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You may hear people use "alcohol abuse" and "alcoholism" in the same context.
The terms sound synonymous, but they actually have different meanings. Their signs, symptoms, and effects on quality of life also differ.
Understanding the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism will help you determine the extent of your drinking problem.
With the right knowledge, you’ll also be able to identify the best treatment approach for you or your loved one.
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Alcohol abuse is a dangerous habit that can cause significant health problems.
Drinking too much alcohol puts you at risk of dangerous behaviors such as drunk driving or unsafe sex.
Abusing alcohol, however, doesn’t mean you’re addicted to or dependent on it. Long-term abuse can lead to addiction, though.
According to health experts, alcohol abuse is a milder form of alcohol use disorder (AUD).1
Alcoholism, sometimes referred to as alcohol dependence, is a brain disease characterized by excessive alcohol intake. Affected people are physically and mentally dependent on it.
If you have a strong urge to drink and you're unable to stop despite the harm it causes, you might be an alcoholic.2
Similarly, if you experience severe withdrawal symptoms when you decrease alcohol intake or stop drinking altogether, you might have a drinking problem.
Severe symptoms of alcoholism such as seizures and delirium tremens (DTs) can cause death. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know experiences severe symptoms.
You can determine the differences between alcohol abuse and alcoholism based on the symptoms, extent of use, and the necessary treatment approach.
Alcohol abusers have less severe physical symptoms than alcoholics.
For example, an alcohol abuser might experience a hangover after a night of drinking. They also often do things they regret while drinking.
On the other hand, an alcoholic might experience severe withdrawal symptoms immediately as their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) decreases.3
Some symptoms, such as seizures, can be fatal. Those who abuse alcohol frequently have a greater risk of increased tolerance and addiction.
A unique difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is the level of alcohol dependency.
While alcohol abusers drink irresponsibly, they usually can avoid drinking because they need to be sober for a specific reason or situation.
Conversely, an alcoholic can’t control their urge to drink. Even if they decide not to drink because of something important, they frequently do it anyway. They rely on alcohol to feel normal.
Alcohol abuse treatment can differ from alcoholism treatment because of differences in severity.
If you're diagnosed with alcoholism, you'll most likely start treatment with medical detox.
Detoxification is a safe way to eliminate alcohol from the body, only when it’s medically supervised.
Alcohol abusers sometimes benefit from less-intensive treatments such as behavioral therapy and counseling.
Both alcohol abuse and alcoholism can be successfully treated using a combination of therapies, including medications, behavioral therapy, and support groups.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a general term for alcohol abuse and alcoholism.4
AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), you must meet certain criteria within a 12-month assessment period to be diagnosed with AUD.
Your healthcare provider will ask you questions on the above criteria during your AUD diagnosis.
The number of symptoms identified will determine your severity level:
The more symptoms you have, the more urgent treatment is needed.
Different treatment options for alcohol use disorders are available. However, the most effective treatment for alcohol addiction may differ from person to person.5
You might experience withdrawal symptoms regardless of your addiction severity.
Symptoms usually occur between 24 to 72 hours after your last drink. Their severity can range based on the level of AUD:
If you're diagnosed with moderate to severe AUD, you’ll likely receive treatment in an inpatient or outpatient rehab facility.
In an inpatient setting, you’ll receive addiction treatment while residing in a facility. This approach is suitable for severe cases of addiction. These people aren't able to resist drinking if they aren’t continuously monitored in a controlled environment.
Outpatient treatment allows you to live a normal life while attending planned addiction treatment sessions. This approach is recommended for moderate alcohol addiction, sometimes following inpatient treatment. Those with more control or a structured home environment are also potential candidates.
During addiction treatment, your doctor can manage adverse symptoms through:
Many experts agree that treatment for AUD lasts a long time. Few, if any, people are ‘cured’ after an initial course of treatment and don’t require long-term care and follow-up.
The vast majority of ‘recovering alcoholics’ do well with informal peer-to-peer networking and meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
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