Alcohol Abuse vs. Dependence: What Are the Differences?

One in eight American adults has an alcohol use disorder. That’s almost 13% of the country’s population. However, not everyone who drinks is actually dependent on alcohol to function.

Do you know the difference between alcohol abuse vs dependence? Understanding the differences can help you determine if it’s time to get the help you need. Otherwise, chronic alcohol use can lead to trouble down the road. 

The two terms are used interchangeably, which can sometimes cause confusion. Keep reading to discover the difference between alcohol abuse and dependence before it’s too late. 

What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse involves a pattern of drinking that produces problems over time. These issues can include health problems such as liver damage. However, alcohol use often hurts relationships and careers, too. 

People who abuse alcohol usually notice these problems, yet continue to drink anyway.

In many cases, alcohol abuse can lead to legal troubles. For example, maybe one person assaulted another while intoxicated. Since alcohol use often leads to reckless behavior, drinking under the influence is common as well.

Alcohol use doesn’t only affect the person whose drinking. It can also hurt relationships with friends, family, and loved ones. 

Someone who abuses alcohol might also put themselves and others in dangerous situations. For example, they might engage in high-risk sexual behaviors. They might also operate dangerous machinery while intoxicated.

Alcohol abuse can also interfere with responsibilities at work, school, or socially. For example, an alcohol abuser might fight with their children, skip school, or arrive at work hungover. 

However, alcohol abusers aren’t necessary alcoholics. Alcohol abuse doesn’t always lead to addiction, either.

Instead, you can tell someone is abusing alcohol based on their harmful behaviors. If they’re experiencing negative consequences after drinking but don’t care about those consequences, it’s likely an issue of alcohol abuse. 

What is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence, on the other hand, implies the drinker has a physical dependence on alcohol. Someone who is dependent on alcohol will likely experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome after building a tolerance, too. 

If you’ve become alcohol dependent, it means you’re physically addicted to alcohol. As a result, you’ll experience cravings and withdrawal when you go too long without alcohol. Someone who has developed alcohol dependence will likely:

  • Drink more alcohol over a longer period of time
  • Remain unsuccessful to cut down their alcohol intake
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms (like tremors, mood swings, insomnia)
  • Drink to ease withdrawal symptoms
  • Feel a compulsion/craving to continue drinking
  • Develop tolerance to alcohol (causing them to drink more and more over time)

Once you’ve reached the point of alcohol dependence, it’s usually difficult to stop drinking without alcohol treatment. Treatment can include detoxification, professional rehabilitation, counseling, medical treatment, or a self-help group.

However, you could still have a problem even if you don’t symptoms. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can have dangerous, life-threatening consequences. After drinking heavily for an extended period of time, a person can develop mental and physical issues when they try to stop or cut back. 

Alcohol use slows brain function. It also changes how your nerves relay messages throughout your body. In other words, alcohol has a depressive effect on your central nervous system. 

After prolonged alcohol use, your central nervous will adjust. Your body will keep your brain alert to ensure your nerves continue communicating. 

If you suddenly stop drinking, however, your brain will maintain this alert state. As a result, you’ll begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms. 

These symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Shaky hands
  • Anxiety

The longer you go without alcohol, the more severe your symptoms will become. Around the 12 to 24 hour mark without alcohol, you might experience hallucinations. You might also experience seizures two days after your last drink. 

You might begin to experience delirium tremens (DTs) between 48 and 72 hours since your last drink. Symptoms include vivid hallucinations and delusions. You might also experience:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate

If you experience these symptoms, you shouldn’t try to treat them alone. Instead, it’s important to receive proper medical care. However, treating alcohol withdrawal won’t treat your alcohol dependence. 

Understanding the Difference

What exactly is the difference between alcohol abuse vs dependence?

Alcohol abuse is usually associated with reckless behaviors. If you’re abusing alcohol, you’re likely ignoring the consequences that result from these behaviors.

If you’ve become dependent on alcohol, however, you’ll notice changes in how your body responds without alcohol over a period of time. 

Many people associate alcohol dependence and alcoholism. In fact, some people deny the fact that they have a problem and refuse to get treatment. However, you’re not necessarily an alcoholic if you’ve developed a physical dependence on alcohol. 

Pay attention to how you behave when it comes to drinking. Are you pushing loved ones away? Are you making reckless decisions, such as driving under the influence?

In these cases, you’re likely abusing alcohol.

Do you have a difficult time stopping yourself from drinking? Do you know you should cut back but can’t? Are you increasing how much you drink over time?

These signs indicate you’ve developed alcohol dependence.


However, recognizing the difference between alcohol abuse vs dependence isn’t always so cut and dry. Instead, you should consider speaking with a professional. They can help determine whether you need treatment for alcohol abuse or dependence.

They can also help you safely cut back in case you’ve already experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

If you’re unsure about the difference between alcohol abuse and dependence, consider speaking with a doctor. Let them know if you feel like you have to drink. You should also tell them if you can’t control how much you drink or can’t stop on your own. 

They’ll help you explore your treatment options. 

Alcohol Abuse vs Dependence: Differentiating the Two

Now that you know the difference between alcohol abuse vs dependence, make a change. Don’t let alcohol control your life. Instead, consider seeking the help you need before it’s too late. 

Searching for more ways to positively transform your life? Consider exploring our numerous Helpful Resources today!

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