Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism: Understanding the Difference


According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. and accounts for approximately 31% of fatal car accidents. More than 15 million American women and men and half a million youths (ages 12 to 17) have medically diagnosed alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly referred to as alcoholism. The NIH defines AUD as a relapsing brain disease that's characterized by:

  • Using alcohol compulsively
  • Losing control over how much your drink
  • Feeling negative or depressed when not drinking

But since drinking wine, beer, and spirits is such an accepted part of our culture, you may not even notice, at first, that you've slipped from social drinking to problem drinking or AUD. Sonora Foster at Manasquan Counseling Center suggests calling for a consultation if you're in doubt or if you meet the criteria for AUD.

What is a drink, anyway?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for a woman and no more than two drinks per day for a man. But if you're pouring your own drinks, you could be consuming far more than the recommended amounts.

One 12-ounce beer is a considered a single drink, but malt liquor has a higher alcohol content than beer, so it only takes eight to nine fluid ounces to be considered a full drink. Just half a glass of wine (five ounces) counts as one drink, and only 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, such as gin, rum, tequila, and whiskey constitutes a full drink.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as raising your blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 g/DL. A woman can do that by drinking two large (10-ounce) glasses of wine in the space of two hours. A man could do the same with three extra-large shots. If you binge drink for five or more days in a given month, you're considered a heavy drinker and at risk for having or developing AUD.

Do you have AUD?

Doctors now classify AUD into three categories, based on how many of the 11 symptoms you have. They classify you as having mild AUD if you two to three of the following symptoms, moderate AUD if you have four to five symptoms, and severe AUD if you have six or more symptoms:

  1. You drink more alcohol, or drink for a longer period of time, than you'd decided you would.
  2. You want to cut down or control your alcohol, and have tried to, but you can't.
  3. You spend a lot of time getting alcohol, using alcohol, or recovering from alcohol.
  4. You have a strong desire or craving for alcohol.
  5. Using alcohol habitually has caused you to fail in your responsibilities and obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. You keep on drinking even though your drinking is causing interpersonal problems or social problems that are made worse by drinking.
  7. You give up or pull back from important social, work-related, or recreational activities because of your drinking.
  8. You've recurrently used alcohol even in dangerous situations, such as driving or operating machinery.
  9. You continue to use alcohol even though you know it's causing or worsening a physical or psychological condition.
  10. You've developed tolerance, so you have to drink more alcohol than before to get the same effect, or you notice less effect even though you're drinking the same amount.
  11. When you stop drinking, you experience withdrawal symptoms or have to drink more alcohol or take another substance to stop the withdrawal symptoms.

If you think you have mild, moderate, or severe AUD, or if you think alcohol might be at risk, contact the experts at The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling & Clinical Supervision.

Getting the treatment you need

At the Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling, we custom-design individual and group therapy to help you manage your AUD and resolve any underlying issues that might be contributing to your condition. You also learn coping mechanisms and strategies so that you can better control your cravings. In some cases, your counselor may recommend medications to help you manage symptoms.

Don't wait until you know you have a problem. If you suspect you have AUD, or if alcohol is causing trouble in your life, contact the Sonora at The Manasquan Counseling Center by phone or online form.

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