Is There a Difference Between Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism?

Many Americans enjoy a quick drink after work or a cold beer at the neighborhood BBQ. But when the thought of that next drink becomes louder than the rest, you may be looking at evidence of alcoholism or alcohol abuse.

While you’ll often hear the two terms used to describe the same issue, they’re actually distinct diagnoses. To help clarify the difference between the two, let’s take a closer look at alcoholism vs alcohol abuse.

What is Alcoholism?

The overuse of alcohol (called Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD) exists on a spectrum, and alcoholism lands in the most severe category. Alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol, often manifesting as physical dependence.

One of the most evident signs of alcoholism is withdrawal. When your body becomes dependent on a substance like alcohol, it can react negatively when that substance is withheld. If you abstain from drinking for a few days and experience anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, or nausea, there’s a possibility you’re suffering from alcohol-related withdrawals.

Early Signs of Alcoholism

Alcoholism can show up in many ways and may look different from one person to the next. With that said, there are several common early signs of alcoholism. Warning signs to look out for include:

  • Drinking to escape reality or cope with day-to-day struggles
  • Lying about the amount you drink
  • Feeling guilty or embarrassed after a night of drinking
  • Forgetting what happened when drunk
  • The inability to relax or feel good without drinking
  • An increase in alcohol tolerance

As an isolated occurrence, some of these signs are not necessarily a cause for immediate concern. But if you start to experience several of these symptoms regularly or every time you drink, there’s a chance you’re looking at alcoholism.

What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse can be considered a less severe version of alcoholism, although it is equally serious. If you think of the spectrum mentioned earlier, alcohol abuse is in the mild-to-medium portion of the AUD scale.

Someone who abuses alcohol is not always dependent on it, but continued drinking in the face of problems can ultimately lead to alcohol dependence. To put it simply: alcoholism is alcohol abuse, but alcohol abuse is not necessarily alcoholism.

Alcohol Abuse Symptoms

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse share many of the same signs and symptoms in varying degrees of severity. Symptoms related to alcohol abuse can include:

  • Slowed reflexes
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea, vomiting, and hangovers
  • The lowering of inhibitions while drinking, leading to dangerous situations (i.e., drunk driving)
  • Relying on drinking to relax or feel good (also called self-medicating)
  • Underage drinking or drinking when pregnant

Alcoholic Tendencies and How to Avoid Them

Alcoholic tendencies are behaviors that indicate alcohol abuse. Here are some tendencies to look out for:

  • Drinking alone
  • Binge drinking (consuming four or five drinks in two hours)
  • Drinking to deal with emotions
  • Hiding the fact you’re drinking

To avoid these tendencies, try to drink alcohol in moderation—or not at all. Moderating alcohol consumption means limiting yourself to one or two drinks, no more than once or twice a week.

If you’re worried you may drink even when you don’t want to, consider asking a companion to stay with you or check in on you regularly. Having someone to hold you accountable is an excellent way to kick alcoholic tendencies. To that end, just communicating about your issue can help you identify what’s at the root of your decision-making process.  

Knowing When to Ask for Help & How to Get It

As a rule, seeking help as early as possible is best. It’s sometimes difficult to identify a problem in its initial stages. But if you notice that alcohol consumption is interfering with your ability to fulfill responsibilities or socialize, it’s time to ask for help.

Once you’ve recognized the need for help, you’ll find it available in several ways.


  • Medical Professionals – Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you’re experiencing.


  • Trusted Individuals – Reaching out can be complicated, so enlisting a close friend or family member means you won’t have to struggle alone.


  • Support Groups – Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are often available in even the smallest communities. Joining a support group lets you receive professional help in a welcoming environment.


  • Volunteer Organizations – Nonprofits like the VOASW have convenient online resources and contact information for those struggling with alcohol abuse.

VOASW: Types of Treatment Available for Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse

Treatment for alcoholism and alcohol abuse is anchored in controlling cravings and withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, reducing drinking may be the answer. More frequently, complete abstinence from drinking is the preferred treatment, as the temptation to over-consume can be difficult for many.

Outside of the support groups mentioned above, those suffering from alcohol abuse may want to seek counseling. Entering a rehabilitation center is also an option, although the cost can be prohibitive. Additionally, there are three medications designed to treat alcohol use disorder. They are:

  • Disulfiram (creates hypersensitivity to alcohol)
  • Naltrexone (reduces cravings and suppresses positive feelings from drinking)
  • Acamprosate (may restore lost cognitive function)

Regardless of the path you choose for treatment, the VOASW is here to support you. If you’re struggling with alcohol use and need someone to talk to, contact us today.

We’re here to listen. 


HelpGuide. Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. 

Healthline. Medication for Alcoholism.