What’s the Difference?

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Three glasses of beer on a tableThere are many misconceptions about drinking alcohol. People find out about drinking from friends, from movies, from the internet, and from experimentation, but often they don’t get accurate information. Science or health classes may cover the topic too briefly to provide a more thorough understanding.

Some of the issues surrounding drinking alcohol are confusing if you don’t have a more complete picture of             the details. For instance, what’s the difference between alcohol use, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism?

Alcohol Use and Alcohol Abuse

Most people (of legal drinking age) think of alcohol use as that casual glass of wine after a long day of work or that beer with friends at dinner. And that’s exactly what alcohol use is. The person is in control of what he/she drinks, there are no negative consequences, they don’t need the drink, they don’t hide their drinking, and they don’t experience any withdrawal symptoms later.

Important Note:  Any underage drinking (under the legal age in your state) is alcohol abuse. There are reasons why there are age limits to alcohol use. Alcohol has different and more harmful effects on young people than adults. Adolescents’ brains are still developing and damage to brain tissue at this critical stage of development can lead to lasting, lifelong loss of brain function. Memory, motor skills, and coordination can be impaired for the rest of your life.

The problem comes when a person cannot stop drinking or when every time he drinks, he gets drunk.  This is alcohol abuse. Alcohol abusers continue to drink despite ongoing social, physical, personal, or legal problems brought on by their alcohol use.

Often, a person who abuses alcohol does not think he has a problem. He believes he can stop drinking any time he wants. That’s not true.

Alcoholism and Addiction

Alcoholism is the most severe form of alcohol abuse.  A person is an alcoholic if he/she cannot control drinking. Alcoholics are addicted to alcohol. Addiction is a chronic disease involving a compulsive, uncontrollable use of a drug or habit. When a person is addicted to alcohol, he cannot control its use; he cannot quit easily any time he wants to quit.

Repeated alcohol use leads to changes in the brain that make it difficult for the person to control the habit. This is true of any addictive drug, including tobacco, alcohol, or any of the many illegal drugs that are available to people if they know where to find them or how to get them.

The changes in the brain not only make it difficult to stop using the drug, but they also cause the person to relapse back into alcohol use after he attempts to stop drinking. Long-term use causes changes in the brain that affect learning, judgement, decision-making, stress levels, memory, and behaviors.  It is no wonder that there are negative consequences to alcohol addiction and no wonder that people have such a difficult time quitting.

How do you know if there is a problem?

Young male sits on a curb holding a beer bottleHow can you tell if someone has a problem with alcohol?  There are a lot of warning signs that indicate a possibility of alcohol abuse or addiction, including:

  • drinking in secrecy
  • craving alcohol
  • continuing to drink despite social, financial, personal, or health problems brought on by alcohol
  • needing more alcohol over time to achieve the same effects
  • experiencing physical or emotional withdrawal symptoms when drinking is stopped
  • spending a lot of time planning and/or hiding drinking
  • thinking about cutting back on drinking but being unable to do it

A person doesn’t have to experience all the signs to have an alcohol abuse or addiction problem. Having only some of them can indicate a problem with an alcohol addiction.

There are treatment programs for alcohol abuse and addiction. With continued treatment, people can recover from this disease and stop the negative consequences to their lives.

A Note  About Underage Drinking
The legal age for alcohol consumption across the United States is 21 years of age, but each state enforces the law in its own way. Generally, the first offense is punishable by a fine and the minor may lose driving privileges for several months to a year. Some states also require community service to be performed. Subsequent offenses carry larger fines and possible jail time.

These consequences are for underage alcohol possession or consumption. Other offenses involving alcohol, such as driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol carry different legal consequences.