Difference Between Alcohol Abuse & Alcohol Dependence

alcohol abuse alcohol dependence
April 24, 2017
|   Updated:
March 31, 2024

There are a couple questions I get a lot when people find out I work at a treatment center. The first is how to tell if you are an alcoholic, which I covered in a previous blog. The second is whether binge drinking is the same thing as alcoholism, or if it is just harmless fun. That brings up the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Abuse

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work.” To be more specific, people who abuse alcohol experience one or more of the following problems, yet continue to drink:

  • Legal problems due to alcohol-related arrests (for example, drinking and driving or assaulting someone while intoxicated)
  • Relationship problems related to the drinking or worsened by it (such as being too intoxicated to pick up the kids)
  • Putting themselves or others in dangerous situations (such as working in the medical field while under the influence or engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors)

While they are not, by definition, alcoholics, alcohol abusers are on a slippery slope. If they continue to drink despite negative consequences, it is likely that dependence will develop.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence happens when the body becomes physically addicted, leading to intense cravings and withdrawal when alcohol is absent. Once this threshold is crossed, it is very tough to limit or stop drinking without some type of intervention or alcohol treatment.

So, if you haven’t experienced any of these problems, does that mean that your alcohol consumption isn’t a problem? Not necessarily. If it is affecting your life or your health in any way that bothers you, it’s a problem. However, if you want a more scientific answer, you can go with this one:

According to the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism, low-risk drinking is 7 or less drinks per week for women and 14 or less drinks per week for men, with 4 or less of these drinks taken on the same day. People over 21 who drink at this rate consistently and do not have health problems exacerbated by the alcohol are unlikely to develop dependence.

One of the problems with alcohol abuse is how accepted it is in American culture. For example, college life is almost synonymous with binge drinking on some campuses, and people are encouraged to have a few after work to take the edge off a stressful day. Because of these patterns, people can slip from being social drinkers to alcohol abusers without even realizing it, until the negative consequences start rearing their ugly heads.

About the Author

Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.

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