What Is the Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?

what is the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism

Although people often use the terms alcohol abuse and alcoholism to describe problem drinking, they are not the same condition. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the term that refers to the full range of alcohol misuse and eventual disease. If you wonder what the difference is between alcohol abuse and alcoholism, read on.

What is Alcohol Abuse?

According to the CDC, alcohol abuse is the pattern of heavy drinking that causes harm to someone’s health, relationships, and work. Many people pick up these drinking habits in early adulthood, such as at college. While most will adjust their drinking as they mature, some will go on to develop alcoholism in the future.

A person may engage in alcohol abuse for various reasons. Some people are influenced by their peers, and go along with binge drinking for social reasons. Others may abuse alcohol as a way to escape some troubling issues. Still, others use alcohol to numb a mental health challenges, like depression.

The CDC has provided guidelines to help people gauge their alcohol consumption. It states that men should limit their alcohol to no more than two drinks per day. For women, a safe level is one drink per day. Binge drinking results when a person consumes five or more drinks in a two-hour session.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a disease that can result from prolonged and chronic heavy drinking. The AMA defines alcoholism as a primary, chronic disease influenced by genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors. Alcoholism often involves both dependence and addiction.

The compulsive need to drink alcohol is triggered by cravings and withdrawal symptoms. This keeps the person in a never-ending cycle of drinking, which is very hard to break out of. The adverse effects of alcoholism on the body and mind are immense. It can affect all organs and body systems, causing disease and mental distress.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is the term used in the DSM-5 to diagnose alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction. The number of signs and symptoms present will determine how severe the AUD is: mild, moderate, or severe.

Signs and symptoms of AUD may include:

  • Not able to limit or stop drinking.
  • Drinking takes priority above all else. Much time is spent getting the alcohol, drinking, and recovering from drinking.
  • Alcohol cravings.
  • Hiding alcohol; lying about how much you drink.
  • Having memory blackouts.
  • Falling behind on obligations at work or at home.
  • Keep drinking despite mounting problems caused by the drinking.
  • Engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as driving under the influence.
  • Withdrawing socially, giving up hobbies, and avoiding social events.
  • Increased tolerance to the effects of alcohol.
  • Have withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off.

Why Does Alcohol Abuse Lead to Dependence or Addiction?

Chronic alcohol abuse causes the body to adjust in response to its constant presence. Little by little, the body becomes used to alcohol. As tolerance to alcohol increases, so does alcohol consumption. Over time, it takes more and more alcohol to achieve the desired effects. This is a key difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Alcohol has a direct impact on the brain. At first, the brain’s reward center records the relaxed, pleasant effects of alcohol as a good thing. This positive message is etched into the reward system as something that should be done again. Over time, the brain’s neurotransmitters become altered in response to the alcohol, and the neural pathways are remapped.

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The first signs of alcohol dependence are the withdrawal symptoms you have when the alcohol wears off. You may feel nauseous, or find yourself sweating or your hands trembling. This is the body telling you that it now needs alcohol, as it has become dependent on the substance.

Alcohol addiction occurs when you can no longer control the drinking. Drinking becomes compulsive, with strong cravings and a need to drink. Addiction is the most severe stage of alcoholism.

How to Break Free From Alcoholism

Breaking the grip of alcoholism will require lifelong effort and commitment. To begin the process, you must complete a detox and withdrawal. Alcohol detox should always be done under medical supervision. This is due to the rare but deadly delirium tremens that can arise without warning a few days into the detox.

A team of trained detox experts observes your progress, vital signs, and withdrawal symptoms throughout the detox process. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, which depend on the duration and stage of the AUD. Other factors that influence the symptoms are health, age, history of detox attempts, and mental health.

The team will provide medical support to help reduce the effects of the symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Hand tremors; shaking.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Shaking
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Confusion; disorientation.
  • Elevated heart rate.
  • Elevated blood pressure.
  • Fever
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens.

What to Expect in Rehab

The difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism helps to determine the proper level of care. For instance, outpatient care is fine for someone in the early stages of alcohol abuse. A residential setting, however, is the best level of care for moderate to severe AUD. These programs provide 24-hour support and a more intensive approach to treatment than outpatient programs.

Treatment elements include:

  • Therapy. Individual and group therapy is at the center of alcohol rehab. You will engage in various therapies, such as CBT, DBT, and MET. Through therapy, you are guided toward learning new ways of managing triggers and stress.
  • 12-Step Program. AA’s 12-Step program is often integrated into the treatment elements.
  • Education. You will acquire a better understanding of how alcohol addiction occurs, and learn new coping skills to help sustain sobriety.
  • Holistic activities. Activities that enhance the effects of therapy include mindfulness training, yoga, art therapy, acupuncture, massage, equine therapy, and recreational therapy.

AUD is highly manageable with an ongoing commitment to sobriety, and a solid support network at your side. Reach out for help today.

Rehabs Malibu Offers Treatment for All Levels of Alcohol Use Disorder

Rehabs Malibu is an upscale residential addiction recovery center that provides evidence-based treatment for alcoholism. The difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is just time, in most cases. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, please reach out to our team today at (424) 425-3541.