Alcohol Abuse Vs. Alcohol Dependence | What’s The Difference?

People who drink alcohol in an unhealthy manner are often diagnosed with alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. While these terms sound similar, they refer to two separate conditions.

What Is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse occurs when you drink too much or too often. Many people abuse alcohol to cope with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), women can avoid alcohol abuse by having no more than 1 drink per day, while men can avoid alcohol abuse by having no more than 2 drinks per day.

Binge Drinking & Heaving Drinking

The NIAAA has also defined two main types of alcohol abuse: binge drinking and heavy drinking.

Binge drinking occurs when a woman has 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours or a man has 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours.

Heavy drinking occurs when a woman has more than 3 drinks per day (or more than 7 drinks per week) or a man has more than 4 drinks per day (or more than 14 drinks per week).

Risks Of Alcohol Abuse

When you abuse alcohol, you may struggle to complete responsibilities at work, school, or home. You might also engage in dangerous behaviors, such as driving while drunk, getting in physical fights, or having unprotected sex with multiple partners.

Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

In addition, alcohol abuse (especially binge drinking) often leads to blackouts.

An alcohol-induced blackout occurs when you forget what happened while you were drunk. There are two types of blackouts: fragmentary blackouts, which make you forget some things that happened while you were drunk, and “en bloc” blackouts, which make you forget everything that happened while you were drunk.

Alcohol Poisoning

People who abuse alcohol also face a high risk of alcohol poisoning (also called alcohol overdose). The most common symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • pale, clammy, or bluish skin
  • sudden drop in body temperature
  • slow or irregular breathing
  • slow heart rate
  • seizures

If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, seek medical help right away. When left untreated, alcohol poisoning can be fatal.

Increased Risk Of Disease

Finally, long-term alcohol abuse increases your risk of various diseases, including liver disease, heart disease, depression, dementia, and certain cancers. It can also lead to alcohol dependence.

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10% of people who abuse alcohol develop alcohol dependence. Alcohol dependence is a serious disease that’s also known as alcohol addiction, alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Alcohol Withdrawal

The disease occurs when you become physically dependent on alcohol. That means your body starts requiring alcohol to function normally. If you stop using it, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • shakiness
  • trouble thinking clearly
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • depression
  • mood swings
  • fatigue
  • increased heart rate
  • headache
  • sweating
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting

Some people also experience a more intense, life-threatening type of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens (DTS). Common symptoms of DTS include:

  • fever
  • severe confusion
  • seizures
  • hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there)

Along with withdrawal symptoms, people with alcohol dependence may also experience tolerance. That means they’ll need increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel intoxicated.

Signs Of Alcohol Dependence/Addiction

Other signs of alcohol dependence may include:

  • experiencing strong cravings for alcohol
  • feeling unable to stop drinking despite negative consequences, such as
  • health problems, legal problems, and damaged relationships
  • isolating from friends and family members
  • losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

Treatment For Alcohol Abuse & Alcohol Dependence

Both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence require treatment.

Some people need inpatient treatment, which means they live at a treatment center and receive constant care. Other people benefit from outpatient treatment, which means they regularly attend a treatment center while living at home.

When you enter a treatment program, you’ll receive a personalized treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Behavioral Therapy

For example, if you abuse alcohol to cope with mental health problems, your treatment plan will likely include therapy.

Your therapist will teach you healthy ways to manage your mental health, such as journaling, meditating, and changing how you view your thoughts and feelings. You’ll also learn how to overcome alcohol cravings.

Medical Detox

In addition, if you struggle with alcohol dependence, your treatment plan will likely include medical detox.

During detox, a team of health professionals will help you slowly stop drinking alcohol. This strategy lets your body gradually adjust to life without the drug, which can help you avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Other Treatment Services

Other potential treatments for alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence include:

  • medication-assisted treatment, in which doctors prescribe FDA-approved medications to ease alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  • support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery, in which you can share your experiences with other people recovering from alcohol addiction
  • wellness activities, such as yoga, exercise, and arts and crafts

If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol consumption, please contact a Recovering Champions specialist. Our alcohol addiction treatment programs offer mental health counseling, support groups, and other evidence-based, recovery-focused services.

Written by
Recovering Champions Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.

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