While both are problematic, there are key differences between problem drinking and alcoholism. Problem drinking is often exhibited by people struggling with alcoholism, but you do not need to have alcoholism to be a problem drinker.
Problem drinking is characterized by an overconsumption of alcohol that causes you to make poor decisions, negatively affects your relationships and your mental health, and influences your performance at school or work.
The primary difference between alcoholism and problem drinking is that a problem drinker does not have a physical dependency on alcohol. Their drinking behaviors could certainly lead to physical dependency, but they have not yet.
People who have experienced problem drinking usually can moderate their drinking once they have decided to do so. A terrible hangover, an embarrassing night of drinking, or relationship issues caused by drinking can be enough motivation for a problem drinker to not drink so much.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), problem drinking is fairly common. More than 70 percent of people are likely to experience a period in their lives marked by problem drinking. This phase often occurs during college and lasts for three to four years. It typically happens to people between the ages of 18 to 24 and then phases out. New responsibilities, such as work or having children, are often enough to make someone with a pattern of problem drinking cut back.
Alcoholism often begins with problem drinking and develops over time. Alcoholism, also referred to as alcohol use disorder, is a chronic and relapsing disease of the brain. People with an alcohol use disorder have a compulsion to use alcohol, don’t have any control over how much they consume, and experience negative emotional side effects when they don’t consume alcohol.
According to NIAAA, about 16 million people in the United States struggle with an alcohol use disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) has laid out 11 criteria for identifying alcohol use disorder (AUD). Depending on the number of criteria met, the person in question may have a mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder.
To be diagnosed with AUD, two of the following 11 criteria must have been met within the past 12 months. The criteria for identifying an alcohol use disorder are:
To discern if you are struggling with alcoholism or problem drinking, consult with a physician or addiction specialist. Because problem drinkers have not yet developed a physical dependency on alcohol, they should be able to quit drinking without suffering from any withdrawal symptoms. Problem drinkers often experience negative consequences due to their drinking, such as missing work or having a hangover, but they should not have a problem quitting alcohol for a couple of weeks or months.
Unlike a problem drinker, people struggling with alcoholism cannot go for any extended period without drinking. People with alcoholism often face many reasons to quit drinking, such as relationship, health, or legal problems, but are unable to do so. They can’t break free from their compulsion to drink, no matter what the consequences are. If they attempt to stop drinking, they will experience physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms that will likely lead to a return to drinking if not addressed properly.
The approach to addressing an alcohol use problem depends on what kind of issue you are struggling with. People who struggle with problem drinking do not generally need the same level of medical detox and formal rehab that people struggling with alcoholism do. People who are problem drinkers may decide they need to take a break from alcohol, or quit it entirely, following an embarrassing night of over-drinking or after recognizing a pattern of negative consequences caused by their drinking.
Studies of problem drinkers who decided to quit drinking have found that 70 percent to 75 percent of people who identified as problem drinkers were able to quit or significantly reduce their drinking all on their own. They did not require medical assistance or social support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. As long as you have not developed the disease of alcoholism, you may be able to rely on your determination to cut back on drinking.
Alcoholism, on the other hand, is a disease that cannot be overcome by sheer willpower. It can be dangerous, in fact, to quit alcohol cold turkey. Once your body has become physically dependent on alcohol, it can suffer serious health consequences during withdrawal, such as life-threatening seizures.
If you have an alcohol use disorder, it is important to seek proper medical treatment and care. Participation in a formal rehab program will give you the best opportunities to break free from the debilitating disease of alcoholism.
Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
(September 2018). Not All Problem Drinkers Are Alcoholics. Verywell Mind. from https://www.verywellmind.com/problem-drinker-63280
(April 2009). Social Drinkers, Problem Drinkers and Alcoholics. Psychology Today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/200904/social-drinkers-problem-drinkers-and-alcoholics
(November 2018). Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder. Psych Central. from https://psychcentral.com/disorders/addictions/substance-use-disorder-symptoms/