Alcohol Use vs. Alcoholism: Understanding the Difference

Alcohol Use vs. Alcoholism: Understanding the Difference

An estimated 14.5 million adults in the United States had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2019.

Additionally, excessive alcohol use is responsible for approximately 95,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.

Alcohol is a widely accepted and frequently consumed substance in many cultures across the world. While moderate alcohol use can be safe for most people, excessive drinking can lead to various health problems.

Alcoholism is a condition that develops when a person becomes dependent on alcohol and is unable to control their drinking habits. In this article, we will explore the difference between alcohol use and alcoholism.

What is Alcohol Use?

Alcohol use refers to the consumption of alcoholic beverages in moderation. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol use is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. It's important to note that one drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

Moderate alcohol use has been associated with various health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. However, excessive drinking can lead to a range of negative consequences, including:

  • Increased risk of liver disease, cancer, and other health problems
  • Impaired judgment and coordination, leading to accidents and injuries
  • Relationship problems, such as conflict with family and friends
  • Legal issues, such as arrests for driving under the influence (DUI)

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder, is a chronic condition in which a person becomes dependent on alcohol. People with alcoholism have a strong craving for alcohol and feel unable to control their drinking habits, even when it causes negative consequences in their life.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcoholism is diagnosed based on the following criteria:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Being unable to cut down or stop drinking
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from its effects
  • Craving alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences, such as health problems or relationship issues
  • Giving up important activities in favor of drinking
  • Developing a tolerance for alcohol, meaning that they need to drink more to achieve the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking

Alcoholism can have severe consequences for a person's health and well-being, including:

  • Liver disease, such as cirrhosis
  • Increased risk of cancer and other health problems
  • Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
  • Relationship problems and social isolation
  • Legal issues, such as DUI arrests and alcohol-related accidents

Alcohol Consumption Differences: Moderate Drinking, Binge Drinking, and Alcoholism

When it comes to alcohol consumption, there are different patterns of drinking that can have varying impacts on your health. Understanding the differences between moderate drinking, binge drinking, and alcoholism is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Moderate Drinking

Moderate drinking refers to consuming up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Studies have shown that moderate drinking may have some health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking involves consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, typically within two hours. Binge drinking is defined as consuming a certain number of drinks in one sitting.

  • For women, it's four or more drinks, and
  • For men, it's five or more drinks.

Binge drinking can lead to a range of negative consequences, such as increased risk of accidents and injuries, alcohol poisoning, and long-term health problems.


Alcoholism is characterized by an inability to control one's drinking habits despite negative consequences. Individuals with alcoholism may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking and may prioritize alcohol over other important activities.

According to a study conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 14.5 million adults (6.2 percent of the population) had an alcohol use disorder in 2019. The study also found that an estimated 401,000 adolescents aged 12-17 had an alcohol use disorder in 2019.

It's important to note that excessive drinking - whether through binge drinking or alcoholism - can have significant impacts on a person's physical and mental health. While moderate drinking has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease, excessive drinking can lead to liver disease, cancer, mental health problems, and other health issues.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that can be difficult to detect in its early stages. However, there are several signs and symptoms that may indicate a person is struggling with alcoholism. These include:

  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school due to drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences, such as health problems or relationship issues
  • Needing to drink more to achieve the same effect (tolerance)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking, such as shaking, sweating, nausea, or anxiety
  • Drinking in the morning or early in the day to relieve withdrawal symptoms (hair of the dog)
  • Giving up activities they once enjoyed in favor of drinking
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from its effects
  • Becoming defensive or angry when confronted about their drinking habits

If you or someone you know is exhibiting these signs and symptoms, it may be an indication of alcoholism. It's important to seek help from a healthcare professional or addiction specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment.

The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain and Nervous System

Alcohol affects the brain and nervous system in various ways. When alcohol is consumed, it quickly enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain, where it can affect many different areas.

Short-term effects

  • Prefrontal cortex: One of the first areas affected by alcohol is the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making, reasoning, and impulse control. As a result, people who have been drinking may experience impaired judgment and may make decisions they wouldn't normally make when sober.
  • Cerebellum: Alcohol also affects the cerebellum, which is responsible for coordination and balance. This can lead to slurred speech, stumbling, and a lack of coordination.

Long-term effects

  • Brain shrinkage and nerve damage: Long-term alcohol use can have even more severe effects on the brain and nervous system. Chronic alcohol use can lead to shrinkage of the brain and damage to nerve cells. This can result in a range of cognitive problems, including difficulty with memory, attention span, and learning new information.
  • Peripheral neuropathy: In addition to these cognitive effects, chronic alcohol use can also lead to peripheral neuropathy - damage to nerves that control sensation and movement in the arms and legs. This can cause tingling or numbness in the extremities as well as muscle weakness.

It's important to note that these effects are not limited to heavy drinkers or those with alcoholism - even moderate drinking over time can have negative impacts on the brain and nervous system.

If you're concerned about your own drinking habits or those of someone you know, it's important to seek help from a healthcare professional or addiction specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment.

How to Recognize if You Have a Drinking Problem

Recognizing that you have a drinking problem can be difficult, as alcohol use is widely accepted and often socialized in many cultures. However, it's important to be honest with yourself about your drinking habits and to recognize when they may be causing negative consequences in your life.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine if you have a drinking problem:

  • Do you feel like you need to drink in order to relax or feel better?
  • Do you find yourself drinking more than you intended or for longer periods of time than you planned?
  • Have friends or family members expressed concern about your drinking habits?
  • Have you experienced negative consequences as a result of your drinking, such as relationship problems, work issues, or legal trouble?
  • Have you tried unsuccessfully to cut back on your drinking?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be an indication that you have a drinking problem. It's important to seek help from a healthcare professional or addiction specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment. With the right support and resources, it's possible to overcome alcoholism and regain control over your life.

Treatment Options for Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a chronic condition that requires professional treatment to overcome. There are several options available for treating alcoholism, including therapy and medication.


Therapy can be an effective treatment option for alcoholism. One of the most common types of therapy used to treat alcoholism is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to alcohol use.

Other types of therapy that may be used to treat alcoholism include:

  • Motivational interviewing: This type of therapy focuses on helping individuals find the motivation to change their behavior.
  • Contingency management: This type of therapy uses rewards or incentives to encourage individuals to stay sober.
  • Family therapy: Family therapy can help address relationship problems caused by alcoholism and provide support for family members affected by the disease.


Medication can also be an important part of treating alcoholism. The following medications may be used to help individuals overcome their addiction:

  • Naltrexone: This medication helps reduce cravings for alcohol by blocking the pleasurable effects of drinking.
  • Acamprosate: This medication helps reduce symptoms of withdrawal and can help maintain abstinence from alcohol.
  • Disulfiram: This medication causes unpleasant side effects when combined with alcohol, which can help discourage drinking.

It's important to note that medication should only be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes therapy and support groups.

Overall, seeking professional treatment is crucial for overcoming alcoholism. With the right combination of therapies and medications, it's possible to achieve long-term sobriety and improve overall health and well-being.

Support Groups for Alcoholism

Support groups can be a helpful resource for individuals struggling with alcoholism. These groups provide a safe and supportive environment where people can share their experiences, receive guidance, and learn from others who are going through similar challenges.

Some of the most popular support groups for alcoholism include:

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most well-known support groups for individuals struggling with alcoholism. AA is based on a 12-step program that encourages members to admit their powerlessness over alcohol and seek help from a higher power. Members attend meetings regularly and work through the steps with the support of other members.

SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery is an alternative to traditional 12-step programs like AA. SMART stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training, and the program focuses on teaching members practical skills to manage their addiction. Members attend meetings where they learn about coping strategies and work through exercises designed to help them stay sober.

Women For Sobriety (WFS)

Women For Sobriety is a support group specifically for women struggling with addiction. The group provides a safe space for women to share their experiences and receive support from other women who understand what they're going through. WFS uses a set of affirmations called "The Acceptance Statements" to help members build self-esteem and confidence in their ability to overcome their addiction.

LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing Secular Recovery is another alternative to traditional 12-step programs like AA. LifeRing is based on the idea that individuals have the power within themselves to overcome addiction without relying on a higher power or spiritual principles. Members attend meetings where they discuss their experiences and work together to develop practical strategies for staying sober.

Overall, support groups can be an important part of recovery from alcoholism. They provide a sense of community, accountability, and encouragement that can help individuals overcome their addiction and live a healthier, happier life.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, alcoholism is a serious and complex disease that can have significant impacts on an individual's physical and mental health. While moderate drinking has been associated with some health benefits, excessive drinking - whether through binge drinking or alcoholism - can lead to a range of negative consequences. It's important to recognize the signs and symptoms of alcoholism and seek professional help if needed.

Fortunately, there are many effective treatment options available for individuals struggling with alcoholism, including therapy, medication, and support groups. With the right combination of treatments and support, it's possible to overcome alcoholism and achieve long-term sobriety.


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