There are several terms used to describe struggles with alcohol consumption, some of which have changed as we’ve learned more about how addictions work. Still, terms such as alcohol misuse, alcohol dependence, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are often used interchangeably, although each is somewhat different. Understanding what each of these conditions is can help you recognize when your relationship with alcohol has become problematic and what you can do to modify or eliminate your alcohol consumption.
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What Is Alcohol Misuse?
Alcohol misuse is a pattern of drinking that increases one's risk of adverse effects. Although you can misuse alcohol without becoming dependent or addicted, it can quickly lead to alcohol dependence or AUD if left unchecked.
Signs of Alcohol Misuse
Alcohol misuse can lead to alcohol use disorder, so it is best to address it early on. Recognizing the signs of alcohol misuse can let you know when drinking has become a problem:
Using Alcohol to Self-Medicate
Reaching for a drink whenever you feel stressed, depressed, or have relationship problems is referred to as self-medication. Drinking alcohol to relax by numbing your feelings is a form of alcohol misuse.
Drinking Alcohol in Risky Situations
Consuming alcohol in situations that put you or others in danger qualifies as misusing alcohol. Operating a vehicle or machinery after drinking or mixing alcohol with illicit or prescription drugs can be life-threatening.
Drinking Heavily or Binge Drinking
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention Alcohol Team, heavy drinking is considered having more than four drinks per day or 14 per week for men. For women, heavy drinking consists of more than three drinks per day or more than seven per week. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks on a single occasion for men and four or more drinks for women. This method of alcohol misuse can be especially hazardous to your health if it becomes chronic.
What Is Alcohol Dependence?
Alcohol dependence is described as needing alcohol to function and avoid withdrawal symptoms. However, it does not always involve heavy or binge drinking. A person can become alcohol dependent simply by drinking regularly over a long period.
Signs of Alcohol Dependence
Although a person with alcohol dependence may not have an alcohol use disorder, they are at an increased risk for AUD if they do not address the problem. Some common signs of alcohol dependence include:
Developing a Tolerance to Alcohol
Requiring larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effects is known as tolerance. If you find that you need more drinks to get the same buzz, your tolerance has increased, and you may be dependent on alcohol.
Having Cravings for Alcohol
Alcohol dependence can leave you thinking about drinking much of the time. You may crave alcohol and find it difficult to concentrate on things other than having your next drink. Because of this, your leisure activities may revolve mostly around alcohol, and you'll spend most of your free time drinking or recovering from drinking.
Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms When Not Drinking
If you are dependent on alcohol, you may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you're not drinking. Some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are sweating, shaking, irritability, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and a rapid heart rate. These symptoms can be mild to severe, depending on how advanced your alcohol dependence is.