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Alcohol Use Disorder vs. Alcoholism

February 2, 2020 , Agape Treatment Center

difference between alcohol use disorder and alcoholismThe word alcoholism is thrown around a lot – but not everyone who has a drinking problem suffers from alcoholism. In fact, there are many different types of drinkers, and the severity of a drinking problem is determined by a set of eleven criteria. These criteria are used to diagnose alcohol use disorders. If you have ever researched anything about alcoholism online, you may have noticed the term alcohol use disorder. You may also have asked yourself, “what’s the difference between alcoholism and alcohol use disorder?”

If this sounds like you, that’s completely normal. Over the years, different terms have been used in the medical field to label problem drinkers. The influx of vocabulary is confusing, especially if you are searching for an alcohol rehab center for a loved one or yourself. 


Alcohol Use Disorder

When problem drinking progresses into something severe, it is referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD). According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”[1] A whopping 15 million people in the United States are estimated to have AUD, but some cases are more severe than others. 

In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was updated to reflect the current criteria used to diagnose AUD. Prior to this update, the DSM contained two categories for chronic drinking: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. The updated version, known as the DSM-V, combines these two categories to describe AUD. 

The 11 outlined symptoms by the DSM-V ask if you:

  • Have drunk more or longer than you initially intended to
  • Wanted to moderate or stop drinking in the past, tried to, but were unable to
  • Spend a lot of time drinking or recovering from the effects of drinking
  • Experience cravings, or strong desires and urges to drink
  • Feel as though drinking interferes with your home, family, work, or school
  • Drink even though it causes trouble in your personal life
  • Gave up activities or obligations that were once important to you in order to drink
  • Get into situations while drinking that may cause harm
  • Continue to drink even if it makes you depressed, anxious, or suffer from another health problem
  • Have to drink more than you once did to produce the desired effects
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms when you do not drink

People who have experienced 2-3 of these symptoms in the last year may have a mild alcohol use disorder. Similarly, 4-5 symptoms indicate a moderate AUD and six or more symptoms equate a severe alcohol use disorder. 



Alcoholism describes someone who suffers from severe alcohol dependence. It is also considered an alcohol addiction. The term is widely used to describe people who drink too much, too often, or in a dangerous manner. However, it is far more dangerous and serious than one bad weekend binge drinking at a party. 

People who suffer from alcoholism typically experience many or all of the symptoms in the DSM-V criteria for alcohol use disorder. Anyone who drinks on a daily basis, is unable to stop drinking, or always drinks more than they intend to might be an alcoholic. 

The term is most commonly used among people who are involved in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The book used in AA goes in-depth to describe the behaviors and thought patterns of alcoholics as well as the disease of alcoholism. However, the program is careful not to label anyone as an alcoholic. They encourage their own members to determine whether or not they suffer from alcoholism.


What’s the Difference?

The main difference in the two terms, alcoholism and alcohol use disorder, is that AUD is used by medical professionals to make a diagnosis. Alcoholism, on the other hand, is not a medical term. Instead, it is used in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and widely by the public. The two terms both describe abnormal drinking, but AUD describes the severity of a person’s drinking problem. 

If you visit a doctor, alcohol rehab, or psychiatrist, they won’t give you a diagnosis of alcoholism. However, they might refer you to treatment or counseling for an alcohol use disorder. This diagnosis and recommendation will come from an analysis using the DSM-V. If you step into the rooms of AA for a drinking problem, you probably won’t hear the words “alcohol use disorder” thrown around. Instead, you will hear them refer to dangerous patterns of drinking and behaviors as alcoholism. 


Does Rehab Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

Almost everyone who suffers from AUD may benefit from alcohol rehab. After all, you don’t have to consider yourself an alcoholic to admit that you need help with a drinking problem. Sadly, less than 10% of people with AUD ever receive treatment.[1] 

Alcohol rehab treats everything from mild to severe alcohol use disorder and alcoholism. When you receive treatment, you increase your chances of overcoming AUD. Call our addiction specialists at Agape to start your journey towards recovery today.