Though the terms ‘binge drinking’ and ‘alcoholism’ (known clinically as ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’) are words you are most likely familiar with, it can be challenging to determine the difference between the two. Understanding the two terms and how they coincide with one another can help one from falling victim to a possible alcohol addiction or life-long alcohol abuse. Knowing the signs and differences of both disorders can help an individual avoid an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and the possible need for treatment.
Understanding the significant differences between binge drinking and alcoholism and the possible outcomes or consequences when falling into one of the categories could be detrimental to one’s health and potentially be lifesaving to someone on the verge of an Alcohol Use Disorder.
What is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is when an individual consumes enough alcohol that their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 g/dl or above. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), you are considered a binge drinker if you are a male who consumes more than 4 alcoholic drinks in one day or a total of 15 or more in one week or a female who consumes more than 3 alcoholic drinks in one day or a total of 8 or more in one week. The average binge drinker consumes 8 alcoholic beverages per drinking session, regardless of sex. Binge drinking also does not mean one struggles with an alcohol addiction.
Who Binge Drinks?
Binge drinking does not discriminate when it comes to who indulges. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 6 adults in the United States participates in binge drinking about 4 times per month, consuming an average of 7 alcoholic beverages per incident. That equates to nearly 500 drinks a year per binge drinker.
Though many adults binge drink, it is primarily found in a younger population, specifically between the ages of 18-34. Over half of American college students admit to binge drinking, but according to the CDC 70% of binge drinking occurs among adults older than 26. Men are also more likely to binge drink and the practice is more common in groups of people with more education and a higher salary.
While some people do stop drinking heavily once they have gotten a bit older, pop culture has made binge drinking socially acceptable well into your 20s and even early 30s. In movies, television shows, and music videos alike, binge drinking is celebrated, contributing to the continuation of the dangerous practice.
What is Chronic Binge Drinking?
There is no specific definition of chronic binge drinking, but it essentially means doing so for persistent or long time. However, difference between someone who binge drinks a couple times a year and someone who does so regularly is usually easy to spot. Most chronic binge drinkers do not meet the definition for alcoholism, but they are still at risk of AUD, and their overall health can suffer. For example, these individuals will most likely develop a very high tolerance, finding themselves needing more and more alcohol to feel intoxicated though they may not yet be dependent on it.
However, some chronic binge drinkers do have an alcohol addiction and exhibit cravings and withdrawal, two prominent symptoms of AUD, when they have no access to alcohol. These people blend in easily when hanging out with other binge drinkers, but their malaise is palatable when the crowd is taken away. Often, their alcohol dependency will only be recognized by their close family or friends when they are no longer in a setting where binge drinking is acceptable. Other binge drinkers might just see them as fun and always up for a party, and this is a perfect setup to mask a drinking problem.
Binge Drinking Risks
When engaging in binge drinking, there are risks that most often involve an individual’s safety. As binge drinking means consuming mass amounts of alcohol, individuals can become severely impaired and put themselves at risk for physical non-physical injuries.
Being under the influence of alcohol may put someone at risk of falling, drowning, or other physical injuries as balance and coordination are often affected. Emotions can also be affected by high alcohol levels and result in fights, both physical and verbal, with other people.
The possibility of alcohol poisoning goes up significantly, which is dangerous to someone’s overall health and can result in an emergency hospital visit.
Binge drinking may lead to blacking out-- a situation where an individual loses all memory and does not know how they are behaving. This could lead to more injury and poor decision making, resulting in one feeling defeated, embarrassed, or confused the following day.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism)?
Alcoholism, more appropriately and clinically referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder, is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a pattern of alcohol use” that affects someone’s life drastically due to the incessant need to drink, the inability to stop thinking about alcohol, not being able to control your drinking, arising problems from drinking, the need to consume more each time to achieve the desired effect, and the feeling/symptoms of withdrawal when not consuming alcohol. Where those who binge drink may not have an addiction, those with AUD may often engage in binge drinking, especially as their dependency on alcohol grows.
AUD is a disorder that needs to be treated like any other chronic illness would. There are rehabilitation programs and centers that assist in treatment, recovery groups like Alcohol Anonymous (AA,) and remote alcohol monitoring systems like Soberlink. Though binge drinking is dangerous and poses many risks, AUD treatment and recovery must be handled with a different approach.
Binge Drinking vs. AUD (or Alcoholism) — The Main Differences
Though binge drinking and AUD may look similar, there are critical differences between the two. Being able to decipher between them may help an individual seek out the correct type of alcohol recovery assistance.
Amount of Alcohol Consumption
One difference between binge drinking and AUD is the frequency in which one drinks to excess. Those who binge drink may do so sparingly and often have gaps between each binge, whereas those with AUD drink more persistently. Those with AUD most often have a consistent routine or ritual that is rarely broken or compromised, in which they consume alcohol.
Dependence of Alcohol
Many binge drinkers can go through extended periods without alcohol because they do not have a dependency on it, though they enjoy drinking heavily. Those with AUD have an intense craving or need for alcohol because they have become dependent on it; unlike binge drinkers, they cannot go an extended period of time without alcohol consumption and without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Where and when someone drinks can help identify whether they are a binge drinker or struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder. Those who engage in binge drinking tend to do it publicly in large groups without the desire to hide it, whereas those with AUD often drink alone or in secret. Individuals struggling with AUD often drink throughout the day, whereas binge drinkers usually drink in a socially “acceptable” time frame, like afternoon or evening.
Capacity to Quit Drinking
Though binge drinking has its own set of risks and is harmful to one’s health, many who engage in the practice have the ability to stop. Those with AUD struggle to stop drinking even if they are aware of their problems and have the desire to quit.
Difference in Treatment
Though binge drinking is a serious issue, it most often does not require the same level of treatment as AUD. Where binge drinking can be solved by brief intervention and short-term treatment, like therapy, AUD requires a long-term approach.
Seeking the Proper Treatment
Knowing yourself and your habits is essential to determine what kind of treatment is right for you. Depending on your situation or possible disorder, there are a few ways to engage in treatment.
For those with AUD, their options include inpatient and outpatient centers for 30 or 60 days, which all look different depending on where you look and what option works best for your personal situation.
There are also ways to promote accountability, including AA classes and self-monitoring tools, like Soberlink’s remote breathalyzer, that can help those with AUD achieve longstanding sobriety when paired with other treatment tools. These treatment tools, however, can also be beneficial to those who struggle with binge drinking.
Though there are both similarities and differences between binge drinking and alcoholism, it is crucial to understand that they both can be detrimental to one’s health. If you feel like you are struggling with either disorder or any form of alcohol misuse, seek the help necessary to get you the proper treatment and into recovery.