Alcohol is one of the most abused substances in America today, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about the levels of addiction surrounding it. For instance, contrary to what many people might think, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are in fact not the same thing. While they are very similar, there is a fine line that separates the two. This line is defined by the signs and symptoms of both alcohol abuse and alcoholism. So, what is the difference?

Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

The major difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is the degree of abuse. In fact, alcohol abuse is the slippery slope that leads to alcoholism if left unchecked.


Usually, the first signs of alcohol abuse are avoiding responsibilities in favor of drinking. For example, someone who abuses alcohol might feel the need to regularly go out to drink with friends rather than spend time with his or her family at home. To a more extreme degree, someone who abuses alcohol might be tempted to call in sick at work just so they can stay home and drink.

Other situations that might indicate alcohol abuse and alcoholism include:

  • Drinking alcohol to fit in or “be normal”
  • Relying on alcohol to stay happy or “cheer up”
  • Continuing to drink alcohol even if it makes you feel sick
  • Drinking to cope with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or depression
  • Feeling the need to drink in secret or lie about how much you drink

Tolerance and Withdrawal

People who abuse alcohol may not be completely dependent on it yet. Still, they may have enough of a tolerance to start developing a dependence on alcohol— the beginnings of alcoholism. The tolerance may even be high enough to trigger withdrawal when the alcohol abuser stops drinking. However, withdrawal from alcohol abuse is nowhere near as severe as the withdrawal for a full-fledged alcoholic.

Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism


People who are labeled as alcoholics suffer from alcohol dependency. Their tolerance has become so high that more and more alcohol is needed to feel the same effect as what one drink might do for any other person. In most cases, the dependence is so severe that alcoholics feel that they need to drink in order to function.

Signs of Alcoholism

The signs of alcoholism are very similar to those of alcohol abuse but could lead to more serious and more dangerous situations. This might include:

  • Drinking at inappropriate times
  • Constantly planning your next drink
  • Losing control of your drinking habits
  • Having difficulty cutting back or quitting drinking
  • Constantly breaking promises to yourself or others
  • Giving up activities and hobbies that you used to enjoy
  • Letting alcohol become more important than your responsibilities
  • Continuing to drink despite the negative consequences
  • Needing to drink more amounts of alcohol to get the desired effect
  • Spending more and more time drinking or fantasizing about drinking

Tolerance and Withdrawal

Since alcoholics have an incredibly high tolerance for alcohol, they suffer from extreme withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. Most alcoholics only continue drinking to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal, which include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • nausea
  • panic
  • sweating
  • tremors

Withdrawal includes social consequences too. Most alcoholics will stop wanting to be around anyone— even friends and loved ones— who give them a hard time about their drinking habits. This can cycle back and contribute to other withdrawal symptoms like feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability.

Crossing the Fine Line from Alcohol Abuse to Alcoholism

Abusing alcohol doesn’t always lead to full-blown alcoholism. In fact, there is always the chance that those who abuse alcohol can recover from their problem before it even fully develops. However, it’s also important to remember that the more you drink, the greater risk you have of crossing that fine line. You can’t “stop whenever you want.” Alcoholism is an illness and anyone who suffers from it needs all the help they can get.

Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Treatments at Asheville Recovery

The first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is, in fact, a problem. At Asheville Recovery Center, we offer a variety of programs including partial hospitalization, relapse prevention, and family therapy. If you or someone you care about feels that you may have a problem with alcohol we are here to help. Please call us for more information.

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