The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines drinking in moderation as limiting your alcohol intake to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women.
Drinking more than this is a kind of alcohol misuse. Alcohol misuse significantly increases the risk of developing short-term and long-term health problems, including high blood pressure, digestive problems, liver disease, and cancer. Alcohol misuse is one of the most deadly kinds of substance misuse across the world.
Every year, about 79,000 people die as a result of excessive alcohol consumption in the United States. It accounts for around one in ten deaths among adults between the ages of 20-64. Alcohol misuse is not the same as alcohol addiction (or alcoholism), although one can lead to the other. Alcohol addiction is a chronic illness that requires effective treatment to recover from.
It is important to understand whether your drinking habits are signs of either alcohol misuse or alcohol addiction. Once you know this, you can begin the path to recovery.
Alcohol misuse is when you regularly drink more than the recommended guidelines for moderate alcohol consumption.
It is a pattern of drinking that can harm your health, your relationships, and your professional life. Alcohol abuse can involve heavy drinking, binge drinking, or both.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is when your blood concentration level reaches 0.08% or higher. It usually involves consuming five or more drinks (for a man) or four or more drinks (for a woman) in about two hours.
Binge drinking is a widespread problem in the United States. In a 2019 CDC survey, around a quarter of people over 12 years of age reported binge drinking in the past month.
Binge drinking is hazardous to health. It increases the risk of serious short-term harm, including blackouts and overdoses. It affects your mental state and can severely impair your physical coordination and judgment. You are more likely to have a serious or even fatal accident, including falls, burns, drownings, and car accidents.
Binge drinking is a kind of heavy drinking. NIAAA defines heavy drinking as:
Heavy drinking and binge drinking can lead to long-term health issues, including liver disease, heart disease, and several types of cancer. About half of the deaths due to alcohol in the United States each year result from binge drinking.
Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, is when you cannot stop or control your drinking even when it is damaging to your health, social life, or work.
Alcohol addiction involves changes in the brain that produce strong urges to use alcohol and interfere with your ability to resist them. Like other forms of substance addiction, it is a chronic disease. This means that the brain changes may remain even after years of sobriety.
Alcohol misuse describes a behavior relating to alcohol and is a pattern of drinking that is damaging to your health, relationships, or work life.
On the other hand, addiction describes the compulsive desire to use alcohol that results from changes in the brain.
While alcohol misuse and addiction are different conditions, alcohol misuse can lead to addiction and drinking heavily, and binge drinking over time increases the risk of developing an addiction.
Alcohol misuse and alcohol addiction require different treatments. For alcohol misuse, educational sessions explaining the damaging consequences of heavy drinking are often sufficient to change someone’s drinking habits.
Treating alcohol addiction, however, usually means attending a drug addiction rehabilitation program. Recovering from alcoholism requires developing skills to cope with and overcome the intense urges to drink that your brain produces. It involves different therapies and support groups to identify what thoughts and behaviors may trigger these urges and how we can change them. It also requires commitment, motivation, and support throughout the process.
People drink alcohol for many reasons. In small amounts, alcohol can improve your mood and result in feelings of euphoria.
It can make you more sociable and less anxious. Across the world, alcohol is a traditional part of celebrations, festivals, and ceremonies.
Alcohol is also used for less favorable reasons. Many people drink to escape from everyday problems, cope with chronic pain or mental health issues, or alleviate boredom.
If a user is addicted to alcohol, the decision to use alcohol is not rational. It is driven instead by compulsive urges that can be very difficult to resist.
Some people can misuse alcohol for a long time without developing an addiction, while others develop an addiction relatively quickly.
Several factors can increase your risk of addiction. These include:
A recent national survey found that people who began drinking alcohol before the age of 15 were more than five times more likely to have had an alcohol use disorder than those who only started drinking after the age of 21.
Genetics could account for around 60% of a person’s susceptibility to alcohol addiction. Environmental factors also play an important role. Your parents’ drinking habits may affect the likelihood that you will develop an addiction.
If you have a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, you may be more likely to become addicted to alcohol. Experiencing childhood trauma may also increase the risk.
Alcohol misuse may be easier to recover from than addiction, but it is still very dangerous.
Non-dependent drinkers who misuse alcohol account for the majority of alcohol-related disability and death in the United States.
Excessive drinking affects your work and social life as well as your health. You may be less productive at work or even have to miss the whole day after a night of binge drinking.
Alcohol misuse is also very expensive for the state. Every year, it costs the United States over 200 billion dollars. At least half of this is due to decreased productivity of workers.
It can be hard to tell if you or a loved one is misusing alcohol or is struggling with alcohol addiction.
Some signs and symptoms to look out for include:
While alcohol misuse may not require rehabilitation, alcohol addiction does.