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Alcohol Dependence vs. Alcoholism: Is There a Difference?

By WebMD Connect to Care Staff
Medically Reviewed by Arpan Parikh, MD, MBA on July 12, 2021
While "alcoholism" and "alcohol dependence" are seen as outdated terms by some, alcohol misuse can still be a problem that needs to be addressed through proper treatment.

If you're looking for a difference between alcohol dependence and alcoholism, you may be surprised to find that there are more similarities than differences between the two. In fact, they are both terms that the medical community has moved away from recently in favor of the broader term "alcohol use disorder." 

That doesn't mean that problem drinking doesn't happen on a continuum. Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe misuse, according to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Mild alcohol use disorder may mean that you use alcohol inappropriately, but that use hasn't yet severely impacted your physical health or responsibilities like school, work, or family. 

"Inappropriate use can occur, but the person can choose to stop," Lawrence Weinstein, MD, Chief Medical Officer at American Addiction Centers tells WebMD Connect to Care. "Additionally, this inappropriate use may not impact various aspects of the person's life."

More severe alcohol use disorder may mean that you struggle when it comes to choosing to use alcohol and that your misuse of alcohol affects many aspects of your life. In cases of severe misuse, there is a physical dependence on alcohol, and quitting without the proper medical oversight can be extremely physically and emotionally difficult.

"[Severe] alcohol use disorder has altered areas of the individual's brain and the brain's reward center has been negatively affected due to the frequent spiking and cashing of dopamine levels," Weinstein says. "With alcohol use disorder, even though alcohol use disrupts many areas of the person's life and can cause a host of medical issues, legal trouble, physical problems and other detrimental situations, alcohol use will persist."

Here are some signs that you may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder:

  • Alcohol is all that's on your mind.
  • You drink regardless of the consequences.
  • You are either constantly drinking, drunk, or hungover.
  • You have attempted to stop/cut back on drinking but failed.

You can get help now.

While "alcoholism" and "alcohol dependence" are largely outdated terms, alcohol misuse can still be a problem that needs to be addressed through proper treatment.

"If someone is clinically diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, medical detox is necessary because alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizure and possibly death," Weinstein says.

If you or a loved one is struggling with inappropriate alcohol use, don't wait. Get help now. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to get you started on your journey to recovery today!

Treatment & Resources for Alcohol Addiction