The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence

Find Rehab Now The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency are two destructive lifestyle patterns that often are interlinked, but can in fact have very different characteristics from one another. Someone who abuses alcohol may not be physically addicted to it, but this can quickly change if the person is habitually abusing, essentially creating a cause-and-effect relationship between abuse and dependency.

Although there are differences between abuse and dependency, both can have very serious consequences if alcohol use is not stopped or if the problem is left untreated.

Alcohol use

It is important to clarify that not everyone who drinks alcohol is abusing it, and not everyone who drinks alcohol has a problem or an addiction. It is possible to drink alcohol in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Drinking alcohol in moderation generally refers to the maintenance of a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) level of 0.06 or lower, drinking socially and not with the sole intention of intoxication, and working to experience no substance-related harm.

Alcohol abuse

Alcohol abuse is a drinking pattern that causes multiple problems within the life of the abuser. Many abusers tend to make poor decisions based upon impaired judgments, struggle with their interpersonal relationships as a result of the abuse, fail to fulfill school and/or work-related obligations, often resulting in poor grades and/or job termination, and experience legal issues such as drunk-driving arrests. To be considered abuse, an alcohol user must exhibit at least one of these four characteristics within a 12-month period. The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence Alcohol Abuse

An alcohol abuser usually persists in habitual drinking even if already experiencing work, school, and/or relationship-related troubles. People who abuse alcohol also usually have a lack of concern for the damages they potentially could inflict upon themselves or others due to their drinking.

Binge drinking

One of the most common forms of alcohol abuse is binge drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is defined as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL,” which typically occurs after consuming five drinks within two hours in males and four drinks within two hours in females.

Alcohol abuse in the form of binge drinking is most often seen amongst high school and college students. According to the NIAAA, binge drinking accounts for more than 90 perfect of underage alcohol consumption. The NIAAA also reported that in 2014, 37.9 percent of college students engaged in binge drinking compared to 33.5 percent of other individuals the same age.

Although binge drinking is a serious and damaging alcohol problem, most people who binge drink do not have alcohol dependency. If the alcohol abuse continues, however, dependency could become an issue.

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Alcohol dependence

Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, differs from alcohol abuse in that it is considered a chronic medical disease. There are four main characteristics that determine alcohol dependency from alcohol abuse, including physical dependence, difficulties in controlling the quantities of alcohol consumed, physiological tolerance, and alcohol cravings that make it difficult to abstain from drinking. Withdrawal syndromes, or discontinuation syndromes, that are relieved by the consumption of more alcohol often accompany alcohol dependency. These withdrawal syndromes can become so severe that many alcohol-dependent people will start drinking immediately upon awakening in the morning (e.g. morning drinking). Alcohol consumption becomes a priority for people who are dependent on alcohol, and daily and/or weekly schedules often will conform to accommodate the drinking habit. The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence Alcohol Dependence

Warning signs

The following indicators signal that you or someone you know may have a serious alcohol problem or are at high risk of developing one:

  • Drinking alone, especially when feeling sad, lonely, depressed, or angry
  • Issues at home, work, school, or within the individual’s interpersonal relationships are caused or exacerbated by his/her persistent drinking
  • Drinking upon awakening in the morning to rid himself/herself of a hangover
  • He/she claims to have a high tolerance for alcohol. This is a strong indicator of alcohol dependence, as the body needs more and more alcohol to feel the same effects
  • He/she drinks to relax prior to social events (e.g. pre-gaming) as compared to at social events
  • Alcohol consumption has become the individual’s method of coping with life difficulties such as stress
  • Recent increases in his/her drinking habits
  • Family history of alcohol abuse. Studies indicate that genetic vulnerabilities to alcoholism exist, and therefore, alcoholism tends to run in families
  • A history of “blacking out” or forgetting what occurred when he/she was drunk
  • Lack of interest in once-important social/occupational/recreational activities
  • Many unsuccessful attempts to “cut back” or reduce the amount of alcohol the individual consumes


Treatment for alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency has greatly advanced in recent years. If you suspect that you or someone you know may have an alcohol problem, consult your health provider for treatment options, or contact us at today.



National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) –
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) –
NOAA Western Regional Center (WRC) –
National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare –
University of Rochester –

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