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Binge Drinking vs Alcoholism: What’s the Difference?

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If you have ever found yourself wondering, “what is the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism?”, then you aren’t alone. Though binge drinking is a problematic form of alcohol consumption, it is not the same as alcoholism. Rather, frequent binge drinking may be a component of alcoholism but does not encompass the entirety of alcohol use disorder (AUD).  In this article, we’ll take a close look at the differences between binge drinking vs alcoholism. We’ll look at what both binge drinking and alcoholism are, where they overlap, and where they diverge. This information should provide important context for individuals who are examining their own alcohol use, or for those who have someone close to them that exhibits signs of problematic alcohol usage. Fortunately, there are a variety of outpatient alcohol rehab options available for both binge drinking and alcoholism. Whether you or someone you know frequently binge drinks, it is important to understand the signs of binge drinking or alcohol use disorder so that you can identify a drinking problem early on. Binge drinking is a problematic form of alcohol consumption, but if binge drinking occurs infrequently it may not be a sign of a greater issue with alcohol use. Still, binge drinking itself should be avoided due to the many negative consequences that are frequently associated with it. We’ll explore these consequences, and outline some signs that can assist you or your loved one in understanding when it is time to get help for their alcohol use. 

What is Binge Drinking?

To get a sense of where binge drinking and alcoholism overlap and diverge, it is important to first understand what binge drinking is. Binge drinking is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) as the consumption of 5 or more alcoholic drinks for men in one session and 4 or more drinks for women in one session. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) builds on the definition of binge drinking provided by SAMHSA. The NIAAA definition stipulates that an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) must reach 0.08 g/dL or higher. This typically occurs if a male drinks 5 or more drinks in 2 hours, or if an average female drinks 4 or more alcoholic beverages within a two hour period. Both of these definitions describe the same type of behavior. Specifically, drinking a fairly large amount of alcohol within a short period of time. Both definitions recognize that binge drinking is typically not an everyday occurrence. The SAMHSA definition stipulates that the drinking occurred on 1 day within the last month. Additionally, SAMHSA also creates a separate category of “heavy alcohol use”. According to SAMHSA, heavy alcohol use requires binge drinking 5 or more days within a one-month period. This represents a substantial amount of alcohol consumption over the course of a relatively short period of time.

Are Binge Drinking and Heavy Drinking the Same Thing?

You may have heard a person described as a heavy drinker, but not described as an alcoholic. The act of binge drinking also seems to be an instance of heavy drinking, so confusing these two terms is understandable. In fact, heavy drinking is distinct from binge drinking, though a heavy drinker may also be a binge drinker.  A heavy drinker is defined by the NIAAA as a man who drinks more than 4 drinks on any one day or more than 14 drinks throughout the course of the week. For women, the thresholds are more than 3 drinks per day or more than 7 throughout the course of the week. It is important to note that heavy drinking and binge drinking are not exactly the same thing, though they may overlap. For example, a male who drinks more than 5 drinks in a single sitting fulfills the criteria for binge drinking. Heavy drinking places a greater focus on both quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption. So if the individual in this example only drank heavily once per month, they may not be considered a heavy drinker. However, if they consumed more than 4 drinks on any one day each week, or consumed more than 14 drinks throughout the week but didn’t actually consume 5 or more drinks in a single sitting, they may be considered a heavy drinker but not a binge drinker.

How are Binge Drinking and Alcoholism Distinct?

It can be difficult to discern the difference between binge drinking, heavy drinking, and alcoholism. Both heavy drinking and binge drinking are patterns of problematic alcohol consumption, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual who binge drinks or is a heavy drinker is, in fact, an alcoholic. It may surprise you to find out that there is less overlap between these categories than you might think. According to a report released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), only about 10.2% of individuals who are reported heavy or excessive drinking were considered to be alcohol dependent. Only about 10.5% of binge drinkers met the criteria for alcohol dependence. This pattern held true except for individuals between the ages of 18-24, a demographic that experiences extremely high rates of binge drinking. For individuals within that age range, 13.2% of binge drinkers met the criteria for alcohol dependence, while 12.7% of heavy drinkers were considered to have a dependence on alcohol. If you are wondering whether binge drinking form of alcoholism, you aren’t completely mistaken. Alcoholics are often binge drinkers, yet there is not a direct correlation as the CDC study demonstrates. Rather, it is important to keep in mind that alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition that has criteria that must be met in order to be diagnosed.  Let’s take a look at some of the criteria for a diagnosis of alcoholism, as this will shed light on the distinction between binge drinking and alcoholism. In order to arrive at a diagnosis of AUD, a physician must look at the pattern of alcohol use within the context of the patient’s life as a whole. Specifically, the criteria are focused on how much of a negative impact excessive alcohol consumption is having on the patient’s life. The criteria for alcoholism focus on the ways that alcohol use has disrupted the life of the individual within the past year. Examples of questions that are used to judge alcoholism include:

  • Have you had occasions where you drank more than you intended?
  • Is a significant portion of your time spent drinking or recovering from drinking?
  • Has drinking interfered with your ability to meet your familial, work, or scholastic responsibilities and obligations?
  • Have you continued to drink even though you wanted to stop drinking?
  • Does your alcohol consumption place you into risky situations, such as drinking and driving, having unprotected sex, or otherwise placing yourself into situations that wouldn’t occur had you not been drinking?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t consume alcohol after a period of time?
  • Have you sacrificed other activities so that you can continue drinking?
  • Do you have cravings for alcohol?

So, determining whether someone is an alcoholic looks at very different criteria than binge drinking. To be considered a binge drinker an individual must consume enough alcohol within a short period of time to raise their BAC to 0.08 g/dL. This can be a discrete event or occur more often.  In contrast, to determine whether a person is an alcoholic requires looking at the broad pattern of how their alcohol use has affected their lives. The criteria look at whether an individual has developed a tolerance for alcohol, experienced withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking, have tried to stop and were unsuccessful, and whether alcohol use has had a negative impact on their family or work life. To be sure, some people who would qualify as a binge drinker or heavy drinker may meet one of the criteria of alcoholism, but may not meet enough of the criteria to receive an AUD diagnosis. It should also be kept in mind that while only 1 in 10 heavy drinkers or binge drinkers are considered to be an alcoholic, the remaining 9 out of 10 binge drinkers are at a higher risk for becoming alcoholics over time. 

Binge Drinking, Risk, and Alcoholism

In any discussion of binge drinking and alcoholism, you may have heard of an individual being “at-risk”. This term is also often applied to individuals who meet the qualification for heavy drinking, yet don’t meet the criteria for alcoholism. Both binge drinkers and heavy drinkers are at a greater risk of developing alcohol use disorder due to their heavy alcohol consumption. The NIAAA defines “low risk” drinking as less than 4 drinks on a single day and less than 14 drinks per week for men, and less than 3 drinks per day and 7 drinks per week for women. These thresholds can vary substantially depending on the individual. However, the NIAAA argues that individuals that drink at levels lower than these thresholds have less than a 2% chance of developing AUD. It should be noted that the risk of developing alcoholism isn’t the only fact that should be considered when discussing heavy drinking patterns. Binge drinking results in a number of negative consequences on the physical and mental health of the binge drinker, and can also produce many of the same negative impacts that AUD results in. Some of these negative consequences of binge drinking are:

  • Physical injury stemming from falls and car crashes.
  • Driving under the influence or riding with an inebriated driver.
  • Risky sexual behavior, unprotected sex, or risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Higher likelihood of sexual assault.
  • Lower productivity at work and school, including more sick days taken as the result of drinking.
  • Failure to remember events when drinking (blacking out).
  • Higher rates of certain types of cancer, including colon and breast cancer.
  • Increased likelihood of violence.
  • Greater risk of alcohol dependency.

While a greater risk of developing alcohol dependence should be a key consideration when assessing a pattern of binge drinking, the act of binge drinking itself places the binge drinker in more risky situations. These situations can lead the binge drinker to be the perpetrator or victim of violence, or be the victim of unintentional injury. Like alcoholism, binge drinking will often result in lost productivity at work or school, and negative consequences in social and intimate relationships.

Final Thoughts

Determining whether you or someone close to you has problematic drinking behavior can be a challenging process. This is made even more difficult by sometimes overlapping definitions for risky drinking behavior. Binge drinking is a major public health problem in the United States, accounting for over $190 billion dollars in economic costs annually. Defined as the consumption of more than 5 drinks in one session for males, 4 drinks for females, or if an individual’s BAC exceeds 0.08 g/dL, binge drinking can be thought of as the rapid consumption of a large amount of alcohol resulting in substantial inebriation. In contrast to this, alcoholism is a medically diagnosed condition. Making this diagnosis requires looking at the long-term effects that alcohol use has had on the life of the individual. The criteria for making this determination include whether an individual has cravings for alcohol, experiences withdrawal symptoms, has tried and failed to quit, and has experienced a negative impact at work or home as a result of their drinking. While binge drinking and alcoholism are distinct things, there is some overlap between these two categories of drinkers. Many alcoholics fit the criteria for binge drinking. However, only about 1 in 10 binge drinkers fit the criteria to be considered an alcoholic. With that being said, even if an individual is not considered an alcoholic, binge drinking can result in many consequences that impact the life of the binge drinker in profoundly negative ways. Additionally, individuals who are regular binge drinkers are at greater risk for developing alcohol use disorder over time.  Our Apex San Diego Rehab Center has on-site professionals that are specially trained to help address binge drinking. If you or someone you know is a binge drinker and is interested in getting help for their drinking behavior, please contact Apex Recovery today find out what binge drinking treatment options exist.


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