What Are the 5 Key Differences between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism?

Differences between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

In the current drinking culture, finding the line between having a crazy night and having an alcohol problem or addiction has become problematic. It is important for you to be able to distinguish between alcoholism and binge drinking and to understand the risks each of these poses. There are some differences that can help in distinguishing what is considered high-functioning alcoholism and binge drinking. From the outside, these two aspects look similar, but they differ to a greater extent. Knowing about these two conditions of alcohol – binge drinking and alcoholism – can go a long way in helping you to get the help you need.  As mentioned, the behavior of binge drinkers and alcoholics look quite similar: the inability to control one’s drinking and consumption of excess alcohol. They both appear to be the life of parties, but the mechanisms underlying them differ. Moreover, alcoholism and binge drinking have similar repercussions in the short-run, including higher risks of accidents, injury, violence, and death. Apart from that, the long-term consequences are also similar in that alcoholism and binge drinking as the two cause serious health conditions, can lead to broken relationships and can result in increased risks of legal issues.

What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is a behavior that involves the consumption of a certain level of alcohol within a short period. According to NIAAA (National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), binge drinking occurs when women take 4 and men to take 5 drinks in a span of two hours. This kind of drinking usually results in an increased alcohol concentration in blood since the vital body organs cannot get rid of the alcohol within a short period. In other words, people who binge drink do so intending to get drunk.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a kind of disorder that is associated with the abuse of alcohol. Also known as alcohol use disorder, alcoholism is a chronic relapsing disease of the brain that is characterized by compulsive use of alcohol, uncontrollable use of alcohol, as well as a negative state of emotion when one is not using. In the United States, an estimated sixteen million individuals suffer from alcoholism but less than ten percent get treatment for the disorder.

If an individual is suffering from alcoholism, their life may consist of sessions of intoxication and episodes of withdrawal. When a person is intoxicated, they can act inappropriately or they may undergo severe mood swings. Additionally, a person may be physically inhibited by numerous short-term effects of abuse. When one reduces their level of alcohol intake or stop the intake all together, they may start experiencing withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include shakiness, headaches, insomnia, nausea, sweating, and seizures. As a result of these symptoms, it becomes difficult for a person to function normally both at home and in their places of work, forcing them to begin their drinking.

Apart from that, alcoholism includes the persistence in binge drinking thus leading to social problems. Moreover, consistent habits of binge drinking can lead to health issues and could place an individual in unsafe conditions.

What are the Repercussions of Binge Drinking and Alcoholism?

Both binge drinking and alcoholism are considered disorders of alcohol, and the two pose tremendous risks. Binge drinkers place themselves at risk for alcohol poisoning, accidents and injuries, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy.

Alcoholism, on the other hand, is associated with some serious effects. Alcoholism can destroy careers and relationships in addition to causing various health problems. Some of these conditions include heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, cancer, and neurological problems.

Differentiating Alcoholism and Binge Drinking

Some people find it difficult to draw the line between binge drinking and alcoholism. Although these two aspects seem almost similar, there is a clear difference between the two. Here are 5 key differences between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism:

  1. Frequency of Use

The frequency of drinking can help in distinguishing between an individual who is binge drinking and one who is an alcoholic. For binge drinkers, one would not readily identify them as alcoholics since their frequency of drinking is usually very low. Therefore, binge drinkers are in a position to keep their binges within a small group. On the other hand, functional alcoholics have ritualized drinking habits and this may include going to drink after work, taking a cocktail before going to bed, or drinking at specific times. Alcoholics work to maintain their drinking ritual at all costs.

  1. How much do they drink?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking refers to the number of drinks a person would take, enough to raise the content of alcohol in their blood to 0.08 or even higher in a specified period. This amount is quantified to about four or more for women and five or more for men, in approximately two hours or less. On the other hand, the criteria for alcoholism cannot be defined by quantity but with variables such as tolerance, physical dependence, distress linked to drinking, and preoccupation with alcohol.

  1. Physical Dependence

High-functioning alcoholic and binge drinkers usually differ on their dependability on alcohol.  Alcoholics are usually addicted to alcohol, which means that they feel an ongoing craving for the drink. As a result, they are physically dependent on it. On the other hand, binge drinkers aren’t physically dependent on alcohol. Also, it is imperative to remember that binge drinking doesn’t imply future alcoholism, although there are chances binge drinking could result in alcoholism.

  1. Ability to Stop or Control

Unlike an alcoholic, a binge drinker may find it easier to cut down on their drinking. Abusers of alcohol usually drink too much and their behavior can be dangerous to other people if not self-destructive. However, they are in a position to set limits and exercise some control over drinking. On the other hand, alcoholism occurs when alcohol consumption becomes essential for one to function. Unlike the abusers or binge drinkers, alcoholics usually experience uncontrollable drinking. They will find it difficult to stop their drinking despite the severe psychological and physical consequences.

  1. Treatment

When it comes to treatment, people who binge drink may require a brief intervention as opposed to alcoholics. In this brief intervention, the individual meets with a qualified counselor for several one-on-one sessions. Together, they talk about what causes them to drink and why they feel comfortable drinking. Once that has been ascertained, a step-by-step plan is developed to assist the person to alter their drinking habits. This kind of intervention is suitable for a person who drinks alcohol in an abusive way. If the one-on-one sessions do not assist the person to alter their drinking behavior, other follow-up sessions may be conducted. In other cases, people with binge drinking issues may be required to enroll in a rehab facility where counselors and support groups play a crucial role in treatment.

On the other side, people with alcoholism pose a great threat to themselves if they try to sober on their own. Alcoholism can alter the chemical signaling in a person’s brain, which means in the absence of alcohol, an individual can experience seizures. Professionals can utilize medications to ease these complications, making it possible to minimize such effects without the patient falling ill. Medication should be followed by a formal rehab program where the alcoholic gets to work with social workers, counselors, lifestyle coaches, and their peers to acquire a targeted skillset. After the rehab program ends, an alcoholic should understand how alcoholism develops, what the triggers of alcoholism are, how to avoid trigger situations, and how to deal with situations that could expose them to alcohol.

Numerous lessons can be learned in a formal rehab program, which is why most of these programs take weeks or even months to complete. Once the sessions are over, alcoholics continue working in their communities by volunteering to do social work.

If you are looking for a comprehensive treatment plan for your alcohol problem, you can visit Harris House for help.

Why Accurate Diagnosis is Important

It is always important to understand the nuances in alcoholism diagnosis since various disorders require various kinds of treatment. Families learning about these conditions can get a deep knowledge base which they can refer to as they find solutions for their loved ones. Nonetheless, it’s vital to always remember that only a trained person can make a diagnosis.

People with alcohol problems should make an effort to consult a professional such as a social worker, counselor, therapist, or mental health expert. That way, the professionals can determine the kind of problem a person has (if they are alcoholics or abusers) and the types of treatments available to them.

Bottom Line

While the differences between binge drinking and alcoholism are clear, both conditions include destructive behavior which can create problems for an individual including their health, relationships, and finances. If your loved one is struggling with alcohol-related issues, understanding the difference between alcoholism and binge drinking can help. When that has been ascertained, it will be much easier to get them the help they need to make a fresh start.


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