Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism – What’s The Difference?

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : MAY  30, 
| 3 Sources

The line between Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism can be blurry at best. Alcoholism is an addiction that requires professional treatment or may lead to a life-threatening situation if not treated.

Problem drinkers often do not realize they have crossed the line into alcoholism because of how gradual it can be, but once you're there, the consequences are severe and include things like losing your job, family members leaving you, and even death.

What is problem drinking and what are the risks of it?

"Problem drinking" is a commonly used phrase today. But what does it mean? And what are the risks of this type of alcohol consumption?

The first step to understanding problem drinking is figuring out where one stands on the continuum. Problem drinkers can be classified as either risky or non-risky, based on their self-reported alcohol use and related consequences.

Risky drinkers reported being:

  • drunk more than once in the last year, 
  • having had five drinks or more at least once during each month over 12 months ago,
  •  going to work while under the influence of alcohol, 
  • having five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past year, and
  •  experiencing negative consequences from their drinking such as getting arrested for driving under the influence, or having alcohol-related problems with family members.

Non-risky drinkers did not have any of those experiences in the last year.

Problem drinking is about more than just how much someone drinks on a given occasion; it’s also what they drink and when they drink as well as their mental state when consuming the beverage.

For example, taking shots at work can make one an immediate risk for problem drinking because that behavior could lead to other risky behaviors such as getting drunk before driving home after work.

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism

Alcoholism is when you have an addiction to alcohol and it has caused serious problems in your life

Alcoholism is when you have an addiction to alcohol and it has caused serious problems in your life. This addiction often causes people to lose their friends, jobs, spouses or homes because they are too drunk to take care of themselves, this is the main difference between Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism. 

Alcoholics usually drink until they pass out from drunkenness at night, and then wake up in the morning with a terrible headache and start drinking again to try and feel better. These cycles can continue for years without any relief for those addicted.

Some dangers that come along with alcoholism include liver damage, high blood pressure, heart disease or even cancer.

This is why it's so important to get help if you suspect someone has an issue with alcohol abuse before things spiral out of control!

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism
Problem drinkers may be able to control their intake whereas alcoholics cannot

While alcoholics are unable to control how much they drink, problem drinkers can sometimes do so by limiting themselves either through willpower or behavior changes such as avoiding drinking situations where one might overindulge.

 For example, many people who have trouble with binge drinking may limit their intake based on whether or not they're at home versus going out to a bar or restaurant. The main key difference between an alcoholic and someone else struggling with problematic drinking is typically the severity of their use which leads them into dangerous territory.

Problem drinkers might need help with other issues such as mental illness or stress while alcoholics do require outside help in order to recover from their addiction.

Alcoholics are unable to stop drinking without outside help, and they may need additional assistance with other problems such as mental illness or stress that can lead them to drink excessively. Alcoholics experience cravings and urges to drink that are hard to satisfy without drinking. Alcoholics can usually identify triggers that can bring about a craving or an urge to drink. Examples of triggers include;

  • people, 
  • places and 
  • challenging emotions.

The first step towards recovery is identifying whether you’re suffering from problem drinking versus alcoholism. As mentioned above, the difference between the two can be vague, so reaching out to a professional with questions can help you figure out what you are experiencing.

problem drinkingPhoto by Shane

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism
The difference between alcoholism and problem drinking in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, etc.

Alcoholism is a long-term disease that is a form of addiction. The experience of cravings and withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult for an alcoholic to stop drinking despite the negative consequences they incur.

On the other hand, problem drinkers have less severe symptoms of alcoholism. They may drink more than recommended by doctors or social norms, but they don't necessarily suffer from all of the same problems alcoholics do.

When looking at criteria needed for a diagnosis of Alcohol Use Disorder, there are several factors taken into consideration. These include:

  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Impaired control
  • Neglected areas of life
  • Time spent drinking
  • Continuing to drink after facing negative consequences
  • How long their drinking has been problematic

Diagnosis of any medical condition requires the attention of a trained, medical professional. There are however, some brief assessments that can be done at home to help you see if you should consider seeing a professional.

One assessment that is simple to use is the CAGE assessment. This is a four-question screen that can be answered in a yes or no fashion. Two answers of “yes” is considered significant. The questions are as follows:

1.) Have you ever felt that you should cut down on your drinking?

2.) Have you ever felt annoyed by others who criticize your drinking?

3.) Have you ever felt guilty about your drinking?

4.) Have you ever had a drink early in the morning to steady nerves or get rid of a hang over?

If you answered yes to two or more of the questions above, you may benefit from talking to your doctor or an addiction professional for further assessment.

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism
The difference between the two is that alcoholism can be fatal whereas problem drinkers are only at risk for social consequences

Alcoholism and problem drinking are two similar but distinct conditions. Alcoholism is a disease in which an individual's physical system has developed an addiction to alcohol. Heavy alcohol use can increase a person’s risk of some cancers and is known to have a negative impact on the following organs:

  • Brain
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas

Problem drinkers may experience hang overs and injuries that resulted from being impaired, however they do not experience the severe physical consequences as an alcoholic would. They may experience some mild physical consequence’s, particularly if they have an alcohol intolerance.

Photo by Doğukan Şahin

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism
Alcoholism is characterized by withdrawal symptoms including nausea, vomiting, shaking hands, insomnia, anxiety and depression

It can be difficult to diagnose alcoholism, but there are some tell-tale signs. For example, if you have withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, shaking hands or insomnia then you may be suffering from alcohol dependence.

If these symptoms persist for more than a few days without any other explanation, it's time to investigate this further with a doctor. Alcohol addiction is a serious problem for many people and it's important to identify this as soon as possible.

These symptoms are due to the effects of alcohol on your system; when you stop drinking, these withdrawal symptoms will occur.

 It can be difficult to diagnose alcoholism because there isn't any one symptom that points out someone who has an issue with excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, if you have some or all of the following signs then it may be time to investigate what might be going wrong:

  • difficulty sleeping at night, 
  • irritability, 
  • depression or anxiety issues, 
  • loss in appetite and weight gain/loss which cannot otherwise be explained by other factors.

 If these symptoms persist more than a few days without another explanation then it's not too late yet to consult with your physician who can help you start your recovery journey.

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a serious problem that can be fatal, but it’s also worth mentioning the difference between alcoholism and problem drinking. If you think someone in your life might have an alcohol addiction, seek help right away to avoid further consequences and dangers. Seek out programs like rehab for long-term care if necessary.

Problem drinkers may need more than just coping strategies; they may require therapy for mental illness or other issues such as stress. Consider seeking professional guidance from a therapist who specializes in addiction recovery so that both parties are on track to healthy living! Contact a professional treatment provider today.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

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