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Alcohol Dependence vs. Alcohol Abuse


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 8/18/2022

A dependence on alcohol and alcohol abuse are similar conditions that involve alcohol consumption. Ultimately, the difference is that alcohol dependence occurs when someone is unable to quit drinking. On the other hand, alcohol abuse occurs when someone consumes too much alcohol and it interferes with their life. While alcohol abuse shares similarities with alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse is consuming large quantities of alcohol without being addicted.

That said, alcohol dependency and alcohol abuse are both bad. When alcohol is consumed in large quantities or frequently it damages your mind and body. Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency increase the risk of cancer, alcoholic wet brain, liver disease, and other medical complications.

Read on to learn more about alcohol dependence vs. Alcohol abuse below.

What is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence is a chronic issue that develops when someone can no longer control the urge to drink. People with an alcohol dependency have a mental and physical addiction to alcohol. 

Mentally, alcohol interacts with GABA receptors and alters brain chemistry by manipulating serotonin and dopamine. When someone with an alcohol dependency stops drinking, symptoms of withdrawal occur because of their altered brain chemistry. Without alcohol, the brain struggles to maintain balance. Severe cases of alcohol withdrawal are even deadly.

Physically, alcohol addiction has several symptoms. When someone with an alcohol dependency stops drinking, for example, shakes and tremors will occur. Other physical symptoms include sweating, headaches, fatigue, and nausea.

Lastly, alcohol dependency has emotional signs and symptoms. Someone with an alcohol dependency is more likely to avoid social settings and lose friends. People addicted to alcohol will also engage in more drinking and associate with bars and the people in them.

Ultimately, alcohol dependency leads to a decline in mental health, physical health, and emotional stability.

What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse is the act of consuming too much alcohol at once or a pattern of drinking that interferes with daily life. An example of alcohol abuse is binge drinking, which occurs when someone drinks rapidly to get drunk.

Furthermore, alcohol abuse is often a pattern. When someone drinks too much alcohol in one sitting, for example, there’s a good chance they’ll do it again. If someone binge drinks often and it becomes a pattern, that’s a type of alcohol abuse.

Other factors also contribute to alcohol abuse. Unhealthy drinking patterns that interrupt someone’s work or social life are a sign of alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse is also drinking alcohol daily before it becomes an addiction.

Ultimately, alcohol abuse consists of dangerous and destructive drinking patterns that increase the risk of alcoholism.

What is the Difference in Severity Between Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency are both severe conditions. An alcohol dependency negatively impacts health and damages social lives. Alcohol abuse also damages health and damages social lives but alcohol dependency is more severe than alcohol abuse.

A dependency on alcohol is more severe than alcohol abuse because of the addiction component. When someone is struggling with alcoholism, it’s almost impossible to quit drinking without help. Alcohol dependency also leads to long-term drinking problems that increase the risk of cancer, liver disease, brain damage, and death.

That said, alcohol abuse is still severe. In fact, bouts of binge drinking lead to brain damage. Additionally, consuming large quantities of alcohol increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous condition that leads to death, coma, and hospitalization.

While alcohol dependency is more severe than alcohol abuse, it’s important to address alcohol abuse before it becomes an alcohol addiction.

What is the Difference in Treatment Between Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Abuse?

The treatment for alcohol dependency is different from the treatment for alcohol abuse. Treatment for alcohol dependence focuses on alcohol addiction with therapy, medications, and inpatient rehab. However, alcohol abuse is treated with outpatient therapy and counseling (on average).

That said, the goal of treatment is the same. When treating alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse, the goal is to help someone stop drinking alcohol. The approach is where things become different. For alcoholism, inpatient rehab and detox are necessary if the case is severe. On the other hand, inpatient rehab and detox are not typically necessary for alcohol abuse.

What are the Types of Treatment for an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition that develops in people who abuse alcohol. It begins as alcohol abuse and progresses to alcohol dependency. While there are different treatment stages, the options for treatment are often similar.

We list the treatment types for an alcohol use disorder below.

Depending on the severity of alcoholism, one or more of these treatments may be used. Always consult with a healthcare provider before attempting to treat alcoholism or alcohol abuse.

What is the Distinction Between Indicators of Alcohol Dependency and Signs of Alcohol Abuse?

It’s challenging to determine the difference between indicators of alcohol dependency and signs of alcohol abuse. That said, there are a few signs to look for. First and foremost, alcohol dependency has symptoms of withdrawal that vary in intensity. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, doesn’t always have symptoms of withdrawal until it progresses to alcoholism.

Another difference is how often someone consumes alcohol. Individuals who drink daily struggle with alcoholism, whereas alcohol abusers will only binge drink on the weekends or a few times per week.

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol is addictive because it alters brain chemistry by interacting with GABA neurotransmitters. When altering brain chemistry alcohol increases dopamine levels, which is a reward system that makes people feel pleasure and happiness. Physically, this leads to an increase in the desire to drink alcohol.

Alcohol is also addictive mentally. Because of the changes in brain chemistry, the brain needs alcohol to maintain balance. When an alcoholic doesn’t consume alcohol, the brain enters withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal comes with several negative symptoms and some are even fatal.

The last component of alcohol addiction is the social aspect. Alcohol is an accepted drug, which means many people drink alcohol. In fact, bars and restaurants encourage drinking and other alcohol-related behaviors. Friends and family members who abuse alcohol are also more likely to encourage alcohol consumption. 

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal has several notable symptoms. Minor symptoms of alcohol vary but typically include drowsiness, fatigue, dry mouth, sweating, and insomnia. Symptoms of minor alcohol withdrawal will clear up in less than a month. In some cases, symptoms will only last for 2-4 days.

That said, more severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are dangerous. These symptoms include delirium tremens (which occurs in 1% of cases), muscle spasms and shakes, seizures, and mood changes. While some of these symptoms are rare, symptoms of delirium tremens are deadly if left untreated. 

Is Binge Drinking a Sign of Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence?

Yes, binge drinking is a sign of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. However, binge drinking is associated with alcohol abuse more often than alcohol dependency. This is because people who abuse alcohol aren’t always addicted, so binge drinking occurs infrequently as opposed to drinking alcohol daily.

Binge drinking is also dangerous because of alcohol poisoning. When blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches levels of .2%, the risk of death and coma increases. Binge drinking alcohol leads to uncontrollable behavior, vomiting, and blacking out.