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Alcohol Dependence vs. Abuse: What's the Difference?

Drinking alcohol is an accepted practice throughout the U.S. It seems alcohol is involved in most social situations, outings, gatherings with family and friends, and even many company events. But for some people, social drinking turns into alcohol abuse, and when this escalates, it can be defined as alcohol dependence.

Alcohol use disorders are so prevalent that one 2021 study showed that 29.5 million people over the age of 12 had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). If you have a substance use disorder, know that you’re not alone, and there are support groups that can help you. Support is essential in recovery, and this is your comeback story.

At what point does occasional drinking turn into alcohol abuse, and when does it get defined as dependence? Keep reading to learn the difference between alcohol abuse and dependence.

What Does Alcohol Abuse Mean?

What’s the second most commonly abused substance in the United States? You guessed it — alcohol. Alcohol abuse comes in second only to tobacco, which ranks as the number one substance abused in the U.S. But what does alcohol abuse really mean?

Alcohol abuse is the stage of drinking where the individual isn’t yet physically dependent on alcohol, but drinking is frequent enough that it has caused or is causing problems in their life. This could mean missing work, decreased performance in work or school, relationship issues as a result of drinking, or possibly even legal matters, such as a DUI.

Family members or close friends may chalk these incidents as a lapse in judgment. Still, if serious problems have resulted from drinking, it can serve as a wake-up call to evaluate your relationship with alcohol.

People have varying tolerance levels regarding alcohol, but how much drinking is too much? Keep reading to find out what the recommended limits are — they may surprise you.

How Much Drinking is Too Much?

Recommended Drinking Limits for Men

If moderate drinking is okay, what amount of alcohol is safe? Men who consume more than 14 drinks per week can increase their risk factors for developing a drinking problem and potentially increase their risk for certain health conditions. Consumption of more than four drinks on any given day is considered over the recommended limit.

Recommended Drinking Limits for Women

For women, the threshold for alcohol consumption recommended by health professionals is even less than their male counterparts. No more than seven drinks per week is the recommendation for women, and consuming no more than three drinks on a given day is recommended to maintain good health and avoid risk factors.

If you think your relationship with alcohol is healthy because you only drink on weekends or a few times a month, it’s good to know what experts say about binge drinking. Excessive use of alcohol more than five days a month is considered heavy alcohol use by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Negative Impacts of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can increase risk factors for many health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, and digestive issues. Besides causing you to feel physical symptoms like hangovers, longer-term health issues could occur, such as cirrhosis, frequent mood swings, and other unpleasant physical symptoms, including blackouts.

Engaging in frequent excessive drinking can also increase the risk for other issues, such as legal problems, relationship problems, or performance issues at work or school. The effects of alcohol can be far-reaching and usually happen over time and continue to get worse.

Studies show a relationship between alcohol abuse and mental and behavioral disorders. Despite all of these risk factors, some people continue to abuse alcohol. Some people have higher risk factors for developing a substance use disorder (SUD).

Keep reading to see if any of these risk factors apply to you, as it could make you more vulnerable to a SUD.

Risk Factors of Alcohol Abuse

What are your risk factors for developing a drinking problem? The statistics may surprise you.

Below are a few risk factors you should know about as you evaluate your relationship with alcohol.

Genetic History and Family Environmental Conditions

Did you grow up with an alcoholic parent or grandparent? Or both? Was it normal for adults in your household to be intoxicated, and this became a normal occurrence for you?

Genetics and your environment play an instrumental role in your risk factors for alcohol abuse. Hereditary factors can account for as much as 60 percent of risk factors for having an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Trauma or History of Mental Health Issues

The correlation between mental health and substance abuse is strong. Many mental health conditions can be present and increase risk factors for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). People with childhood trauma are also at higher risk of developing AUD.

What Are the Signs of Alcohol Dependence?

When does alcohol abuse cross over to alcohol dependence? There are a few warning signs to watch for. First off, can you stop drinking?

If the answer is no, you may have crossed over from alcohol abuse to dependence. An alcohol addiction means someone has a physical dependence on alcohol.

Other warning signs to watch for include:

  • Withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, such as shakiness and feeling unwell

  • Disregard for negative consequences

  • Strong cravings for alcohol

  • Engaging in risky behavior, such as drinking and driving

  • Wanting to cut back or stop and not being able to do so

Where To Get Support for Substance Abuse

If you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, you may be engaging in alcohol abuse, or you may have a full-blown alcohol dependency. If you’re still unsure, the fact that you’re reading this is evidence that you’re questioning your relationship with alcohol.

If you’ve considered quitting alcohol or cutting back, some people refer to this as being sober curious. And that’s a great thing to be!

One way to explore this is by joining the Sober Sidekick app. Sober Sidekick is a supportive community of over 180,000 people who are fighting an addiction, cutting back on drinking, or sometimes just sober curious. Members come from many backgrounds and are from various age groups.

Sober Sidekick includes the following features:

Sobriety Counter

Tracking goals is proven to help with achieving them. Track the first day you quit substance abuse and track each milestone along the way – all on the app!

Daily Motivations

Everyone needs a little motivation from time-to-time, right? Receive messages daily to motivate you and keep you on track for your goals. Sometimes encouraging words or inspiring quotes are just what you need to keep going.


With over 180,000 people on the app, it’s easy to find accountability partners through messaging and Sober Sidekick is a growing movement with membership growing quickly. Find your support person and keep each other on track. Learn from others to find strategies that work to stay sober.

Give-to-Receive Support

Having gratitude for a supportive community is all about having a two-way street and reciprocating. This app feature enables you to help yourself while helping others.

24/7 Meetings

With Sober Sidekick, there is always someone there to support your goals. Joining a virtual meeting is as easy as a few clicks on your phone. You can find a meeting that works for your schedule.

If you feel you need additional support outside of the app, consult a health professional about other treatment programs tailored to meet your needs. Your healthcare provider should be able to direct you to treatment options ranging from inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment centers that can help with detox and cravings. Other options include alcoholics anonymous meetings and local support groups.

If you have loved ones in a supportive family environment or a close group of friends to lean on, this is always helpful, but not everyone has a trusted circle of people they feel they can rely on.

Remember that, at times, family and friends can actually trigger you, depending on the dynamics of the relationship. Choose your trusted circle wisely, and know that joining the Sober Sidekick app will automatically connect you to a group of people rooting for your success.

What Are You Waiting For?

Join more than 180,000 people who are focused on quitting their addiction. Download Sober Sidekick today and start the path to living your best life.


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