The terminology surrounding alcohol use can make it difficult to differentiate between alcoholism and problem drinking. The terms binge drinker, problem drinker, high-functioning alcoholic, social drinker, and alcoholic are sometimes used interchangeably, and the distinction between them isn’t always clear.
However, there are differences between alcoholism vs. problem drinking. While both can have a negative impact on your life as well as the lives of those around you, it’s important to understand the main differences between alcoholism and problem drinking.
What Is Alcoholism?
An alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, and this addiction is typically physical and mental. For alcoholics, the lure of the next drink is overwhelming, and people with alcoholism are usually unable to stop drinking following that first glass.
Although alcoholics can successfully become sober, they may exhibit withdrawal symptoms when they detox. As their body is physically addicted to alcohol, reducing their intake can result in physical symptoms occurring. In part, this is why it’s so important for alcoholics to have professional support and alcohol treatment when they give up drinking.
Generally, alcoholics find it difficult to go without alcohol for any length of time, and their thoughts may constantly be focused on when they can have their next drink. Despite clear evidence of the negative impact of their drinking, alcoholics may ignore the effects of their alcohol consumption, however catastrophic they might be.
What Is Problem Drinking?
Problematic drinking does not typically involve physical addiction to alcohol, but it can still have a detrimental impact on the individual and the people around them. While problem drinkers may be able to go weeks or months without consuming alcohol, when they do drink, it tends to have negative consequences, including, but not limited to:
A problem drinker may miss work after a night of drinking, for example, or they may get into unnecessary arguments with people when they’ve consumed alcohol. Similarly, problem drinkers may feel depressed or angry after consuming alcohol, and they may exhibit violent behavior. Meanwhile, problem drinkers may engage in reckless spending or other negative conduct, such as driving under the influence of alcohol alienating friends and family missing important events.
Alcoholism vs. Problem Drinking
Both alcoholism and problem drinking clearly have detrimental effects, so what are the differences between the two? One of the major differences between alcoholism vs. problem drinking is a physical dependency. Typically, problem drinkers are not physically addicted or dependent on alcohol, whereas alcoholics are. As a result, a problem drinker is less likely to experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking or access alcohol treatment.
Many people also cite the frequency of drinking as a differentiating factor between problem drinkers and alcoholics. As problem drinkers do not usually experience physical withdrawal symptoms, they may go for relatively long periods of time without drinking. A problem drinker may not consume alcohol for weeks, for example, but will exhibit harmful or unwanted behavior when they do.
In contrast, alcoholics are not typically able to resist drinking for long periods of time. As they are physically addicted to alcohol, they may continue drinking on a daily basis in order to avoid experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms.
A further distinction between alcoholism vs. problem drinking may be the way in which individuals approach their alcohol consumption. Alcoholics may continue to drink, despite any consequences which arise. If an alcoholic loses their jobs, alienates their family and/or loses their home as a result of their behavior, for example, they may still continue to drink, despite the harm it causes.
On the other hand, problem drinkers may feel more able to overhaul their lifestyle once they acknowledge and accept the negative consequences of their drinking. If a problem drinker receives a DUI or receives a warning at work due to repeated lateness, for example, this may prompt them to reduce their alcohol consumption or to obtain alcohol treatment in order to give up drinking altogether.
Does Problem Drinking Lead to Alcoholism?
Not all problem drinkers will become alcoholics, particularly if they recognize the impact their drinking has and obtain appropriate alcohol treatment. However, problem drinkers who continue to consume alcohol frequently may be at risk of developing alcoholism.
As the body becomes used to consuming alcohol, the risk of dependency increases and physical addiction can occur. And although a problem drinker may not currently be physically addicted to alcohol, continued drinking could lead to physical dependency and, therefore, alcoholism.
When Is Alcohol Treatment Required?
Both alcoholics and problem drinkers can benefit tremendously from alcohol treatment. The vast majority of alcoholics will require alcohol treatment in order to successfully detox and become sober. Due to the effects that withdrawal symptoms can have on the body, alcoholics are always advised to seek medical advice when altering their consumption and professional alcohol treatment is usually recommended.
As well as assisting alcoholics with the physical withdrawal symptoms associated with detoxing, alcohol treatment focuses on many other areas.
When receiving treatment, for example, individuals may be encouraged to examine the root cause of their drinking, as well as identifying the negative consequences their drinking has. Problem drinkers do not typically experience physical addiction to alcohol, however, they can certainly be emotionally and mentally reliant on alcohol.
If an individual lacks confidence in social settings, for example, they may consume alcoholic in an attempt to relax or appear more confident, for example. Despite the negative consequences which arise from their drinking, a problem drinker may continue to consume alcohol for reasons similar to this.
By obtaining alcohol treatment, however, both problem drinkers and alcoholics can address the causes and effects of their drinking patterns, and successfully become sober. Although some problem drinkers may feel able to give up alcohol without professional intervention, alcohol treatment can be extremely beneficial for both alcoholics and problem drinkers.
With the right support and assistance, problem drinkers and alcohols can successfully give up drinking, begin to repair the damage their alcohol consumption has caused, improve their health, reconnect with loved ones and become sober.