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Is There a Difference Between Having a Drinking Problem and Being an Alcoholic?

Contrary to popular belief, there is a difference between having a drinking problem and being an alcoholic. Not everyone who has a drinking problem is considered an alcoholic. And not every alcoholic is at the same level of alcoholism. 

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.

Alcohol use disorder

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

Binge drinking can lead to alcohol misuse, which can lead to alcoholism. But they are not the same.

All forms of problem drinking, including alcoholism and everything in between, are dangerous. An estimated 95,000 people (approximately 68,000 men and 27,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes every single year. These numbers make alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Meanwhile, in 2012, 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9 percent of all global deaths, were also attributed to alcohol use.

This article outlines everything you need to know about problem drinking vs. alcoholism.

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. But their body is not physically dependent on alcohol.

Problem drinking occurs when you start drinking too much — and 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. 

If you are drinking to avoid reality or reduce stress or suffering, you may be a problem-drinker.

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, ultimately, 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.

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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. 

However, BAC levels are different for everyone. 

Your BAC level depends on a number of factors, from your weight, how much food you’ve had that day, any medications you may be taking, etc. But one’s BAC level usually reaches .08 g/dL after four drinks for women and five drinks for men in about two hours.

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).

In 2019, 25.8 percent of people who were 18 or older reported that they’d binge drank in the past month. Another 6.3 percent said that they’d engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.

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 on end, 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.

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 is binge drinking 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, which can ultimately result 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.

What Constitutes an Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism)?

Alcoholism is defined as an addiction to alcohol. Alcoholics have developed a dependency on alcohol that impairs their ability to quit. This is due to a chemical change in their brains. They’re driven to drink more for pleasure at first. Then, they may keep drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

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 of them are considered alcoholics. 

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 are worried that you or someone you know is becoming an alcoholic, you’re not alone. An estimated 15 million people cope with alcoholism in the United States. And AUD doesn’t only affect adults. In 2019, an estimated 414,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 had AUD, too. But only about 5 percent of youth who had AUD in the past year received treatment.

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 for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

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

  • An inpatient treatment facility can take you or them in, where you or they will live for a period of time, surrounded by medical support. Mental health professionals and medical doctors work together to help along the road to recovery.
  • An outpatient healthcare facility is another option. 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 keep up with their sobriety.
  • Holistic health treatments are available for old and young adults. These may combine various techniques, such as art therapy, meditation, and traditional talk therapy.
  • Faith-based organizations can help with your problem drinking or the person in need.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you or the person in need unpack their triggers for drinking. This can aid the recovery process.

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.

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Related posts:

Resources

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“Alcohol Abuse: How to Recognize Problem Drinking.” American Family Physician, 15 Mar. 2004, www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0315/p1497.html

“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

“Alcohol Poisoning.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Jan. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386

“Alcohol Questions and Answers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Jan. 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm

“Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Apr. 2020, www.medlineplus.gov/alcoholusedisorderaud.html.

“Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4 June 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

“Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 13 Mar. 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-use-disorder-comparison-between-dsm

“Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

“Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Dec. 2019, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

“Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized.” Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, www.alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/factors-affect-how-alcohol-absorbed

Publishing, Harvard Health. “Alcohol Abuse.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/addiction/alcohol-abuse

Skerrett, Patrick J. “Heavy Drinkers Aren't Necessarily Alcoholics, but May Be ‘Almost Alcoholics.’” Harvard Health Blog, 17 June 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heavy-drinkers-arent-necessarily-alcoholics-may-almost-alcoholics-201411217539.

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