problem drinker sitting on a couch with a glass of dark liquor
Alcohol is such a big part of our society, that we don’t often think about all of the people that have an issue with problem drinking, who may or may not be alcoholics. When someone says that someone is a “problem drinker”, people will often visualize a disheveled alcoholic. While the two can be similar, they aren’t necessarily the same.

This confusing terminology can often make it more challenging to separate the two. Sometimes, there is no distinction between problem drinker, alcoholic, high functioning alcoholic, binge drinker, and social drinker, which can lead to significant problems in determining if treatment is needed for any of the individuals on this spectrum. We’re going to take a look at just how problem drinking and alcoholism compare, and what the primary differences are. 

Problem Drinking Vs Alcoholism

Both problem drinking and alcoholism are potentially dangerous designations, but there are some considerable differences. The primary difference is the presence or absence of physical dependence. 

Problem drinkers will not usually have developed a physical dependence, whereas alcoholics will. This is why problem drinkers can abstain from drinking for significant lengths of time, while alcoholics will need to consume alcohol regularly to avoid withdrawals.

What is Problem Drinking

Problem drinking is often used to describe someone who may not have a physical dependence or addiction to alcohol, but still potentially cause problems to their health as well as to the people around them. Problem drinkers can sometimes go long periods without drinking, weeks or months in some cases, but when they do eventually drink it can have significant negative effects. 

Signs of Problem Drinking

Even though problem drinking can cause significant negative effects, they aren’t dependent on alcohol to help them function normally. They may even go months between drinking episodes, but their behavior can often be recognized by many different signs. Signs of problematic drinking habits include:

  • Neglecting important personal, professional, or family events to drink
  • Excessive or problematic spending during or after drinking
  • Increased interpersonal conflicts with friends, spouses, or family members during drinking episodes or as a direct result of their problematic drinking
  • Experiencing significant emotional instability while drinking, resulting in anger, aggression, depression, panic, violence, and more
  • Partaking in illegal or dangerous behavior, such as drunk driving or committing other illegal acts while intoxicated
  • Engaging in risky sexual behavior, such as intercourse with strangers or having unprotected sex

Examples of someone who may be a problem drinker are someone who suddenly becomes abusive when intoxicated, or who gets drunk and drives to a nearby store to shoplift. Another example would be someone who, while they only drink heavily a few times per year, engages in risky sexual behavior when they do drink, potentially resulting in unintended pregnancy, or contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

Understanding Alcoholism

Alcoholism, or being an alcoholic, is the result of someone having a physical dependence on alcohol consumption. This means that they need it to live their daily life in a somewhat normal fashion. This means alcoholism is a form of a substance use disorder, often simply referred to as an alcohol use disorder. 

In some cases, alcoholism results in the drinker consuming large amounts of alcohol regularly, such as binge drinking after work each day. Other situations may see the alcoholic drinking constantly throughout the day, often to stave off the effects of alcohol withdrawal. In either case, their system is dependent on alcohol to slow down the central nervous system and help them function normally. 

The need for an alcoholic to consume alcohol never recedes, and will only grow with time. Since they drink constantly or in very large amounts, alcoholics will build a tolerance to alcohol relatively quickly, which will result in them being unable to control their drinking in any situation. This is one of the main reasons that someone with an alcohol use disorder will often require professional treatment to help them through the withdrawal stage and to build healthy coping strategies that don’t involve drinking.

Signs of Alcoholism

While there are many signs of alcoholism, some of the most common are also some of the easiest to spot. Whether in yourself or someone you care about, the signs of alcohol can include:

  • Drinking daily, despite negative effects on school, work, or family interactions
  • Continuing to drink despite seeing firsthand the impact on relationships
  • Risky behavior becoming common when drinking, including violence or criminal activity
  • Developing a tolerance for the effects of alcohol and needing to drink more to achieve the same effects
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms once drinking has stopped for a period

Can Problem Drinking Cause Alcoholism?

Problem drinking can eventually lead to alcoholism, though not all individuals that drink problematically will progress to alcoholism. One of the primary factors that prevent that progression is that problem drinkers will often recognize the negative effects that their drinking has on their life, and will either stop on their own or get professional treatment. 

There are situations, however, where those who are considered problem drinkers will continue to drink problematically until they develop a more serious chemical dependency on alcohol. Once this alcohol dependence develops, the risk of becoming alcoholic skyrockets, as does the potential for other indications or effects of alcohol addiction.

This can progress to the point where physical addiction and psychological dependence become bigger factors. During psychological dependence, the drinker is aware that they will begin to feel withdrawal symptoms, so they drink pre-emptively to avoid them. This reinforces the cycle even further.

When Should You Seek Treatment

One of the biggest signs that you or someone close to you may need treatment for alcohol addiction is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the drinking stops for more than a day or two. This indicates that the individual’s system has become dependent on alcohol to function and that detox may be needed. 

Identifying when a problem drinker may need help can be more challenging. One strong indicator that someone engages in problem drinking is that they experience negative effects after drinking. This often manifests as regret or guilt about behavior that they engaged in while drinking or drunk.

Knowing when to get professional help can be the key to successful treatment. Talk to a professional today in a confidential treatment environment. You can address your needs and create a personalized treatment plan that lays the foundation for lasting treatment and recovery.