What Is The Difference Between Alcoholic and Being A Drunk?

Alcoholism and being drunk appear like similar terms, but there are differences between the two. Understand the symptoms of alcoholism and how it is different from drunkenness, as well as know a step-by-step process on how to get help for alcohol abuse.

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The label “alcoholic” isn’t exactly what most people want to own. That is why many may mask their drinking habits or call themselves “drunk” at the moment. However, just calling someone drunk may pose as a blanket term for an actual problem. What is the difference between the two?

As drinking is considered a cultural norm, it seems like everyone can have a good time recalling experiences where they were “drunk”. Nonetheless, hearing the label “alcoholic” will put most on the defensive. It is true, being drunk and being alcoholic have their similarities, but there’s also a fine line that separates the two.

Problem Drinking Vs. Alcoholism: What’s The Difference?

In comparison, problem drinkers and alcoholics both have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. There are several categories of problem drinkers, and there are also varying degrees of alcoholism. By defining each, you will notice the differences and similarities between these two terms.

Drinking problem symptoms

Problem drinking is described as having unhealthy drinking habits. People who are problem drinkers often have a hard time controlling the amount of alcohol they consume when they do so, but they are not physically dependent. Some examples of problem drinkers would be:

Binge drinkers: Binge drinkers are those who typically consume large amounts of alcohol or more than they intend to per drinking episode. A typical binge drinker would have 3-4 binge drinking episodes per month and would have more than 3-5 servings of alcoholic beverages within 2 hours.

Heavy drinking: Even if people don’t fit in the category of binge drinking, some individuals have a hard time controlling their intake, to the point that it may influence their behavior towards others. Some experience frequent drunk episodes where they become aggressive or violent towards family and friends. Being frequently drunk can also disrupt a person’s ability to perform daily responsibilities at work or school.

Meaning of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is characterized by a physical dependence on alcohol. This is considered the crossing point to addiction because one experiences withdrawal symptoms when one tries to decrease or stop use.

Alcoholics can recover from their addiction, but they are always at a risk for relapse even when they attempt to have a single drink. Since their risk of being addicted again is relatively high, abstinence is key to help achieving total sobriety.

Put simply, the difference between problem drinking and alcoholism is evident in the physical dependency. The physical dependence for alcoholic vs. drunk has a stark difference. We see that people with alcoholism find it hard to function without drinking, while people who get drunk only lose control during their drinking episodes.

Another thing to take note of is the consistency and amount consumed. Alcoholics are more consistent with their intake, which is seen by their daily drinking habits. They are regularly seen drinking throughout the day, while problem drinkers can abstain for days or weeks, but drink excessively on single episodes.

What Are The Signs For Each Disorder?

Understanding the signs can also help people take action to deal with their problems. Although binge drinking, frequently being drunk, and alcoholism all benefit from high-quality rehabilitation services, knowing that you have specific signs and symptoms gives you a sense of confirmation and urgency to get better.

Characteristics of Drunk Persons

  • You always drink more than you intended to. In your mind, you have probably set boundaries. However, you often end up drinking more than you planned to.
  • You spend a lot of time with alcohol. Although you know you can function without alcohol, you still spend a lot of time drinking or doing activities where you can get a hold of alcohol.
  • You notice a higher level of tolerance. What used to make you drunk before now only gets you a little over tipsy. You may notice that you consume larger amounts of alcohol before being intoxicated.
  • You sense a change in your daily habits and personal relationships. Problem drinking is also defined as being disruptive although not entirely a source of addiction. When you feel like you have given up your usual activities or experience strained relationships with others due to your alcohol habits, this is another sign of problem drinking.

These drinking problem symptoms shouldn’t be ignored, as prolonging this condition can transform into full-blown alcoholism. There are many factors that influence people who are susceptible to problem drinkings, such as motivational, personality, and environmental reasons.

Signs of being an alcoholic

  • You experience intense cravings. Problem drinkers may have occasional cravings, but alcoholics face the severe need to drink. If it’s an all-consuming desire to have your usual drinks just to feel better, this is a potential sign of being an alcoholic.
  • You have a drink at the start of your day to calm your nerves. Another sign that you have crossed the line between problem drinking to having an addiction is when you depend on alcohol to experience calm sensations. Many alcoholics have the habit of drinking first thing in the morning, reportedly to start their day being calm and prepared. This is also known as an “eye-opener”.
  • You have a need to hide your drinking habits. Either intentional or not, you may feel the need to hide the number of beverages you’re actually drinking from your loved ones. It’s either you don’t have the patience to explain yourself or feel a sense of shame that your drinking habits have gone overboard.
  • You experience health problems related to drinking. Excessive amounts of alcohol can damage your heart, liver, and pancreas. Other people also suffer from various cancers that are triggered by long-term alcohol abuse. If you’ve experienced any health issues that medical experts link to your drinking habits, this is another potential sign.

These are just some of the characteristics of an alcoholic that may be present in yourself or in a loved one. However, hope is not lost whether you’re a problem drinker or fit the label of an alcoholic. Many others have experienced this struggle and recovered, as they sought professional help for alcohol addiction.

Differences Between an Alcoholic and a Drunk

As you notice the signs between those suffering from alcoholism and drunkenness, you will notice that the main differences are the pattern of their alcohol use and how it has affected their health. These are the different denominators where we can see the contrasting characteristics of alcoholism and being drunk:

Tolerance and dependency

Alcoholics will have a high level of tolerance and dependency on alcoholic beverages. This means that they will need to consume regularly in order to function, or else withdrawal symptoms can occur. These withdrawal symptoms can sometimes be life-threatening for alcoholics as the brain and body are not used to functioning anymore without the substance.

Drunkenness on the other hand does not necessarily mean full dependency. It can mean that these people intermittently drink but do not need alcohol to function for daily living. In times of intoxication, they may drink in excess, causing the behavior that shows drunkenness.

Frequency of drinking

People suffering from alcoholism will drink almost every day, with an average of 2-4 drinks per day for both men and women. This signifies the dependency earlier stated, something which drunk people do not necessarily have to do.

Drunkenness is only described when people engage in drinking behaviors and loss of control takes place. Those who often get drunk may drink once a month, once a week, or a few times a year but will go “all-out” with their episodes. The dependency isn’t significant but rather the reaction to alcohol which is more highlighted in this condition.

Physical symptoms

Both alcoholics and drunk people may experience intoxication when using the substance, but the difference is the withdrawal symptoms that happen for alcoholics. These can include life-threatening seizures, nausea, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, and other physical ailments that make it challenging for an alcoholic to quit.

Being drunk, on the other hand, may only lead to post-drinking hangovers or accidents related to carousing. Drunk people will not have long-term withdrawals related to alcohol abuse.

Warning Signs You’re An Alcoholic

Is it possible for people who often get drunk to suffer from alcoholism? Yes, in fact, they are the most likely individuals to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol abuse happens when the frequency of drinking increases over time until the brain and body eventually develop a tolerance and dependency.

Once drunk people get into a daily habit of consuming alcohol, it is very likely that they will suffer from alcoholism once the problem is not addressed right away. Here are some warning signs that you are developing an alcoholism problem:

  • Increased frequency of drinking that ranges from 2-4 servings every day
  • Headaches, shakiness, and general discomfort when not drinking
  • Increased blood pressure when compared to pre-drinking habits
  • Intense cravings for alcohol all the time
  • The instinct to drink when stressed or experiencing physical discomfort
  • Changes in life dynamics such as isolation, occupational difficulties, and relationship challenges associated with drinking alcohol

When you notice one or more of these signs developing, it is best to seek professional help right away. Targeting alcoholism in its earlier stages means a higher chance of success towards addiction recovery.

Are The Effects of Alcoholism Reversible?

Most effects of alcoholism are reversible such as cravings and addiction in itself. Other physical symptoms that happen in the short-term such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and agitation often disappear when the person becomes less dependent on alcohol.

However, it is important to know that some health-related complications of alcohol addiction cannot be fully reversed or will take some time before complete recovery. These can include:

  • Neurological disorders: Some people who have abused alcohol long-term develop Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia, Parkinson’s, and other related neurological disorders. In many cases, these diseases are progressive but have rehabilitation options to uphold one’s quality of life.
  • Cardiovascular problems: There are some cases of stroke or heart diseases that are difficult to reverse once they occur. For example, brain damage related to stroke or a weaker heart following an attack means that the person should take maintenance medications or necessary regular intervention.
  • Mental health problems: Other patients may also be susceptible to mental health problems due to alcohol abuse. Although most problems can be addressed with therapy and proper concurrent disorder intervention, this may need a lifetime of effort to prevent triggers as well as strategies to live a fulfilling life.

It is ideal not to wait before such irreversible complications happen due to alcohol addiction. By getting help for alcoholism, one can also prevent the life-altering health and wellness damages it can bring.

Getting Help With Drinking: How To Get Started

Whether you or a loved one is a problem drinker or an alcoholic, there is always help available. Most top-notch rehab centers offer alcohol detox, treatment, and aftercare programs that suit the needs of each individual. If you’d like to know how you can get help with a drinking problem, below are some general steps to take.

Do not detox from alcohol at home.

If you know that you are physically dependent on alcohol, it is best not to attempt a do-it-yourself detox process. This is because the effects of alcohol withdrawal can be deadly for some–and you would want to avoid that risk. It is ideal to seek professional help through Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) or tapering off with constant monitoring.

Find alcohol rehab centers with various treatment options.

There are varied underlying reasons why people become problem drinkers or alcoholics. Looking for a rehab center that offers varied treatment options can help you undergo a program that is best suited to your needs.

The best treatment program is one that focuses on all aspects of your being–your physical, mental, emotional, personal-social, and even spiritual health. High-quality facilities can mix and match various treatment approaches to help individuals heal from their triggers and target the root cause of alcohol addiction.

Prepare yourself for treatment.

After finding a rehab center that suits your needs, you need to prepare yourself for the upcoming treatment. Having the right financial resources, knowing what to bring for inpatient care, and informing employers and family members of your rehab stay will allow your experience to be distraction-free. You may want to also look at commonly asked questions about undergoing rehabilitation.

Alcoholic? Problem Drinker? Don’t Let These Labels Define You

You are so much more than your drinking problem. These are mere labels–you have the capacity to redefine yourself and discover a better you. By finding quality facilities and treatment options that work, it is possible to break free from the chains of alcoholism and problem drinking.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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