Cirque Lodge > Blog > Addiction > Alcohol Abuse vs Alcoholism

In common language, the exact meaning of the terms used to describe a drinking problem can be unclear and can differ from the language used by medical professionals. You may be most familiar with the term 'alcoholism', but less familiar with how this is differentiated from 'alcohol abuse', 'alcohol dependence', 'alcohol use disorder', or 'alcohol addiction'. This article will help clarify the meaning of these various terms.

Understanding the differences between these terms will help you to understand how the misuse of alcohol takes varying forms and differs in severity. The two terms 'alcohol abuse' and 'alcoholism' operate on a spectrum of harmful drinking (the spectrum is known by medical professionals as 'Alcohol Use Disorder' or AUD), where 'alcohol abuse' is milder and 'alcoholism' lies at the more severe end of this spectrum.

The two have distinctions in their symptoms, yet it is important to recognize both as alcohol-related conditions that do potential harm to your health and well-being as well as to your social, professional, and personal life.

Problematic alcohol use is a form of substance abuse, and should be treated with due concern and consideration. If you think you or a loved one is struggling with their drinking, it is advised to seek professional help and medical advice on potential avenues for support.

Why Are There Different Names?

Medical professionals do not use the terms 'alcohol abuse' or 'alcoholism' to identify an alcohol problem. These terms are mainly used by the public in everyday language. This does not mean that they are not useful. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, identify themselves as having alcoholism. However, this following section will help you understand how these common use terms 'alcohol abuse' and 'alcoholism' correlate with the terms used by medical professionals in a clinical diagnosis.

How Do Mental Health Professionals Classify Drinking Problems?

Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to classify mental illnesses and to diagnose individuals who are seeking treatment.

Prior to 2013, the clinical diagnosis to describe problem drinking was divided into two terms, referring to two separate disorders: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. In 2013, alcohol-related problems were updated in the DSM-5, integrating the previous disorders under a single umbrella disorder known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

In 2019, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that around 14 million people in the United States had AUD. The severity of AUD is determined by how many symptoms the individual is shows in a 12 month period, defined by following classifications (out of 11 possible symptoms):

  • mild: 2-3 symptoms
  • moderate: 4-5 symptoms
  • severe: 6 or more symptoms

Considering the DSM-5 diagnostic description of AUD, the common use term 'alcohol abuse' can be understood as a mild form of AUD while 'alcoholism' would refer to a severe form of AUD.

The 11 Symptoms of AUD Listed in the DSM-5 Are:

  1. Drinking more alcohol or drinking for longer periods of time
  2. Difficulty in reducing drinking or to control one's drinking
  3. Getting sick as a result of drinking too much or blacking out
  4. Thinking about the next drink or alcohol cravings that prevent concentration
  5. Important social, professional, or recreational activities becoming neglected
  6. Continue drinking even when it is having negative consequences on your friends or family
  7. Neglect of activities over an extended period of time that were once important to your life
  8. Putting oneself in harmful or dangerous situations as a result of drinking (e.g., drunk driving)
  9. Continuing to consume alcohol even if it is exacerbating a different health problem, making you feel anxious and/or depressed
  10. Drinking more to compete with an increased tolerance to alcohol and to experience the same effects
  11. Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms or drinking more to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms (trouble sleeping, shakiness, sweating, racing heart, nausea, seizures)

At any level of severity, AUD can impact significant areas of your everyday life as well as cause other health problems. It can eventually lead to the development of chronic diseases.

As the terms alcohol abuse and alcoholism are most commonly used in everyday speech, it is helpful to understand how the symptoms of each are differentiated. The next section will discuss this difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism in more detail, referring to the ways in which patterns of an unhealthy relationship to alcohol manifest themselves.

Alcohol Abuse vs Alcoholism:

Alcohol abuse is best understood as a mild form of AUD, while alcoholism is a severe form of AUD. In both cases, the individual is manifesting harmful patterns of drinking; however, there are some key differences in the behavior.


Being dependent means that an individual has a physical reliance on alcohol. Physical dependence is a key symptom of alcoholism, differentiating it from alcohol abuse, meaning that not everyone who uses or abuses alcohol is dependent on it.

Individuals who are alcohol dependent are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms (trouble sleeping, shakiness, sweating, racing heart, nausea, seizures) if they were to stop drinking. Dependence can also include strong physical cravings to drink, whether this is acted upon or not.


Alcohol abuse and alcoholism share some common characteristics, though, to varying degrees of severity.

The term alcoholism is used to describe severe forms of alcohol addiction. It is a chronic disease, involving a level of alcohol consumption that typically has negative repercussions on all areas of the individual's life.

Alcohol abuse, by comparison, is typically acute rather than chronic, and therefore has less wide-ranging effects on other areas of the individual's life. Behavioral examples of how someone may abuse alcohol can include:

  • drinking to cope with emotions or stress
  • drinking alcohol while pregnant
  • taking unnecessary risks due to drunkenness
  • mixing alcohol with other substances
  • heavy drinking patterns as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): in men, drinking 4 or more drinks a day (or more than 14 a week); in women, drinking more than 3 drinks a day (or more than 7 a week).
  • patterns of binge drinking (defined by the NIAAA as 5 or more drinks in one session)
  • moderate drinking with unhealthy rationales, e.g., to self-medicate (for insomnia, depression, etc.)
  • hiding the fact you are drinking
  • drinking to get drunk
  • difficulties in stopping drinking once you have started drinking
  • spend a significant time drinking

Alcohol Use Disorder at any level of severity -be that mild, moderate, or severe, 'alcohol abuse' or 'alcoholism'- is a form of substance abuse. This is not due to the individual having poor morals or self-control, but is recognized by licensed medical professionals as a type of illness, specifically as a mental health disorder. If you think you may suffer from AUD, it is important to acknowledge that you have a health condition and that medical support is available to you.

Withdrawal From Alcohol

If you are considering stopping drinking, it is best you talk to a healthcare provider from the outset. This will help you understand the different treatment options that are available so that you are able to make an informed decision on how to proceed. For those with moderate or severe AUD, it is advised to seek medical supervision during the alcohol detox period. If you have been heavily consuming alcohol on a long-term basis, your body may have a serious reaction to alcohol withdrawal.

Quitting alcohol on your own can be dangerous. The potentially fatal condition, delirium tremens, can occur as a severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal. You should contact the emergency services if you experience any of the following as you withdraw from alcohol:

  • seizures
  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • contractions
  • rapid mood swings

Cirque Lodge treatment facility offers 24-hour medical assistance to those who are in the process of detoxing from alcohol. This is designed to make the process as safe and comfortable as possible, and medical experts will be on hand to assess if medication should be prescribed.

How To Treat Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

Alcohol addiction, in any form of severity, can negatively affect your physical and mental health as well as your wider life and relationships with loved ones. However, as with all substance use, alcohol use is treatable - with compassionate and holistic support, recovery can be possible for anyone.

At Cirque Lodge, we are able to provide excellent treatment facilities. We offer a path to recovery that is led by medical experts, specializing in counseling that recognizes how AUD relates to your wider life and experiences. Our personalized alcohol rehabilitation program includes:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Experiential therapy
  • Family therapy
  • 12-Step support

If you think you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, even if it has not been clinically diagnosed, then don't hesitate to seek the support you need.

Contact us today by calling 1-801-448-0123 to regain your health and wellbeing.

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