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Difference Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism?

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Difference Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism?

Written by Genesis Recovery

You’re probably familiar with the terms binge drinking and alcoholism. People use both expressions to describe heavy drinking that may indicate alcohol-related problems. You might even hear the terms used interchangeably, but alcoholism and binge drinking are not the same. Even though most people struggling with alcoholism engage in binge drinking often, binge drinking is not the only criteria needed for someone to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In other words, a binge drinker may have problems misusing alcohol, but they may not have an alcohol use disorder. That doesn’t mean binge drinking is harmless, though. The practice can have serious health effects and can increase your risk of developing an AUD. Here’s what you need to know about the key differences between the habits and dangers related to binge drinking and alcoholism.

What is Binge Drinking?

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World describes binge drinking as the practice of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a single session. When you think of the expression binge drinking, you might picture a group of young people at a college party or a group of young adults in a bar guzzling down shots and other alcoholic beverages. While that’s certainly a common example of binge drinking, you can binge drink at home, a cocktail party, or a corporate event just as easily.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking happens when men have 5 or more drinks or women have 4 or more drinks in a 2-hour period.

The CDC defines binge drinking as any particular pattern of drinking that brings your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08%. When you drink so much in such a short period of time, your organs aren’t able to clear out all the alcohol in your body, which, in turn, raises your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). When your blood alcohol concentration reaches 0.08% or higher, you’re legally impaired and too drunk to drive. In other words, binge drinking is the act of getting drunk in a short period of time, usually 2 hours or less depending on your age, size, and the strength of the alcoholic drinks.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is the most severe form of alcohol abuse. You may also hear alcoholism described as an alcohol use disorder, or AUD. If you have an alcohol use disorder, you’ve developed a dependency on alcohol. In other words, you feel as if you cannot function normally without alcohol. In this case, the cravings for alcohol have become so strong that you’re unable to manage how much or how often you drink. You may even try to stop drinking, but realize that you’re unable to do so successfully. That’s because, unlike binge drinking, alcoholism can feel like an impossible habit to change or break. If you’re living with alcoholism, you typically drink every day. Unlike binge drinking, which can happen one time, you don’t drink heavily once and develop an alcohol use disorder. In alcoholism, the compulsive, alcohol-driven behavior happens consistently and repeatedly.

You’ll need to exhibit 2 out of the 11 criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) within the same 12-month time period to receive an official AUD diagnosis.

Now that you know the official definitions of binge drinking and alcoholism, let’s take a look at what makes them different from each other.

Binge Drinking vs Alcoholism: Key Differences

person who can't stop binge drinking

On the surface, binge drinking and alcoholism appear very similar because they both involve excessive drinking and a lack of control. But the habits, methods, and underlying conditions that feed each pattern of drinking are quite different. Here are a few distinctions which behavioral health experts recognize between binge drinking and alcoholism.

Physical Dependence

  • Binge drinkers are not physically dependent on alcohol. They don’t need alcoholic beverages to feel normal, even though they enjoy heavy drinking. In fact, some binge drinkers can go without alcohol for days, weeks, or even months. Alcoholics cannot. People who struggle with alcoholism are physically dependent on alcohol. They feel ongoing, intense cravings to drink all the time. In addition to that, people with an alcohol use disorder struggle to feel and function normally when they’re not drinking, which is why they tend to drink every day.

Frequency of Alcohol Consumption

  • Behavioral health experts look at the frequency of a person’s drinking to help distinguish binge drinking from alcoholism, as well. A lot of binge drinkers have big gaps between their binges. People struggling with alcoholism, on the other hand, rarely have gaps between their alcohol consumption. In fact, most high-functioning alcoholics have a ritualized drinking habit. Whether they choose to drink after work, before dinner, or in the late afternoon, they have a steady drinking habit and work to maintain that ritual at all costs.

Type of Environment During Alcohol Consumption

  • Paying attention to where and when someone drinks can also help pinpoint the differences between binge drinking and alcoholism. People with an alcohol use disorder tend to drink alone, in the morning, or in secret. Binge drinkers usually consume alcohol in a completely different environment. Most binge drinkers prefer to drink in the later afternoon or evening and almost always prefer a social, lively environment.

The Dangers and Risks

  • Binge drinking and alcoholism are dangerous habits, but they each have different risk factors.

The risks of binge drinking can include:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unintended injuries
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Sexual dysfunction

Alcoholism can include all of those risks as well as the following:

  • Depression and other mental illnesses
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Neurological damage
  • Malnutrition
  • Seizures
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes

Ability to Stop

  • Both binge drinking and alcoholism are self-destructive forms of alcohol misuse. However, binge drinkers tend to have an easier time cutting down on their drinking than people who struggle with alcoholism. Unlike binge drinkers, people with an AUD cannot and will not stop drinking despite severe physical, psychological, and emotional consequences.


  • According to the NIAAA, several short one-on-one therapy sessions followed by a step-by-step plan can help treat most binge drinking habits. The most effective way to treat alcoholism, on the other hand, is medical detox followed by a formal alcohol rehab program. The short, brief interventions that can help produce a long-term change for a binge drinker cannot effectively help treat alcoholism.

Effective, Compassionate, and Comprehensive Treatment

Here at Genesis Recovery, we’re here to help you regain control of your impulses and mend the parts of your life that addiction has harmed. If you’re struggling with alcohol challenges, our treatment programs can help you learn how to live without reaching for the next drink. Our expert staff members strive to provide you with compassionate yet comprehensive and effective care.

Alcohol doesn’t have to control your life. Contact us today at 619-797-7319 if you or a loved one are looking for a rehab center that truly cares about getting you on the path to long-term recovery.

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