What’s the Difference Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism?

By Nashville Detox

Alcoholism and binge drinking may be two terms that we use interchangeably, but they are not the same. Even though someone with alcoholism might also engage in binge drinking often, a person can have an alcohol use disorder without engaging in heavy or intense episodes of drunkenness. In other words, just because you drink heavily at certain times, it doesn’t mean you have AUD.

This doesn’t mean that binge drinking is harmless, however. People who engage in binge drinking are putting themselves at greater risk for developing alcoholism, as well as many health problems. Here we will examine the key differences between a binge drinker vs. an alcoholic. 

What is Binge Drinking and How Does it Differ From Heavy Drinking?

Binge drinking is the practice of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a single session, while heavy drinking is considered to be five or more of these binge drinking sessions within a 30 day period. Binge drinking is related to a short period of time, while heavy drinking is related to longer periods of time. 

When you think about binge drinking, pictures might come to mind like college students’ parties or young adults at bars guzzling shots and other alcoholic beverages. While this type of behavior does happen among these groups quite often, it’s essential not to forget that one can also be an avid drinker without partaking socially with friends. They could just as easily do so at home all by themselves. 

Binge Drinking Facts

The NIAAA reports men must drink 5+ drinks while women must drink 4+ drinks during a 2 hour period in order for it to be considered binge drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as any particular pattern of drinking that brings your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08%. For men, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week. For women, heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week. 

The CDC also says there’s no safe amount before driving becomes jeopardized. Even small amounts can cause drivers to be impaired. Someone having too many drinks during dinner can lead them into risky situations if they choose to get behind the wheel afterward. When you drink so much in such a short period, it takes time for your organs to process all of the alcohol. This results in an elevated level of intoxication. 

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD), can be defined as a strong dependency on the effects of drinking. Unlike binge drinking, where you may experience short-term relief from your cravings for alcohol and are able to control how much is consumed over time. Alcoholics must drink continuously throughout their day without interruption just so they feel normal. Otherwise, feelings such as euphoria and relaxation will dip dramatically. 

Alcohol addiction is a serious mental health condition that impacts not only the person struggling to overcome their addiction but also many other aspects of life. Withdrawal symptoms can be intense and painful, leading people who have alcohol use disorder into cycles where they continue using even when it causes problems or has harmful effects. With alcohol use disorder, there is a complete lack of self-control over consumption levels.

In order to be diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, you’ll need to exhibit 2 out of the 11 criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) within a 12-month time period. 

Key Differences Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

There are several important differences between a binge drinker vs. an alcoholic. These include certain habits, behaviors, and underlying reasons that contribute to their patterns of alcohol abuse. To many individuals, it may be difficult to differentiate between the two. However, behavioral health specialists can spot these key factors. 

The Frequency and Amount of Alcohol Abuse 

Behavioral health experts look at the frequency of a person’s drinking to help distinguish binge drinking from alcoholism. A lot of people who drink heavily in short periods will have gaps between binges, while others struggling with alcohol addiction rarely experience such breaks from their intake. Alcoholics instead tend toward an ongoing ritualized routine that includes specific times for consuming alcohol. For alcoholics, it’s all about maintaining this steady habit as best as you can.

The Environment in Which Alcohol is Consumed

Alcoholics will typically drink at home alone or in secret, whereas binge drinkers prefer to drink in social settings or in the late afternoon and evenings. Alcoholics will also drink from the minute they are awake to the minute they go to sleep. 

Individuals suffering from alcoholism need to drink no matter where they are or what they are doing. Many alcoholics feel shame for their consistent drinking and choose to be alone or hide their alcohol abuse in social environments. Binge drinkers don’t usually feel that their alcohol abuse is problematic and therefore enjoy drinking socially. 

difference between binge drinking and alcoholism

Alcohol Dependence

Binge drinkers do not typically suffer from any alcohol dependency. Individuals suffering from alcoholism, however, do have a physical dependence. Alcohol dependence is what causes alcoholics the compulsive need to continue drinking. If they stop drinking, they will suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms. 

Individuals who engage in binge drinking will get alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, headaches, lack of motivation, commonly referred to as a hangover. However, symptoms pass fairly quickly, and binge drinkers don’t feel the compulsive need to drink. Binge drinkers can go for any given length of time without feeling the need to drink. Binge drinking does commonly lead to alcoholism, however, and there are plenty of health risks associated with it. Therefore binge drinking is not considered safe. 

Motivation for Alcohol Consumption

Alcoholics need to drink to keep withdrawal symptoms from occurring. They are physically dependent on the substance. Binge drinkers typically consume alcohol to enjoy social settings or to feel the effects of alcohol quickly. The motivation for individuals to binge drink is to get drunk, whereas, with alcoholism, they are looking to stay somewhat intoxicated to avoid withdrawals. 

Alcoholism is very ritualistic. Binge drinking is usually the opposite. Binge drinkers don’t typically set guidelines on how, when, or what they should drink. Anyone engaging in binge drinking is looking for immediate gratification.

The Risks Associated With Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

Both alcoholism and binge drinking is hazardous to your health, though they both have different risks. 

Short-term Effects of Binge Drinking:

  • Unintended problems with law enforcement
  • Accidental injury 
  • Engaging in risky sexual behavior that leads to STDs or pregnancy
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Losing important items like a wallet, keys, or purse
  • Becoming a victim of assault or rape  

Alcoholism includes the risks above as well as:

  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Dementia
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • Mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder
  • Diabetes
  • Psychosis or seizures

Binge drinking brings many short-term risks. Alcoholism brings both short and long-term risks. Binge drinking can develop into alcoholism, so it’s important to recognize the signs of binge drinking before it’s too late. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcoholism, entering an accredited alcohol detox program can mitigate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. 

Types of Treatment for Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

The NIAAA reports show that one-on-one therapy sessions followed by a stepwise plan can help treat most binge drinking habits. The best way to combat alcoholism, however, is medical detox and then a formal rehab program. In order for the patient’s addiction to be treated effectively, an addiction treatment program is necessary for long-term recovery from alcoholism. 

Short interventions for alcoholism only produce temporary relief. They are not sufficient enough when it comes to treating alcohol use disorder. 

Is it OK to Binge Drink Occasionally?

Binge drinking still comes with several risks, even when engaging in the activity just once. Binge drinking is never advised as it severely limits your cognitive abilities and can interfere with your overall health. There are steps that can be taken to help limit your risk when drinking alcohol. 

  • Don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach
  • Space out drinking and supplement water in-between alcoholic beverages
  • Give yourself a limit on how much alcohol you’re going to consume
  • Having several days in a row where you abstain from alcohol consumption
  • Change your environment during social settings to places that don’t serve alcohol

Alcohol Detox is the First Step in Overcoming Alcoholism

Alcoholism is difficult to overcome because of the serious withdrawal symptoms that occur when an individual decides to stop drinking. In many instances, it can be extremely hazardous and unsafe to attempt to detox from alcohol alone. For this reason, seeking help at a facility that specializes in medical detox for alcohol use disorder is so important. 

Nashville Detox is an accredited detox facility with plenty of experience helping people overcome alcohol withdrawals. Our medical team works directly with patients to find the right detox plan to offset their specific withdrawal symptoms. Our staff monitors individuals 24/7 to make sure their detox experience is safe and effective. You don’t have to try to overcome alcoholism alone. Our team is here to support you. Contact us today to learn more about your medical detox options. 

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