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Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Use Disorder: Is it Time to Get Help?

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alcohol abuse vs alcohol use disorder

Alcohol use is part of the United States’ culture. Most American adults drink alcoholic beverages regularly. Whether it is a glass of wine with dinner, cocktails at happy hour, or beer at a baseball game, alcohol is available during many occasions and events.

But many people have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. According to the National Institute of Health, about 26% of adults in the United States reported at least one episode of binge drinking in the past month, and around 6% reported heavy drinking in the previous month.[1]

Some forms of alcohol abuse, such as binge drinking, are relatively common in our culture. Despite being common, all forms of alcohol abuse can have severe consequences. People who engage in alcohol abuse are much more likely to require emergency medical care for an accident that occurred while they were under the influence and develop chronic health conditions related to alcohol abuse later in life.  People who engage in problem drinking are also at risk of developing an addiction.

It can be hard to determine whether someone’s alcohol use has crossed the line from alcohol abuse to alcoholism. Most people who develop alcoholism require addiction treatment to overcome the condition. Getting treatment as early in the addiction as possible is essential.

Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Use Disorder: What is the Difference?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was updated in 2013 to include Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD). Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence can be classified as alcohol use disorders.

Defining Alcohol Abuse

According to the National Institute of Health, adults can safely drink in moderation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) define moderate or casual drinking as two alcoholic drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Medical and addiction professionals break alcohol abuse into two categories: binge drinking and heavy drinking. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers guidance about binge drinking and heavy drinking.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time. For men, a binge-drinking episode is defined as having five or more alcoholic drinks in about 2 hours. For women, it is four or more drinks in two hours. This is approximately the amount of alcohol required to raise a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.08 or higher.

Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking is defined as drinking more than recommended during a week. For a man, having more than 14 alcoholic drinks weekly is considered heavy drinking. For women, having more than seven drinks a week meets the criteria for heavy drinking.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence is sometimes called alcoholism. Alcoholism is a severe form of dependence that can occur when a person drinks heavily for a prolonged period. After a period of alcohol abuse, the body adjusts to the presence of alcohol. The person’s brain and body can change so significantly that they may experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking or reduce the amount they drink.
Alcohol dependence is a serious condition that requires comprehensive treatment that addresses the physical, emotional, and behavioral aspects of addiction.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcoholism is often referred to as a disease, but there is no medical diagnosis for alcoholism. The term is popularized due to Alcoholics Anonymous and treatment programs that use 12-step ideas. However, the DSM-V outlines 11 criteria for the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.[2]
These criteria include:

  • Drinking alcohol in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but not managing to.
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from drinking.
  • Cravings and urges to drink.
  • Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of alcohol use.
  • Continuing to drink, even when it causes problems in relationships.
  • Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of alcohol use.
  • Abusing alcohol again and again, even when it puts you in danger.
  • Continuing to drink, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by alcohol.
  • Needing more alcohol to get the effect you want (tolerance).
  • Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by drinking.

While it is possible to abuse alcohol without having an alcohol use disorder, having two or more of these symptoms means you likely meet the criteria for diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder. The more symptoms you experience, the more severe your AUD is.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Use Disorder

People with any form of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol may benefit from treatment. Treatment for alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder may be similar but plans are tailored to meet each person’s unique needs.

Comprehensive treatment addresses the physical, emotional, and behavioral aspects of a person’s substance abuse and can help provide the tools people need to live a healthy, sober lifestyle. If you identify the signs of alcohol abuse or an alcohol use disorder, seek treatment as soon as possible.

Before starting treatment, a doctor or addiction specialist will assess you to determine which level of care is appropriate. For example, someone with a mild alcohol use disorder may only need outpatient treatment, while someone with a severe alcohol use disorder can benefit more from a residential program.

Some people require a medically supervised alcohol detox program before beginning treatment. After completing detox, if required, you will start a treatment program that includes evidence-based and holistic therapies, including:

  • Individual counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Education about addiction and recovery
  • Family therapy
  • Medications
  • Mental health treatment
  • Holistic treatments like nutrition counseling, mindfulness practice, yoga, acupuncture, and massage
alcohol abuse vs alcohol use

Get The Care You Need and Deserve

Woburn Wellness Addiction Treatment is a leader in the addiction treatment field, with proven success in facilitating long-term recovery. Our team of top clinical & medical experts specializes in treating addiction coupled with mental illness, ensuring that each person receives individualized care. Call us – we’re available 24/day, 7 days/week.

(781) 622-9190

The length of time you spend in treatment depends on the length and severity of your alcohol use disorder or dependence. After completing treatment, you will create an aftercare plan that will keep you engaged and active in your recovery for life. This plan may include attending community support meetings, engaging in individual therapy, and other recovery-related activities.

Get Help Now

Our alcohol rehab program in Woburn, MA combines proven therapeutic methods of healing with effective holistic modalities, making for integrated and highly individualized care that cannot be found anywhere else in the area. If you or someone you love require treatment for alcohol abuse, reach out to the Woburn Addiction Treatment specialists today.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-use-disorder-comparison-between-dsm
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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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