According to the CDC, one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is considered moderate drinking.

Two in every three adults report drinking above those levels at least once per month. But when does drinking more than the recommended amount cross the line between problem drinking vs alcoholism?

While these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are big differences between them. But because both can cause havoc in your life, knowing how to approach treatment is paramount.

If you think you or a loved one might have a problem with alcohol, we’ll explain all the differences so you can spot the problem and seek the right kind of help.

Problem Drinking vs Alcoholism: Is There A Difference?

It’s difficult to tell when someone has a problem with alcohol. Unlike illicit drugs like heroin or methamphetamine, alcohol is legal. Many people can enjoy alcohol responsibly.

Making it even more difficult to tell the difference is the fact that there are also high functioning alcoholics. Learn more about what that means and how to tell if someone is a high functioning alcoholic.  

But in terms of problem drinking and alcoholism, the differences in symptoms and treatment are profound. The main difference between the two is physical dependence.

If you’re a problem drinker, you may experience negative consequences to your health and personal life as a result of your drinking. However, you won’t experience withdrawal symptoms should you choose to stop. That’s because problem drinkers aren’t physically dependent on alcohol.

Alcoholics will also face negative consequences as a result of their drinking. But in addition to those consequences, they’re physically dependent on alcohol.

That physical dependence is what feeds the addiction. Alcoholics will continue to drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

A problem drinker can go day, weeks, or months without a drink. But an alcoholic cannot function without drinking alcohol. Dependence differentiates the addiction of alcoholism from a less severe drinking problem.

How to Tell the Difference Between Problem Drinking and Alcoholism

The only way to tell the difference between problem drinking and alcoholism is to know the signs of both. Below, we outline what to look for. 

Signs of Problem Drinking

Problem drinkers often drink for similar reasons. These reasons all related to the desire to be in an altered state of consciousness. It might help you feel more confident in social situations, it may help you forget about problems and ease anxiety, or it might make you feel happy. 

Problem drinking will impact your personal life, relationships, and responsibilities. You might miss work, school, and family functions as a result of your drinking.

You may damage relationships with friends and family. It can also cause you to isolate yourself socially.

It can also lead to financial trouble when you prioritize buying alcohol over other responsibilities. That’s part of the risky behavior that comes with problem drinking. 

Some of the physical manifestations of problem drinking include blacking out when you drink. You might also feel angry, violent, or depressed, during or after your drinking. If you’re defensive about how much you drink when someone mentions it, you may unconsciously be aware that there’s a problem.

Signs of Alcoholism

Alcoholics have all of the above signs with the addition of physical dependence. Alcoholism is classified as a disease. It’s characterized by the compulsive need to drink despite negative consequences.

When a person is an alcoholic, they are physically and mentally unable to stop drinking. They experience uncontrollable cravings. If they reduce or stop their alcohol consumption, they experience severe withdrawal symptoms.

The physical and mental addiction to alcohol is what differentiates an alcoholic from a problem drinker.

According to one study, the majority of problem drinkers can overcome their problem drinking without any outside intervention or help. That study determined that 70% of problems drinkers were able to stop drinking without help.

Alcoholics can, of course, achieve sobriety. But in order to do so, they’ll likely need medical detox. Many also require treatment at a rehabilitation center, therapy, and ongoing peer group support.

Even after treatment, alcoholics will always have alcoholism. Meaning that they’re always at risk for relapse. 

Treatment For Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism

If a problem with drinking is left too long, it can turn into alcoholism. Alcoholism is a progressive disease and the first steps are problem drinking. Luckily, problem drinkers can control their drinking with willpower and perhaps a little extra help.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides an online questionnaire. You can take that questionnaire to determine if you’re drinking too much. They also provide helpful information on how to successfully cut down and how to set personal goals.

For alcoholics, the road to recovery requires a lot more work. When you’re addicted to alcohol, you change your brain chemistry. That means that willpower alone won’t help you recover and stay recovered.

Instead, alcoholics should seek help from an inpatient rehabilitation program. Successful recovery requires medically supervised detox and an environment that’s conducive to abstaining while your body adjusts. Alcoholics also often need ongoing individual therapy and group therapy to stay sober.

Take Your Health Into Your Own Hands

If you think you or a loved one might have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, knowing the difference between problem drinking vs alcoholism can help you seek the right kind of help. While problem drinkers are often able to stop their problem drinking with minimal help, alcoholics require a treatment program. This is because alcoholism is an addiction characterized by physical and mental dependence.

And for more information on your health, and how to take it into your hands, check out our health and fitness blog.

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