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Differences Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

Differences Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

Many of us have engaged in heavy drinking or know someone who enjoys an occasional binge-drinking session with their friends. Almost certainly, at some point a thought has crossed your mind, “Do you think you’re an alcoholic?” After all, an occasional night of heavy drinking has become the norm. It is now socially acceptable to go to a pub with your friends and have more than the recommended allowance of alcohol. It is not uncommon for someone who enjoys alcohol to eventually receive a comment about how much they drink. But should that comment warrant a concern? Is binge drinking really connected to alcoholism?

There are many categories of alcohol use, ranging from light/moderate drinking to full-blown alcoholism. Between those, there are many shades of grey. While binge drinking can be a sign of alcoholism, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has an addiction. But you should also be aware that it may be a symptom of addiction – and even if it isn’t, there are numerous risks associated with binge drinking.

Binge Drinking, Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

To understand the different levels of (problematic) drinking, you should first understand the difference between binge drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Binge drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are all different. Aside from definitions, this is shown in statistics. For example, in the US, nearly a third of Americans indulge in excessive drinking of which 17% are binge drinkers, 6% have alcohol use disorder (another name for alcohol abuse) and 10% of “heavy drinkers” are alcoholics.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is defined as consuming excessive amounts of alcohol within a short period, or drinking to get drunk. This is defined as 6 units for women and 8 units for men.

Of course, this can vary. Not everyone drinks the same way, and how much they can drink is determined by a number of factors, such as tolerance, metabolism, or even if they’re recently eaten.

Unlike alcoholics, binge drinkers have some control over their drinking, and can often go through extended periods of no alcohol without any problem.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse (or alcohol use disorder) is also not necessarily alcoholism. Binge drinking can fall under the category of alcohol abuse.

Someone who abuses alcohol most likely has a problem, but with the right motivation or treatment, they may be able to go back to drinking in moderation.


Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is a chronic illness. It is defined by the inability to control one’s drinking, strong cravings, preoccupation with alcohol, and continuing to drink despite negative consequences.

Unlike someone who has simply developed a bad drinking habit, alcoholics cannot stop once they start. They cannot regulate their consumption. The only solution for them is to stop drinking altogether. Unlike someone with an alcohol abuse disorder, alcoholics need to find long-term sobriety. This usually means the support of Alcoholics Anonymous or receiving some kind of remedial treatment.

The Story of Three Friends

Let’s take the story of three different people as an example. Michael, Olivia and Charlie are three friends in college who regularly get together for Friday-night drinks.

Michael can drink quite a lot, and often consumes more than either Olivia and Charlie. However, he only drinks when they meet up, which is once a week or once a fortnight. Between their hangouts, alcohol doesn’t even cross his mind. Michael is a casual binge drinker.

Olivia can also handle her share of alcohol, and has a binge-drinking session at least once a week. She also enjoys a drink or two nearly every day. While this didn’t concern her at first, she eventually decided she had a problem when her drinking got in the way of her school work. However, she managed to get a hold of herself by having a booze-free month, and now drinks only on occasion, and in moderation. Olivia had an alcohol abuse issue, but acted responsibly to ensure this did not develop into a full-blown addiction.

Charlie, like Olivia, drinks daily, and never wants to stop. Michael and Olivia are usually the first to leave, while Charlie often stays to have another. He always feels disappointed when their meetups don’t happen, and ends up drinking on his own. When Olivia went on an alcohol diet, he tried to as well, but realised he couldn’t function even a day without a beer. Charlie is likely an alcoholic and should seek help to address the problems before it affects his life adversely.

Binge Drinking is Still A Problem

There are studies that claim that alcohol in moderation can have health benefits. However, any amount above the recommended levels can cause problems. After all, alcohol is a poison. Binge drinking or not, heavy or chronic alcohol consumption does take a toll on one’s mental and physical well-being.

Of course, binge drinking can lead to alcoholism, but it can also lead to a number of other issues such as:

1. Accidents and Bad Decisions

Alcohol impairs your judgement and can lead you to make a number of poor decisions, which can also lead to other problems. This can range from engaging in unprotected sex, to aggressive behaviour, to drunk driving. All of which can result in STDs or unwanted pregnancy, legal issues, or death.

Alcohol also causes balance and coordination issues, which can lead to falls or other accidents.

2. Brain Damage

Excessive drinking, especially in the long-term, damages the brain. Over time, a person will be likely to develop memory and/or concentration issues. This can affect their day-to-day functioning and productivity.

Studies have shown that chronic alcohol abuse can lead to brain shrinkage, cell death, early-onset dementia, liver failure, and can be fatal.

Brain damage can also aggravate already-present mental health issues, such as depression.

3. Other Health Problems

Heavy drinking damages other parts of the body as well. Some of the problems associated with long-term alcohol use include liver damage, diabetes and cardiovascular issues.

4. Overdose

At some point, a binge may lead to a blackout, and if alcohol blood levels rise high enough, an overdose. An alcohol overdose may cause a person to fall into a coma or stop their heart altogether. Alcohol also can depress one’s breathing, so if a person passes out, they may suffocate.

When Should I Seek Help?

If you’re a regular binge-drinker or heavy consumer, you should watch out for signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, so you can get help as soon as possible. Addiction is best treated at the beginning.

Some signs that your drinking is becoming a problem are that you:

  • Cannot go an extended period without drinking
  • Have cravings for alcohol
  • Are preoccupied with planning your next drink
  • Cannot function normally without alcohol
  • Exhibit withdrawal symptoms or signs of physical dependency
  • Regularly black out or have memory lapses when drinking
  • Find yourself drinking alone, or in secret

While these signs do not mean you are an alcoholic, they do show that you have a problem that needs to be addressed.

If you are concerned about your drinking or how it is affecting you, you should take a step back and assess your drinking. Taking an alcohol self-assessment test can be a good start, as is talking to your GP or counsellor.

You can also contact Smarmore Castle Private Clinic if you are concerned about your own or someone else’s drinking. Our staff are available to answer any questions you may have. We can be reached at:

Our Phone: 041 214 5111

International: +353 41 214 5111