The terms alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. It’s important to understand the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence because they can have different consequences and may require different treatments.
If you or a loved one is battling alcoholism, you are not alone. Studies show that more than 85 percent of people above the age of 18 have consumed alcohol at some point in their lifetime. More worrying is the prevalence of heavy alcohol use with greater than 25 percent of people admitting to binge drinking. What often starts as social drinking can quickly progress to problem drinking and this is more common than you think.
An alcohol use survey found that millions of people suffer from alcohol use disorder. This is a medical diagnosis in which there is compulsive drinking with a loss of control over alcohol intake. Hundreds of thousands of men and women die from alcohol-related causes each year.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. In this article, we talk about the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence and how to manage these conditions.
What is Alcohol Abuse?
Simply stated, alcohol abuse is drinking too much, too often. The term refers to a problematic pattern of drinking where a person uses alcohol in a self-destructive manner.
Not sure if you or a loved one is abusing alcohol? Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you putting yourself and others in physical danger, such as by driving under the influence?
- Are you neglecting school or work and failing to fulfill responsibilities at home?
- Are you using alcohol to cope with difficult situations?
If your answer is yes to one or more of the above questions, it could indicate a problematic pattern of drinking.
The difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is that alcohol abuse does not always include a physical dependence on alcohol. If you do not feel a compulsion to drink, but you turn to alcohol to escape reality or mask difficult emotions, this is a sign of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse is not something that happens overnight. There are different stages of alcoholism.
In the later stages, a person continues drinking despite social, financial, professional, and legal consequences. Sometimes there is dangerous behavior like mixing alcohol with medications or driving when inebriated. Oftentimes, the user continues drinking even after losing their job or causing damage to relationships.
What is Alcohol Dependence?
In short, alcohol dependence is the inability to quit drinking.
If you are not sure if you or a friend or family member has become dependent on alcohol, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you find that you must drink more and more alcohol to get the same effect? (tolerance)
- Do you experience physical symptoms and negative emotions in the absence of alcohol? (withdrawal)
Tolerance and withdrawal are two of the cardinal features of alcohol dependence.
Alcohol dependent individuals will often make several unsuccessful attempts to cut down on their intake or quit drinking altogether. However, because they are not in control of their alcohol consumption, they frequently end up drinking more and for longer than intended.
Still not sure about the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence? Read on.
What’s the Difference Between Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Abuse?
The main difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is that when a person is dependent on alcohol there is a physical compulsion to drink, regardless of the consequences.
Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, is excessive drinking even in the absence of physical craving. Alcohol abuse can progress to alcohol dependence or addiction, but this is not always true.
Still not clear about – what is alcohol abuse? and what is alcohol dependence? Let’s have a look at the list of symptoms to tell the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence and assess the severity of it, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association.
List of Symptoms:
- Drinking interferes with responsibilities at home and work
- Drinking leads to reckless behavior such as driving under the influence or unsafe sexual encounters
- Drinking has continued despite problems in relationships
- Wanting alcohol so bad, you can’t think of anything else
- The person often drinks more or longer than intended
- The person spends a lot of time drinking or being sick from the effects of alcohol
- The person gives up previously enjoyed activities and hobbies in order to drink
- The usual number of drinks produces a reduced effect and more drinks are needed to get the desired effect
- There are withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, racing heart, sweating, shakiness, and trouble sleeping when the effects of alcohol wear off
- The person is unable to stop drinking despite trying to cut down or quit
- The person continues to drink even after having blackouts or suffering from other health problems related to alcohol use
If you notice yourself or a loved one has one or more of these signs and symptoms, it is time to get help.
How to Tell the Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence?
Take a look at the symptoms listed above:
- If any one of these symptoms is present in the past year, it qualifies as alcohol abuse.
- If any three of these symptoms are present in the past year, it is alcohol dependence.
Essentially, these are the questions you should be asking if you want to want to tell the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.
Can Social Drinking Lead to Alcohol Abuse and Dependence?
The subtle difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is important; however, both conditions are similar in that they often originate with the same behavior – social drinking.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. This means when you drink alcohol, your blood pressure and breathing rate becomes lower, which is why one feels relaxed after a drink.
Drinking alcohol also has other effects. It reduces inhibitions and makes social situations easier. Even as little as one or two alcoholic beverages can produce a euphoric feeling in new drinkers.
Thinking back, did you start drinking socially because alcohol made you feel relaxed? Did drinking improve your confidence? Or did you start drinking just to fit in with friends in social situations?
In reality, social alcohol consumption can quickly progress to alcohol abuse, and ultimately, to alcohol dependence or addiction. If you’re wondering whether you or a loved one is addicted to alcohol, take our self-assessment test to find out whether your drinking is problematic.
Effects of Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
Worldwide, alcohol is the third leading cause of death and disability. Although there is a fine difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, both conditions can take a serious toll on a person’s health. Below are some of the short- and long-term health consequences of excessive drinking:
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
- Slurred speech
- Blurred vision
- Slowed reaction time
- Poor coordination
- Mood swings with angry outbursts
- Loss of consciousness, coma, and death from overdose
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Dependence
- Effects on the brain with changes in mood, behavior, and ability to think clearly
- Heart problems such as irregular heartbeat (arrhythmias) and heart muscle abnormality (cardiomyopathy)
- High blood pressure
- Liver problems such as fibrosis and cirrhosis
- Pancreatitis (swelling and inflammation of the pancreas)
- Cancers of the head and neck, liver, esophagus (food pipe), breast, and colon
- Poor immunity with increased risk of infections
High-Risk Groups for Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
Most of us have drank alcohol socially and experienced hangovers, waking up after a night of drinking with symptoms like nausea, headache, light and sound sensitivity, and fatigue. But not everyone who drinks socially goes on to abuse alcohol or develop alcohol dependence.
So what’s the difference between alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse on the one hand and controlled social drinking on the other? In other words, what makes certain people more prone to problem drinking?
Several studies on alcohol use have shown a strong genetic component. Alcoholism is known to run in families. However, genetics is not the only contributing factor to the risk of alcohol abuse.
Certain groups of people have an increased propensity for alcohol abuse based on their environment, such as:
- Veterans who turn to alcohol to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in combat zones.
- Teenagers who attend unchaperoned parties and participate in games involving binge drinking.
- Working professionals with high-stress jobs who use alcohol as a coping mechanism.
If you or a loved one have a history of alcohol abuse in family members or are at high-risk of alcohol abuse based on environment, you must be vigilant and get help sooner rather than later.
Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence
There is a difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence and the treatment for the two is somewhat different.
The first step, however, is the same: Accepting there is a problem and being motivated to get help.
To find the right treatment for your or your loved one, let’s look at the DSM-5 criteria from the American Psychiatric Association, used to assess the severity of alcohol abuse (as presented earlier in the article).
Now, count how many of these symptoms are present in yourself or someone you suspect of having problematic drinking:
- If 2-3 symptoms from the list are present, the alcohol abuse is mild
- If 4-5 symptoms are present, the alcohol abuse is moderate
- If 6 or more symptoms from the list are present, the alcohol abuse is severe
Self-Help for Alcohol Use Disorder
People with mild to moderate alcohol use disorder (up to 5 symptoms from the list) may benefit from self-help to beat alcohol addiction. However, this requires a great deal of motivation and resilience. It is a more private way of recovering from alcohol dependence, but it can only be successful with a lot of self-restraint.
If you want to beat alcoholism, it’s a good idea to join support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. There are also many online resources and books to guide you through the recovery process.
If you want to help an alcoholic friend or family member overcome alcohol addiction, consider getting professional care.
Professional Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Most people with alcohol dependence can benefit from detoxification programs at alcohol addiction treatment centers such as ours. During these programs, alcohol withdrawal symptoms are medically managed by a team of professionals. This is followed up with inpatient or outpatient therapy and counseling sessions to prevent a relapse.
Such a professional treatment is the most effective way for you or a loved one to overcome alcoholism. Therapy helps change the thought patterns that were the root cause of excessive drinking and teaches you to cope with stress in healthy ways. Also, therapists help you develop skills to manage triggers and cravings.
Knowing the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is an important first step in getting the right kind of help. To learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment programs, give us a call at +353 1 458 3575 to reach our office in Ireland or +1 646 918 8223 to reach our office in New York. Calls are always private and confidential. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have a team of specialists available 24/7 to answer your questions and concerns.