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What is the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction?

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on November 16, 2023

Alcohol abuse is the consumption of alcohol to levels that inflict damage on your health, relationships, and finances. Alcohol addiction is a physiological dependence on alcohol, to the point that you experience significant distress when you don’t have it in your system. Alcohol abuse can lead to alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction almost always involves alcohol abuse. 

We’ll go deeper into these distinctions, and we’ll cover what you can do if you suffer from alcohol addiction or alcohol abuse.

Table of Contents

Excessive alcohol consumption can ruin your health, work, and relationships. Whether you’re addicted to it or you’re abusing it regularly, the result is the same: heavy drinking can wreck every aspect of your life

Do you think it’s time for a change? Our alcohol rehab center is at your disposal. We’re here to help you break the cycle of alcohol addiction through comprehensive treatment and support.

What is alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that ends up damaging your health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work and function in daily life. If you’re abusing alcohol, you’re well on the road to alcohol addiction. 

You’re probably drinking routinely and in large amounts, or binge drinking, showing poor judgment while intoxicated. However, just because you are abusing alcohol does not always mean you have crossed the line into full addiction. When abusing alcohol, you may or may not have some ability to moderate your alcohol consumption or abstain for periods of time. 

But be careful—alcohol abuse may easily lead to addiction.

What is alcohol addiction?

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, alcohol dependence, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a disease characterized by a person’s inability to control their drinking despite severe negative consequences. Addiction involves physical dependence, tolerance, and cravings for alcohol. If you’re addicted to alcohol, you are most certainly abusing it, so alcoholism almost always entails alcohol abuse

Someone with an alcohol addiction will continue to compulsively drink even when it begins to destroy their physical health, mental health, relationships, finances, and ability to function at work or school. 

When you’ve been addicted to alcohol for a long time and stop drinking, you’re likely to experience terrible withdrawal symptoms. That’s because excessive drinking has altered your brain’s chemistry.

Here’s how alcohol addiction negatively affects the brain:

  • Years of excessive drinking lead to significant shrinkage and loss of gray and white matter in the brain. You may not think it possible, but your brain can actually shrink in volume from heavy alcohol abuse. A 2022 study found that “alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure.” 
  • Dopamine levels drop, leading to depression and fatigue. This neurotransmitter is critical for mood, motivation, and the brain’s reward system. By altering dopamine reward pathways, alcohol can lead to cravings and compulsive drinking behavior over time, where you feel a strong urge to drink more and more despite negative consequences. Di Chiara suggests that “alcohol-related stimuli maintain their motivational significance even after repeated alcohol administration, which may contribute to the craving for alcohol observed in alcoholics.”
  • Alcohol addiction decreases GABA production. GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter that has calming effects on the brain. Low levels of GABA in the brain result in increased anxiety, irritability, and poor impulse control. According to Banerjee, “physical dependence, which refers to the pharmacological tolerance induced by chronic alcohol intake, results in [alcohol withdrawal syndrome] and is neurobiologically supported by the imbalance between GABA and glutamate-NMDA neurotransmission.”
  • Years of heavy drinking can also damage your prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for executive functions such as planning and self-control. With an impaired prefrontal cortex, you’re more likely to engage in risky behaviors, poor decision-making, and impulsivity.
  • Alcohol is toxic to the brain. Over time, it kills neurons and destroys the supporting structure of neurons leading to their death. This neurotoxicity contributes to shrinkage of the brain, impairment of executive functions, memory loss, and motor deficits commonly seen in alcoholism.

Are you sure you want to order another one? It’s not easy to say no. Alcohol has immense power over your thoughts and behaviors once addiction sets in. But recovery is possible with the right help and commitment to change. 

If you’re ready to take the first step toward a healthier, alcohol-free life, contact Ardu Recovery Center today

What are the warning signs of abuse?

Alcohol abuse still carries risks and warning signs that shouldn’t be ignored. Here are some key symptoms that your drinking may have crossed over into alcohol abuse territory:

  • You frequently drink alone.
  • You lie about or hide your drinking habits.
  • You experience blackouts.
  • You neglect obligations due to intoxication. It happens often enough that your performance at work, school, or home is affected.
  • You spend significant time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol.
  • You experience mild symptoms of withdrawal when you cut back or stop drinking. 

People with alcohol use disorder always abuse booze to the point of physical and emotional addiction.

How do you recognize an alcoholic?

Alcoholics often try to conceal their drinking habits, but alcohol use disorder manifests itself through an array of physical and psychological symptoms.

Here are some physical symptoms of alcohol addiction:

  1. Memory impairment, blackouts
  2. Severe headaches
  3. Hand tremors
  4. Slurred, erratic speech
  5. Disrupted sleep cycles, insomnia
  6. High blood pressure
  7. Irregular heart rate
  8. Frequent nausea and vomiting
  9. Diarrhea or other digestive issues
  10. Loss of appetite and weight loss
  11. Impaired liver and kidney function
  12. Clammy, jaundiced, and dehydrated skin
  13. Bloodshot, glassy eyes

If you think you may be suffering from any of these physical manifestations of alcoholism, it’s never too soon to ask for help. The sooner you start your road to recovery, the easier the process is for you.

Let’s take a look at some further tell-tale signs it may be time to get help.

  1. You drink despite negative consequences.
  2. You sneak alcohol or hide it from others.
  3. You gulp drinks, binge drink, or drink quickly to the point of risking alcohol poisoning.
  4. You develop a high tolerance to the effects of alcohol.
  5. You often worry about where to get alcohol next.
  6. Unexplained mood swings: depression, anger, euphoria.
  7. You’re unable to stop drinking alcohol.
  8. You neglect responsibilities at work, school, or home.
  9. You drop hobbies and activities to spend time drinking.
  10. Your relationships are strained.
  11. Your finances suffer from your drinking habits.

Our Utah rehab center will help you break the cycle of dependence on alcohol. At Ardu Recovery Center, we provide comprehensive treatment for alcohol addiction, including medically monitored alcohol detox, counseling, group support, and aftercare planning. 

What are the similarities between alcohol abuse and addiction?

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are often conflated. They share similarities that can make you confused: are you abusing alcohol or are you dependent on it?

Both alcohol abuse and alcoholism involve excessive and dangerous drinking. The main similarity is that both indicate unhealthy relationships with booze that require intervention to avoid escalating negative consequences. And while you may abuse it without any signs of dependence or addiction, being addicted to booze means you are severely abusing it.

Here are some of the core similarities between alcohol abuse and addiction:

  • Both involve drinking above moderate, healthy levels on a regular basis.
  • Both mean drinking has become a priority over other aspects of life.
  • Both lead to negative consequences in terms of relationships, work or school, finances, and legal problems. 
  • Both put strain on family members and friends due to unpredictable behaviors.
  • Both increase the risks of injuries, accidents, violence, and physical harm.
  • Both impair judgment, decision-making abilities, and motor control.
  • Both are associated with partaking in impulsive or dangerous behaviors.
  • Both make mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety worse.
  • Both can progress into worse patterns if drinking continues unchecked. This means they both require lifestyle changes and new coping techniques to overcome.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help and turn to our trained medical staff at Ardu Recovery Center. Our individualized programs address all types of unhealthy drinking to set you on the path to recovery. We employ all forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral treatment, motivational interviewing, and experiential treatment to disrupt alcohol dependence. 

Take the first step and contact us today.

How does alcohol abuse differ from alcoholism?

We’ve seen how alcohol abuse and addiction can overlap in some areas. But despite certain similarities on the surface, the differences between misusing alcohol and becoming clinically dependent run deep. 

Here are the following key differences between alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder:

  1. They differ in the amount and frequency of alcohol used and the levels of control.
  2. They differ in the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.
  3. They differ in how they affect your health and life.
  4. They differ in the ways they are treated.

The differences in drinking behaviors

  • With alcohol abuse, you can still exercise some control over your drinking. You may be able to successfully cut back or stop drinking for periods of time if you really want to.
  • When you’re addicted, you’ve lost all control and ability to limit your drinking. 
  • Alcohol abusers still experience some restraint, such as only drinking on weekends or special occasions. 
  • Alcoholics have no restraint once they start drinking.
  • During binges, alcohol abusers may have 4 to 5 drinks on one occasion. On some days, they may drink moderately, while on others, they overdo it. 
  • Alcoholics frequently have 10 or more drinks in a single session. Every drinking session is aimed at complete intoxication and chasing that dangerous high.
  • With alcohol abuse, you tend to drink heavily in spurts, maybe binging for a night or two on the weekends, but then not drinking for multiple days. It’s not an everyday thing.
  • When addicted, you feel like you need alcohol every single day, all day long. You’ll start drinking first thing in the morning just to stave off withdrawal symptoms and maintain that constant tipsy feeling.

The differences in withdrawal symptoms

  • In the abuse phase, quitting cold turkey won’t make you break a sweat. No shakes, nausea, or risk of life-threatening seizures. Your brain doesn’t freak out without booze yet because it’s not addicted to it. Abusers might experience some discomfort—maybe irritability, trouble sleeping, or mild stomach issues.
  • In full-on addiction, your neurons are so used to being soaked in alcohol that cutting it off makes them go haywire. We’re talking crippling anxiety, tremors, spiking blood pressure: the whole mess. Your withdrawal symptoms often progress to a full-blown alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), which can pose a serious threat to your life.

The differences in how they impact your life and health

  • Alcohol abuse takes a toll, but addiction systematically devastates every aspect of life through chronic toxicity and uncontrolled drinking. 
  • Abuse can negatively affect your work performance and strain relationships.
  • Alcoholism often destroys careers, sabotages marriages, and ruins finances as drinking becomes the main priority overriding all else.
  • Abusers may experience some negative effects and deteriorate the health of your organs and your entire body and mind.
  • Alcoholism causes chronic, potentially fatal health issues such as liver disease, heart failure, dementia, and neurological decline. It can lead to hospitalizations, malnutrition, memory deficits, and psychiatric issues.

The different treatment needs

  • With alcohol abuse, outpatient treatment and counseling may be effective in changing unhealthy drinking habits and reducing binge episodes.
  • Alcoholism often necessitates intensive inpatient rehabilitation with medical detox, psychotherapy, and aftercare planning to fully regain control over the alcoholic’s life.
  • Abusers may benefit from support groups that help them build motivation and learn moderation techniques.
  • Alcoholics frequently require 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous as well as formal treatment to manage addiction long-term.

Do you want to end your fight with alcohol?

It’s not easy to quit alcohol. With professional guidance, compassionate support, and proven treatments, a flourishing recovery is possible. At Ardu, we offer a full spectrum of alcohol treatment options to help you triumph over alcohol use.

The first step in treating alcohol dependence is safely managing detox and withdrawal symptoms. We offer both medical detox and holistic detox supervised by caring experts.

Medical detox uses medications to relieve alcohol withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, tremors, insomnia, and seizures. Holistic detox relies on nutrition therapy, supplements, acupuncture, exercise therapy, and other non-pharmacological therapies to aid your body’s natural detoxification. With around-the-clock monitoring and supportive care, we ensure your comfort and safety during this pivotal transition.

Our recovery center welcomes anyone who’s struggling with alcohol to overcome their addiction. Our dedicated team of professionals is here to guide and support you in your treatment process, laying the foundation for long-term sobriety and relapse prevention.

To enroll in an Ardu alcohol rehab program, contact Ardu Recovery Center online or via phone (801-810-1234). We will work with you to find a recovery path that works for you during the detox process and beyond. 

Read our admissions process page for additional information.

Alcohol abuse vs addiction FAQ

What are the criteria for addiction?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides the standard criteria health professionals use for diagnosing addiction. Key criteria include: 

  1. Consuming more alcohol over longer periods than intended
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to cut back
  3. Excessive time spent acquiring alcohol
  4. Cravings for alcohol
  5. Recurring alcohol use resulting in failure to fulfill roles
  6. Continued drinking despite interpersonal problems
  7. Important activities given up to drink
  8. Drinking in hazardous situations
  9. Alcohol tolerance
  10. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

If you meet two to three criteria from this list, you might suffer from a mild disorder, meeting four to five is moderate, and six or more, is severe. 

What is the difference between alcohol addiction and disorder?

Alcohol addiction and alcohol use disorder are essentially two terms for the same diagnosable condition characterized by uncontrolled, compulsive alcohol use despite negative consequences. This compulsive excessive drinking can lead to a wide range of health issues such as heart disease and infectious diseases, liver problems, kidney issues, problems with cognition and memory, and even cancer. 

Both terms refer to a chronic substance use disorder where drinking becomes an uncontrollable behavior and primary focus of life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provides criteria for assessing alcohol use disorder, ranging from mild to severe. So while the terminology differs, alcohol addiction and alcohol use disorder both indicate dysfunctional drinking that continues regardless of the many adverse effects.

What are the two types of alcoholics?

The two main types of alcoholics are functional alcoholics and chronic alcoholics. Functional alcoholics, also known as high-functioning alcoholics, are able to maintain external signs of success like jobs, relationships, and financial stability despite drinking excessively. Chronic alcoholics suffer severe external consequences where drinking destroys careers, finances, relationships, and physical health. 

Both exhibit addiction and uncontrolled consumption, but the key difference is that functional alcoholics disguise it better outwardly despite internal addiction. However, prolonged abuse leads to chronic alcoholism eventually.

What is alcoholism best defined as?

Alcoholism is best defined as an involuntary, progressive disease caused by heavy, compulsive drinking that continues despite causing severe behavioral, physical, and mental health consequences. Someone suffering from alcoholism feels powerless to control their urge to consume alcohol persistently, sacrificing health, personal relationships, employment, and stability in the process. 

Alcoholism involves physical dependence and constant cravings where drinking becomes necessary to feel normal due to changes in brain neurochemistry brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. 

What are the 2 harmful effects of binge drinking?

Two major harmful effects of binge drinking are acute intoxication injuries and alcohol poisoning. Consuming more than four drinks for women or five or more drinks for men in under 2 hours causes immediate impairment, raising risks of car crashes, falls, assaults, burns, and other trauma. 

Excessive binge drinking also brings the danger of alcohol poisoning through respiratory depression, potentially causing seizures, coma, and even death. Other issues include unintended pregnancies, legal troubles, relationship conflicts, risky sexual behavior, and long-term increased risks of chronic diseases.

What is the main cause of alcohol abuse?

The main causes of alcohol abuse are complex and influenced by an interplay of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors. There is no single dominant cause. Abuse arises from the cumulative impact of multiple predisposing factors interacting for each person.

Key drivers include:

  • A family history of alcoholism increases genetic susceptibility.
  • Mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety or depression) that prompt self-medication.
  • Peer pressure and the availability of alcohol especially during youth.
  • Impulsivity and risk-taking personality tendencies
  • Using alcohol to cope with stress, trauma, or emotional pain. 

Who does alcohol abuse affect the most?

Some key groups that alcohol abuse impacts most are:

  • Young adults aged 18-24, especially college students, have higher rates of binge and heavy drinking. Developmental factors like impulsivity and reduced perception of risk contribute.
  • People with mental health disorders have double the rates of alcohol abuse since many use it to self-medicate conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
  • Those with a family history of alcoholism have a higher genetic susceptibility to abusing alcohol and progressing to addiction.
  • People exposed to high stress, such as healthcare workers, have elevated drinking levels to cope.

While abuse affects all demographics, these groups tend to be disproportionately impacted compared to the general population.

What does alcohol or substance abuse mean?

Alcohol or substance abuse refers to the recurring use of alcohol or other drugs in ways that negatively impact health, work, relationships, or finances. This includes heavy drinking, binge drinking, taking medications in ways other than prescribed, and illegal drug use. While sometimes viewed as less severe than addiction, abuse still indicates dangerous, unhealthy consumption that can have significant behavioral, physical, mental, and social consequences. Abuse also often progresses to full addiction if left unchecked. 

What is the harmful substance in alcohol?

Ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, is a harmful intoxicating substance in liquors like beer, wine, or liquor. Though popular culturally, ethanol is toxic to the human body in high amounts. It is metabolized by the liver but creates the toxic byproduct acetaldehyde that damages cells and causes widespread inflammation when consumed chronically or in large volumes. 

This along with ethanol’s dehydrating effects and impact on brain chemistry leads to a host of medical, psychiatric, behavioral, and social harms connected to alcohol abuse or addiction. 


Daviet, R., Aydogan, G., Jagannathan, K., Spilka, N., Koellinger, P. D., Kranzler, H. R., Nave, G., & Wetherill, R. R. (2022). Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank. Nature Communications, 13(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-28735-5

Chiara, G. D. (1997). Alcohol and Dopamine. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), 108-114. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826820/

Banerjee, N. (2014). Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A review of neurobiological and genetic studies. Indian Journal of Human Genetics, 20(1), 20-31. https://doi.org/10.4103/0971-6866.132750

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