Many people believe heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder are the same. But, from a medical standpoint, they’re not synonymous. Experts establish a clear difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction.
Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol addiction, more formally known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), is a medical condition with far-reaching physical, emotional, and social ramifications. While someone who occasionally overindulges can still exercise control, those grappling with addiction often require professional intervention. For them, recovery is often a lifelong journey.
The difference between alcohol abuse, misuse, and AUD lies in the intensity and degree of dependence.
While misuse may lead to negative consequences, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a full-blown physical dependency. Withdrawal symptoms may occur but are generally less severe than those experienced by someone with AUD.
Similarities Between Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
At their core, alcohol abuse and addiction share many similarities:
- Strong cravings
- Drinking more despite being intoxicated already
- Getting sick from drinking
- Experiencing frequent hangovers
- Alcohol tolerance
- There is a higher risk of liver and heart diseases, gastrointestinal issues, and injury while intoxicated
- Other symptoms include worsened coordination and reaction times, nausea and vomiting, lowered body temperature and blood pressure, and slowed breathing and pulse
Social and Psychological Symptoms:
- Missing or avoiding social situations due to hangovers
- Failing to meet professional duties
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Only spending time with other people who also drink heavily
- Getting into dangerous situations or engaging in risky behavior while drunk (fights, driving fast and under the influence, unsafe sexual encounters, etc.)
Differences Between Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Despite these similarities, a few key factors that distinguish between misuse and addiction include:
- Frequency and intensity of alcohol consumption. Someone who abuses alcohol might drink more than is healthy (more than 14 units of alcohol per week) but may not be physically dependent. A social drinker who drinks too much during parties but otherwise doesn’t drink as heavily is an example of alcohol abuse, but not necessarily addiction.
- Control over alcohol consumption. Someone entirely dependent on alcohol would have a much harder time cutting back or stopping once they start drinking. In contrast, others who drink heavily but aren’t dependent may still be able to realize they’ve reached their limit and control.
- Withdrawal symptoms and cravings. While alcohol misuse leads to strong cravings and difficult-to-break habits, such as having a drink in the morning to fight off a hangover, people who aren’t addicted can overcome them and go on with their day without feeling too sick.
Recognizing the Signs of Alcohol Abuse
The signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse tend to be short-term consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, leading to issues such as:
- Behavioral changes. Alcohol causes chemical changes in the brain, potentially leading to or worsening depression or anxiety. Other behavioral and mental issues alcohol can cause or influence include poor judgment, unstable moods, and poor attention spans.
- Putting off responsibilities. People who abuse alcohol may neglect working or taking care of their family to further indulge in drinking, even after realizing drinking interferes with their personal and professional lives.
- Deterioration of relationships with others. Namely their romantic partner and close family members. Alcohol abuse may lead to poor communication, sexual dysfunction, and trust issues. The friction caused by one person’s alcohol abuse can create toxic environments for everyone in the family.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
People addicted to alcohol face all the signs and symptoms of people who abuse alcohol to a higher degree, but also face the following additional challenges:
- Lack of control. Alcohol abuse becomes an addiction when you can no longer control your alcohol intake and cannot quit alone. This leads to continued drinking no matter the circumstances and worsens withdrawal syndrome.
- Stronger alcohol cravings. Someone addicted to alcohol will feel uncomfortable at social events that lack alcohol and may avoid other activities in favor of drinking. They may also look forward to consuming alcohol when they wake up, after work, or not show up to work in the first place due to experiencing a hangover.
- Very high tolerance. If you’re addicted to it, alcohol usually relaxes you, relieves stress, and makes you feel. However, the longer you drink, the less effective alcohol becomes at making you feel good. This is known as tolerance, and people addicted to alcohol are more tolerant, leading to more drinking as the only way to feel alcohol’s effects.
If you’re facing any of these in addition to alcohol abuse signs and symptoms, there’s a good chance you’re struggling with alcohol addiction.
Consequences of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
When a person is feeling stressed, they may turn to a cup or two of alcohol to relieve negative emotions. However, over time, one drink can turn into three drinks, and so on, going from alcohol abuse to alcoholism.
Once you develop alcoholism, you open yourself to long-term consequences such as:
- Illnesses. Such as liver damage, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal problems, nervous system damage that affects cognitive and motor functions, and a weakened immune system.
- Mental illness. The relationship between alcohol and mental illness is complex and unpredictable, but alcohol may cause or exacerbate mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It also makes you more vulnerable to other mental illnesses.
- Social consequences. Long-term alcohol addiction deteriorates your relationships, isolates you from your loved ones, and may cause financial losses from spending too much on alcohol or losing your job.
Finding Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol use, you should seek professional help as soon as possible. Try searching for alcohol abuse and addiction assessments online. They provide criteria you can use to determine how serious your condition is.
After that, talk to your primary healthcare provider. They can direct you to treatment for alcohol abuse, alcoholism, or any co-occurring mental illnesses.
Whatever your stage of alcohol abuse, there’s always something you can do to improve your situation and increase your quality of life, so don’t be afraid to reach out.