legal consequences (DUI).

Signs & Risks of Binge Drinking

The biggest sign of binge drinking is drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. This might be one night or for several days, commonly known as a “bender.”

Binge drinking is risky because it can lead to alcohol intoxication (poisoning). Alcohol poisoning is serious and can even be fatal. It can affect your breathing, heart rate, gag reflex, and body temperature.


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What is Heavy Drinking?

While binge drinking refers to consuming alcohol heavily in a set timeframe, heavy drinking is worse. Heavy drinking is defined as a pattern of binge drinking that happens frequently. In other words, heavy drinkers have made a habit out of binge drinking.

SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.

Signs & Risks of Heavy Drinking

If someone binge drinks rather regularly, this is a sign of heavy drinking. 

Binge drinking, especially often, is risky. It can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be deadly. Heavy drinking can also lead to alcohol misuse, ultimately resulting in alcoholism.

Heavy drinking can also take a toll on your social life, your work performance, and your loved ones. Drinking problems usually don’t only affect the drinker.


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Can You be a Heavy Drinker and not an Alcoholic? 

Not all binge drinkers are alcoholics. About a third of American adults are considered excessive drinkers, but only 10 percent are alcoholics.4 

While alcoholics have an alcohol addiction, heavy drinkers have an easier time quitting. They have not yet developed an alcohol dependence.

Signs Problem Drinking is Turning into Alcoholism

If you’re worried that you or someone you know is becoming an alcoholic, you’re not alone. An estimated 28.6 million adults ages 18 and older had AUD in 2021.5

Here are some signs that problem drinking is turning into alcoholism:

  • The person experiences an inability to limit their drinking
  • The person continues to consume more and more alcohol
  • The person develops a high tolerance for alcohol that requires them to drink even more to achieve the same drunk effect
  • The person starts neglecting their self-care, like their hygiene and nutrition
  • The person drinks alone
  • The person lets their obligations and responsibilities like work, school, and family fall to the wayside
  • The person starts lying or making excuses about their drinking habits
  • The person continues to consume alcohol despite alcohol-induced issues
  • The person develops cravings for alcohol
  • The person experiences alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, irritability, and tremors

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, reach out for professional help as soon as possible.

Treatment Options/Resources for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

If you, a loved one, or someone you know is suffering from AUD or substance use, help is available:

  • Inpatient treatment: Inpatient facilities can take you in, and you’ll live there for a period of time, surrounded by medical support. Mental health professionals and medical doctors work together to help along the road to recovery.
  • Outpatient healthcare: Instead of living in the facility, you or the person in need can visit for regular checkups. This is ideal for developing alcoholics who don’t necessarily need 24/7 surveillance. It’s also ideal for recovered alcoholics who want to check in to maintain sobriety.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help you or the person in need unpack their triggers for drinking. This can aid the recovery process.
  • Support groups: Support groups exist so that no one with a drinking problem has to go down the road to recovery alone. These groups are also available to the loved ones of alcoholics and anyone with a substance use problem.


A drinking problem is typically defined as an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. This form of alcohol misuse can quickly lead to alcoholism or alcohol use disorders (AUD) if you’re not careful.

Although there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances, the health effects are the same, especially in the long run. This is why seeking professional help is very important.

Fortunately, many physical and mental side effects of alcohol use can be reversed. Treatment programs and support groups can help you achieve sobriety and break free from alcohol dependence.

Updated on September 18, 2023
6 sources cited
Updated on September 18, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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