Alcoholic vs Problem Drinker: What’s the Difference?

In past decades, expert’s views on alcoholism remained relatively consistent. Either you’re an alcoholic, or you aren’t, right? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple.

As it turns out, varying views exist on alcoholism. Most recently, experts have started to regard “alcoholism” as a colloquial and all-encompassing term for a group of alcohol-related mental illnesses. These varying alcohol-related conditions exist under the umbrella condition of Alcohol Use Disorder. Just because you are a problem drinker, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic and suffer the worst form of AUD. According to Harvard Health, only 10% of heavy drinkers may be classified as alcoholics, or someone who is physically dependent on alcohol. However, this doesn’t mean that other binge drinkers and people who drink alcohol excessively needn’t be worried about their boozing habits.

Two different men drinking alcohol from a flask represent the difference between an alcoholic and a problem drinker.

Whether you’re a light drinker, problem drinker, or alcoholic, the effects of alcohol on your body are often detrimental. Not only this, but irresponsible or problematic alcohol use can always progress and worsen.

Luckily, every type of alcohol use disorder is treatable. Read on to learn about the difference between alcoholism and being a problem drinker, as well as how all terms are grouped under the category of AUDs.

The Spectrum Of Alcohol Use

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Disorder, alcohol use disorders exist on a spectrum. The NIAAA states Alcohol Use Disorder is “a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it can be divided into three parts: mild AUD, moderate AUD, and severe AUD.
Very Well Mind explains in an article on AUD that there are multiple signs physicians look for when diagnosing AUD:

  • Missing work or school
  • Drinking in hazardous situations
  • Drinking despite social or personal problems
  • Craving alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawals from alcohol if someone tries to quit drinking
  • Drinking more than someone intended to
  • Multiple attempts at quitting or limiting drinking without success
  • Continual use, despite consequences

Based on these criteria and other tell-tale signs, psychiatric professionals generally can determine whether someone has mild, moderate, or severe AUD.

The Almost-Alcoholic

Yes, this term may sound a bit silly. But we didn’t make it up.

“Almost-Alcoholic” is a term coined by Harvard Health in their article mentioned above, and refers to someone who frequently misuses alcohol to their own detriment. These people are referred to as the “problem drinkers” in question, or those with mild-to-moderate Alcohol Use Disorder.

There are multiple reasons someone may become an almost-alcoholic. For example, the problem drinker may:

  • Drink to avoid uncomfortable emotions
  • Drink socially
  • Drink to self-medicate an anxiety disorder, depression, or other mental health condition

Almost-Alcoholics can still benefit from attending an inpatient alcohol treatment center. To avoid binge drinking and the worsening of their condition, almost-alcoholics, and other problem drinkers can attend treatment to take advantage of early intervention.

People with mild, moderate, and severe AUD must change their relationship with alcohol if they wish to permanently alter their drinking habits. Sobriety benefits anyone with any type of alcohol use disorder, even people who drink lightly or have other health problems.

A depressed woman with a open bottle of alcohol and glass of wine in front of her.

Severe Alcohol Use Disorder

When someone uses the term “alcoholic”, they are likely referring to the equivalent of someone with a severe AUD. While problem drinkers drink to avoid problems or simply get drunk, alcoholics need alcohol to function. Often, people with severe AUD tend to be physically dependent on alcohol to function.

These people also may have used excess amounts of alcohol daily for a significant amount of times – years, even. People with severe AUD are most likely to experience withdrawal symptoms – and experience them worse.

Causes Of Drinking Problems

Multiple factors can contribute to the “making” of someone with Alcohol Use Disorder.
Some people may develop alcohol use disorder because of genetic factors or traumatic life experiences. In these cases, someone with AUD may find trauma therapy helpful.

Many people who develop drinking problems have a relative with AUD, such as a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. Other times, certain mental illnesses, like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, can all increase the likelihood that someone will develop problem drinking and alcoholism.

Why Inpatient Addiction Treatment Benefits Everyone

It doesn’t matter whether someone fits the label of “alcoholic” or not. If you drink excessively in any way, even if you don’t think it’s a problem, you still may want to take a step back to see how alcohol might be influencing your life.

As it turns out, problem drinkers aren’t always alcoholics, but alcoholics are almost always problem drinkers. Problem drinkers don’t always need medical treatment or spiritual awakenings. They may sometimes attend support groups, but it isn’t always necessary.

Plenty of treatment programs exist if you or a family member needs addiction treatment for alcoholism. Rehab can help you, or your family and friends, permanently alter your relationship with alcohol. It also gives someone time to focus solely on their alcohol issues and the life factors that may contribute to bad drinking habits.

Not only this, but in rehab, addiction professionals form custom treatment plans made specifically for someone recovering from AUD.

Remember, if you’re a heavy drinker who is physically or mentally dependent on booze to function, you shouldn’t stop drinking on your own. Someone who is addicted to alcohol can experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit cold turkey. In these cases, it’s best to seek the medical advice of an addiction professional and detox in a licensed drug and alcohol detoxification center.

A red suitcase on the beach represents an inpatient rehab facility for alcohol addiction.

Reach Out

No online test or article can determine whether you have AUD, so talking to a professional is the best option. All classes of people affected by alcoholism can benefit from addiction treatment and sobriety.

To find out whether you may have a problem with alcohol, it’s best to talk to a trained addiction professional. Why risk your substance abuse getting worse? If you’re interested in seeking help for an Alcohol Use Disorder or are concerned about your alcohol consumption, call one of our admission specialists today!