Binge Drinking Versus Alcoholism

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People often confuse the terms "Binge Drinking" and "Alcoholism" since they're both related to alcohol problems. However, what makes them different from one another? 

Occasional alcohol use isn't bad for people who want to enjoy a drinking session with their friends and family.

However, prolonged alcohol consumption has the possibility of causing negative consequences, such as cravings for alcohol, mental health issues, and others. 

Frequent alcohol consumers have wondered at least once in their life whether they can be considered alcoholics or not.

Considering the range of alcohol use may vary from light drinking to excessive drinking, there is a lot of ground to cover, and it's important to know the difference between each substance use classification. 

Alcoholism vs. Binge Drinking 

Alcoholism is often compared to binge drinking, but they're not the same. First, it's essential to understand both terms before jumping to conclusions. 

An "alcoholic person" is someone who can't manage drinking habits. In a sense, these people believe they can't live a normal life without alcohol use.

This inability to handle alcohol addiction can affect a person's relationships, goals, and health in general. 

There are three categories for alcohol addiction: Mild, moderate, and severe. 

All of these categories are harmful to the person suffering from heavy drinking problems, and if those are left untreated, they may cause even more of those problems in the future. 

Thankfully, a person affected by substance abuse has access to addiction treatment, which is a process the affected must follow to stop drinking alcohol and minimize the effects of any withdrawal symptoms. 

As explained by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinkers are people who consume a considerable amount of alcohol in a short amount of time.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also mentions that a binge drinker typically doesn't need to drink alcohol every day, but they often have a hard time stopping drinking once starting a binge drink session. 

According to the U.K.'s National Health Service, a man that drinks approximately 5 or more drinks per session (or 14 drinks per week) is a binge drinker. [1]

On the other hand, women who drink approximately 4 or more drinks in a single session (or seven drinks per week) are binge drinkers.

Still, the exact amount of alcohol someone needs to consume to be considered binge drinking varies slightly depending on the person. 

It's important to note that whether someone binge drinks or is an alcoholic, they experience the same risks that come from heavy drinking sessions; for example, someone who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol in less than 2 hours may take their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or higher, which is considered legally intoxicated and must engage in immediate treatment. 

Someone who is intoxicated increases their risks of experiencing an injury, interpersonal violence, alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviour that leads to sexually transmitted diseases, and others; these problems often require a particular treatment to get solved. 

Is Binge Drinking a Form of Alcoholism? 

As opposed to alcoholism itself, someone who is binge drinking isn't an alcoholic.

However, they're at risk of becoming one if they don't regulate their alcohol use.

While an alcoholic can't stop alcohol use immediately, someone who is binge drinking typically still has the mental strength to do it. 

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention state that approximately 70% of binge drinking happens among 26-year old people or older; this is because, socially, heavy drinking sessions are considered normal.

However, drinking binge alcohol over a short period of time can increase the risk of developing a substance abuse problem when the adult is much older. 

In cases where the person is over 30 years old and is still drinking binge alcohol, the risk of becoming an alcoholic increase exponentially. 

Generally speaking, not all binge drinkers are alcoholics, but they're at risk of becoming addicted to alcohol use, which requires treatment. 

Difference Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism 

The primary difference between binge drinking and alcoholism is that the drinking habits are different.

Below is a list of common differences between binge drinkers and alcoholics, considering the definitions provided by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: 

Consumption Frequency

An alcoholic tends to have drinking sessions as frequently as possible. Several alcoholics drink every day by establishing a drinking habit throughout the day.

On the contrary, binge drinkers typically have bigger gaps between their drinking sessions and don't prepare a habit or ritual to drink every day. 

Dependence: 

Binge drinking people don't rely on alcohol to live a normal life but enjoy heavy drinking sessions.

In some cases, someone who engages in binge drinking can spend weeks and months without drinking.

However, alcoholics are strictly dependent on alcohol to function properly, which can cause instant problems that require addiction treatment. 

Location of Drinking: 

Someone who is binge drinking tends to drink in social and lively environments; they don't typically drink by themselves or during the morning.

On the other hand, someone with a substance abuse problem drinks in any environment at any moment of the day, including the morning.

In some cases, people with a drinking problem look for secret places to drink alone. 

Drinking Risks: 

It's important to note that people with or without a drinking/substance use problem are exposed to the same short-term risks. However, the differences rely on the severity of those risks. 

Some of the drinking health risks for binge drinking involve the following, for example: 

  • Irresponsible sexual behaviour. 
  • Mild to severe injuries. 
  • Sexual dysfunction. 
  • Alcohol poisoning. 

On the other hand, people with substance abuse disorders experience long-term health problems, such as: 

  • Liver disease. 
  • Heart disease. 
  • Neurological damage. 
  • Diabetes. 
  • Depression or anxiety. 
  • Cancer. 
  • Seizures. 

Treatment: 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers a wide range of addiction treatment options both for people binge drinking and alcoholics. [2]

Typically, people binge drinking undergo brief treatment interventions to get them to recognize they have a drinking habit that has the potential to turn into an addiction in a future period.

These addiction treatment options don't work as effectively for alcoholism. 

Men or women who experience alcohol abuse and alcoholism problems must follow a medical detox treatment to get any harmful substances from the body.

Once the detox is finished, the person must follow a substance use recovery program; this program is often offered by health centres worldwide and other related medical areas. 

Willingness to Stop Drinking: 

As mentioned before, someone with a substance use addiction typically has a hard time stopping drinking without treatment; this is because these people develop a physical dependency on the drug/substance, making it much more challenging to quit regardless of the health consequences it brings on the short and long term.

In these cases, a recovery program is the most effective way to get help and treatment. 

On the contrary, someone binge drinking doesn't have as much problem cutting down on alcohol use if they commit to it and doesn't necessarily have to go for a recovery program or other related medical centres to get help and treatment. 

Alcohol Use Disorder vs. Alcoholism 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disease related to excessive alcohol use, loss of control over drinking alcohol, and negative emotional states regarding alcohol. 

Additionally, the institute mentions that AUD also refers to "the impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences." [3]

The primary difference between an AUD and alcoholism is that the "AUD" is the medical term medics use to diagnose drug use disorders regarding alcohol.

Alcoholism is often seen as a "colloquial" or "non-medical term." If someone goes to the doctor for alcohol addiction, for example, they're going to get diagnosed with alcohol use disorder rather than alcoholism.

The "Alcoholism" term is more used in recovery centres and the "Alcoholics Anonymous" recovery program. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), there's a number of 11 possible symptoms for AUD.

If someone has two or more symptoms from the list, they're going to be medically diagnosed with alcohol use disorder.

People can diagnose themselves if they fit several of the criteria in the list by the DSM-V, but the best way to determine whether someone has an addiction is to call a professional. 

Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism 

"Problem Drinking" is also known as alcohol abuse, but it doesn't necessarily refer directly to alcoholism.

However, someone who consumes significant amounts of alcohol or has an addiction is exposed to the same risks. 

Binge drinking and problem drinking are often associated since they refer to the same drinking type.

While someone with problem drinking doesn't have an addiction, they can develop one if they don't assess the problem in time. 

If someone who is binge drinking/problem drinking starts experiencing withdrawal symptoms and must look for the next drink over the week, they must phone recovery centres for treatment since they're entering the early stages of addiction. 

In some cases, someone with an alcohol problem is able to cut down on alcohol use and retake control of their life.

However, if the efforts aren't enough to cut down the usage to regular amounts, getting treatment is the best choice possible. 

Social Drinking vs. Alcoholism 

Social drinking is one of the mildest forms of alcohol use, and it typically isn't linked to binge drinking or alcoholism. 

In essence, a social drinker only drinks on special occasions to enjoy a moment with their loved one.

People who drink in these circumstances don't need any treatment since they have the ability to choose when to drink and don't let alcohol interfere with other things in life. 

It's important to note that social drink sessions don't involve getting drunk all the time. A drunken state is seen as irresponsible and immature. 

Some people classify themselves as "social drinkers," but there's a considerable number of signs that indicate a possible addiction.

In those cases, it's important to act immediately and phone someone for help or treatment. 

Early signs for addiction or alcoholism that require treatment include the following: 

  • Hiding a heavy drinking session from a loved one. 
  • Using alcohol to cope with life difficulties. 
  • Drinking only to achieve a drunken state. 
  • Driving while drunk. 
  • Putting alcohol over other important things. 

Summarizing everything, social drinkers don't have as much of a problem with quitting alcohol as alcoholics.

The latter typically needs to call a professional and follow treatment to go through the withdrawal symptoms effectively. 

Conclusion 

Any alcohol abuse type (including binge drinking) involves several short and long-term risks for the consumer, which is why it's vital to regulate consumption or call a medical professional to get the necessary help. 

In summary, binge drinkers don't require immediate medical treatment and have an easier time cutting down on alcohol use, whereas an alcoholic typically develops a strong dependency on alcohol, making it challenging to cut down on it or quit altogether. 

Here is a list of some common indicators that separate binge drinkers from alcoholics: 

  • Alcoholics are obsessed with alcohol; other people are not. 
  • Alcoholics enjoy having drinks with other alcoholics to avoid judgement. 
  • Alcoholics have destructive drink patterns and rituals. 
  • Alcoholics don't set limits regarding the amount of alcohol they're consuming or call people for help. 


About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Pete has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. To read more about Pete visit his LinkedIn profile.