There are subtle differences between alcoholism and alcohol abuse. The behaviors of people who abuse alcohol and people who qualify for an alcohol addiction sometimes look similar. Both consume copious amounts of alcohol and have difficulties stopping. Each might experience problems in school, at work, or at home, or find themselves in dangerous situations.

It’s important to understand the differences separating the two types of drinkers, especially if you worry about how much a loved one consumes. Do you know the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse? Can you pick out the things that separate an alcoholic from a heavy drinker?

Continue reading to learn more about alcoholism and alcohol abuse, as well as how to find help.

Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse: Understanding Different Drinking Levels

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) compiles various definitions of drinking levels, from acceptable to dangerous stages. It’s important to understand the differences between binge and heavy drinking, alcoholism and alcohol abuse. If you’re concerned about the drinking behaviors in someone you know, this list should provide some clarification.

Moderate Drinking

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define standard moderate drinking levels in their “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Men who consume no more than two drinks per day or women who consume no more than one per day remain within moderate levels. This doesn’t count as the average number of drinks per day throughout the week. It means no more than one or two per day.

If you do not drink already, it’s recommended that you don’t start drinking. Alcohol is a toxic substance even in small levels so it’s better to avoid it if you can. If you do choose to drink, though, remain within moderate drinking limits to avoid serious health risks. You also avoid developing more serious problems like alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Alcoholic Drink Equivalents of Beverages


Binge Drinking

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as that raises your blood alcohol concentration to a 0.08, the legal limit. Any pattern of drinking that brings BAC to that point qualifies as binge drinking. Over the course of two hours, it takes women about 4 drinks and men about 5 drinks to reach this point. 26.9 percent of adults in the United States, ages 18 and older, had at least one binge-drinking episode in the last month.

Pie Chart of binge drinking episode

Heavy Drinking

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy drinking for their annual survey. According to SAMHSA, refers to people who had 5 or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month. 7 percent of people over 18 in the United States engaged in heavy drinking practices in the last month.

People who qualify as heavy drinkers tip into the territory of alcohol abuse. They drink large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. This lowers their inhibitions and decision-making skills, landing them in dangerous situations more often. Still, although they drink heavily at the beginning, they can still usually put alcohol down after a certain point. This is one of the biggest differences between alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Low Risk for Developing Alcohol Use Disorder

NIAAA established criteria defining people who are unlikely to develop an Alcohol Use Disorder. People who remain within these limits practice what is also referred to as “low-risk drinking.” For men, this limits you to no more than 4 drinks in a day or no more than 14 drinks per week. If you are a woman, you are limited to no more than 3 drinks in a day or 7 drinks per week.

Nearly everyone who remains within these limits avoids developing an Alcohol Use Disorder. Of those surveyed by the NIAAA, only 2 in 100 who limited their drinking to these amounts had an AUD. The difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse isn’t only about how much you drink, though.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is the official medical diagnosis for alcoholism. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines the criteria for an AUD diagnosis. These 11 criteri a outline a general set of behavioral patterns displayed by people with a drinking problem. They also establish three different levels of an AUD: mild, moderate, and severe.

Binge drinking and heavy drinking refer only to a person’s drinking patterns. They take into account how much someone drinks and how quickly they drink it. One defining factor between alcoholism and alcohol abuse is the seeming inability to quit drinking. No matter what the consequences are, people with severe AUD continue drinking.

They also experience a feeling of craving. This refers to the craving for the endless “just one more” drink after taking the first one. Additionally, many people with AUD experience withdrawal symptoms. This is one shared by both people with alcoholism and alcohol abuse, but people with AUD experience more significant alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Treating Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

People who abuse alcohol but do not have alcoholism can often quit drinking on their own. If they have a significant enough reason to, they can put drinking down entirely. Someone who struggles with a real alcohol use disorder doesn’t have this same luxury. They have the feeling of craving that separates them from their hard-drinking friends.

Alcohol detox facilities help alcoholics separate from the drink in a monitored and safe environment. They help you through the detox and withdrawal period before moving you into the next phase, depending on the program. The goal of addiction and alcoholism rehab is to teach you how to live life without relying on alcohol to get you through.

Whether it’s your first time or fifteenth time trying to get sober, we can help. Hawaii Island Recovery offers the dream setting for you to finally find sobriety. Give us a call today at 877-721-3556 to learn more about the programs we offer. Take the chance on yourself!