Problem Drinker vs Alcoholic: What’s the Difference?

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We’ve all known someone who’s been a “problem drinker.” This is that person who always has a drink in their hands and doesn’t seem to know when to call it quits. Sometimes you may wonder: is that person an alcoholic? Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

What Is Problem Drinking?

Problem drinking is generally characterized by excessive or binge drinking on occasion. It’s associated with problems excessive drinking can bring, such as relationship issues, DUIs, or other troubles with the law. It can also quickly lead to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism.

If you or someone you know is a problem drinker, here are some facts surrounding alcohol abuse you should know:

  • Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States
  • On average, 140,557 Americans die from its effects in an average year
  • One in ten Americans is diagnosable with AUD

In this article, we’ll go over the difference between a problem drinker vs an alcoholic, the dangers of alcoholism, and treatment for alcohol abuse.

Problem Drinker vs Alcoholic: What’s the Difference?

While the two terms are often used together, they’re not the same. The most important difference is that a problem drinker goes without drinking for significant periods and does not feel withdrawal effects.

In other words, they’re not physically dependent on alcohol – an alcoholic is.

Yes, problem drinkers might drink far too much for their good – getting down drunk at parties, for instance. And this can cause problems for them and others. But they don’t need alcohol to function.

Alcoholism is fundamentally different. It involves both a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is a standard reference book for health professionals, categorizes AUD as a disorder.

Some of the symptoms listed in the DSM-5 for AUD include craving, withdrawal, a lack of control over use, and negative effects on personal responsibilities and relationships.

How to Tell If Someone Is Abusing Alcohol?

Alcohol abuse, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), can be hard to identify because it can manifest in different ways.

If you are having trouble telling if you or someone you know is a problem drinker vs an alcoholic here are some signs to look for:

Physical signs:

  • Increased tolerance to alcohol: needing to drink more to achieve the same effect.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms: if they stop drinking, they may have symptoms such as shakiness, anxiety, or nausea.
  • Significant hangovers, and drinking to alleviate them.
  • Frequently smelling of alcohol, and potentially trying to cover it up with other scents.
  • Neglecting personal appearance and hygiene.


Psychological signs of alcohol abuse:

  • Preoccupation with drinking: they may spend a lot of time thinking about when they will be able to drink next.
  • Using alcohol as a way to relax or de-stress.
  • Denying or downplaying the negative effects of their drinking.
  • Feeling guilty or defensive about their drinking.
  • Experiencing mood swings, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

Remember that these are potential signs and that alcohol abuse can look different for different people. If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, please seek professional help.

What Are the Risks of Alcohol Abuse?

The risks of alcohol abuse make for a long list.

Short-term effects of alcohol use:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Anemia (loss of red blood cells)
  • Decreased perception and coordination
  • Upset stomach
  • Decreased judgment; higher chance of drunk driving or legal issues
  • Mood swings
  • Coma
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Mental confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Blackouts
  • Depression
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Drowsiness
  • Breathing difficulties

Long-term effects of alcohol use:

  • Liver diseases: Fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis
  • Bone damage —  Alcohol can interfere with new bone production, leading to an increased risk of fractures and other injuries
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • Insomnia
  • Nerve damage
  • Alcohol-related brain damage and dementia
  • Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems
  • Pancreatitis
  • Increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Weakened immune system

Alcohol Addiction Treatment at South Coast Behavioral Health

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, it’s time to seek professional help. South Coast Behavioral Health offers compassionate and affordable alcohol addiction treatment.

The first step in treating an alcohol addiction is a medical detox. This means using drugs to manage withdrawal symptoms. Our medical detox program in California is staffed by caring and compassionate professionals who can provide you with medications to manage your withdrawal symptoms.

At South Coast, we take pride in offering care that is closely tailored to specific issues. To that end, we offer gender-specific detox programs, with medical detox for men in Irvine, CA, and medical detox for women in Huntington Beach, CA.

After detoxing, proper treatment can begin.

Treatment for substance abuse takes place along an entire spectrum of care. Along that entire spectrum are various behavioral therapies, support groups, and the use of medically-assisted treatment (MAT).

These levels of treatment are, in order, as follows:

Residential Treatment in California

After completing medical detox, you’ll move to receive inpatient treatment in Orange County California. There, you’ll receive medically-assisted treatment and dual diagnosis treatment to deal with any cravings or co-occurring mental health issues you may be battling. We also offer residential treatment facilities in Costa Mesa, Irvine, and Huntington Beach for those who desire gender-specific treatment. There, patients get round-the-clock medical attention and monitoring while living at the institution full-time.

In addition to individual and group counseling and medication management, you’ll also have access to leisure activities and family support services.

Partial Hospitalization in California

Most clients start substance abuse treatment with South Coast in our residential treatment program. After completing that, many desire something that still provides structure and support, but with extra space and time to oneself. For that, we offer Partial Hospitalization in Newport Beach.

A step down from inpatient care but with more structure than conventional outpatient programs, partial hospitalization offers a good balance for those looking to ease back into normal life. Clients can receive care five to seven days a week for several hours each day, returning to their homes in the evening.

This way, they can recover without putting their daily lives completely on hold, receiving intense therapeutic interventions like group and individual therapy, skill development, and medication management as necessary.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment in California

For those leaving inpatient residential treatment or partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient programs (IOP) are yet another gradual step forward on the road to recovery.

With a focus on group therapy, individual counseling, and education, clients undergoing Intensive Outpatient Treatment in Newport Beach can meet three to five days a week. Each session lasts three hours.

This level of care requires the least amount of attendance at a facility.

Get Started Today

Treating alcohol abuse is possible. Alcoholism and problem drinking are no way to go through life. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction but wonder how long addiction treatment takes or have other questions, call us at 866-881-1184. Our highly qualified staff will be happy to help give you an idea of what to expect from your addiction recovery timeline, verify your insurance, and assist with any other questions you may have.


Pierce Willans
Kelly McIntyre
Medically Reviewed by Kelly McIntyre, MS, LMFT
Read More About addiction Treatment & Recovery
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