It is not uncommon for people to misunderstand the difference between a person who drinks to excess and someone who has developed alcohol use disorder or AUD. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health carried out in 2015, there were 15 million American adults struggling with some form of AUD. Not everyone who enjoys social drinking necessarily goes on to develop AUD, although there are several factors that increase the risk including genetics, socio-economic circumstances and whether there is a co-existing mental health condition like depression.
Although alcohol rehab centers offer quite diverse treatment options, much of the terminology used in the field of addiction is derived from traditional 12-Step, one of the original alcohol support groups. This includes the term “alcoholism” which is now widely and incorrectly applied to a much wider group of people than are actually affected. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a person with AUD is an alcoholic and so it’s essential to clarify all associated terms to allow for a better understanding of the illness.
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?
According to classifications by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), AUD is broken down into the following three categories: mild, moderate and severe.
An individual is diagnosed as having AUD if they experienced any of the following 10 symptoms outlined by the DSM in the past year:
- Consuming progressively more alcohol over a period of time
- Being unable to reduce alcohol consumption
- Becoming unwell for prolonged periods of time as a consequence of alcohol abuse
- Lacking focus and concentration at work or school
- Continuing to abuse alcohol despite negative consequences elsewhere in a person’s life
- Discontinuing activities and hobbies that were previously enjoyed
- Risk-taking behaviors such as casual sexual encounters or driving under the influence
- Developing the symptoms of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol which intensifies cravings to consume it more
- Experiencing blackouts and withdrawal symptoms
When a person experiences at least two of these symptoms, it is likely they have some form of AUD that may require attending an alcohol rehab center. Whether it is mild, moderate or severe depends on how many of the above symptoms are present in the individual concerned.
Generally, the rule of thumb according to the DSM is as follows:
Mild: 2-3 symptoms
Moderate: 4-5 symptoms
Severe: 6 or more symptoms
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is an illness that’s considered to be at the severe scale of the AUD spectrum and is more serious than someone who occasionally drinks to excess. An individual with alcoholism is likely to have most of the symptoms listed by the DSM although they may not necessarily drink every day. Binge drinkers are at as great a risk of developing alcoholism if they consistently drink more than they should in the face of negative consequences.
Alcoholism is essentially a form of addiction and so a sufferer no longer chooses to consume alcohol. Their desire to use has been replaced by a need to abuse, regardless of how negatively it may be impacting themselves and those close to them.
What Is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder or AUD is a medical diagnosis for individuals having problems alcohol at varying degrees. This can range from a person drinking more than they planned to with increasing frequency through to another who has been consistently and heavily drinking for a prolonged period of time. Conversely, alcoholism is a non-medical term that is mostly applied to anyone drinking to excess that’s used regularly in everyday language and in the confines of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
People seeing their physicians with concerns about their alcohol use are not diagnosed as alcoholics. The common practice in modern times is to determine whether the individual has mild, moderate or severe alcohol use disorder instead.
How Do I Know if I Have an AUD or Alcoholism?
It is always recommended to consult medical professionals for advice if there are concerns relating to alcohol consumption or to see if an alcoholism treatment program is needed. As an exercise, you can ask yourself honestly if you have any of the above-listed symptoms and use that as a guide to determine if you need to seek help with alcohol use and abuse.
For people struggling with serious problems with alcohol, there are plenty of rehab and recovery resources available in thousands of alcohol rehab centers across the country. The majority of people with severe AUD or alcoholism are likely to require a personalized alcohol abuse treatment program in a residential center. However, those with mild to moderate AUD are often able to attend outpatient alcohol abuse treatment which gives them the flexibility to stay at home as they heal.