What Is the Difference Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism?

alcohol and drugs on the table

There are many misconceptions about alcoholism, binge drinking and safe drinking habits in general, but a lack of education is not an excuse for continuing unhealthy drinking behaviors. If you are concerned that you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol abuse, knowing the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism can help you address these concerns and find appropriate treatment.

A Standard Drink

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH) defines one standard drink in the U.S. as a drink that contains about 0.6 fluid ounces (or 14 grams) of pure alcohol. To put that into perspective, one standard drink would be equal to each of the following:

  • 5 fluid ounces of table wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
  • 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits, such as whiskey, tequila, gin, rum, etc. (about 40 percent alcohol)

It’s important to remember that serving amounts at a bar or restaurant may not reflect the standard drink as defined by the NIH. Many people don’t realize the amount of alcohol they are actually consuming because even just one drink at a restaurant may contain much more alcohol than the recommended standard drink.

What Is Binge Drinking?

According to the Mayo Clinic, binge drinking is considered to be a male consuming five or more drinks within two hours or a female consuming four drinks within two hours. The amount differs between men and women because males naturally have more water in their bodies, therefore they process alcohol differently. Women also tend to weigh less than men, which can lead to intoxication considerately faster.

Binge drinking is very prevalent in the United States. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that in 2015, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older said they engaged in binge drinking in the past past month, and 7 percent said they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.

Behavioral and Health Risks of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking can cause significant health and safety risks and even result in lasting physical damage to organs. Binge drinking habits may cause:

  • Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and paranoia
  • A general lack of motivation and energy
  • Impaired thinking for up to 30 days after one night of heavy drinking
  • Drunken driving or unprotected/risky sexual activities

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a level of alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is defined by the NIH as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.” An estimated 16 million people in the U.S. have alcohol use disorder but less than 10 percent receive treatment for it.

If you suffer from alcoholism, life may consist of bouts of intoxication and periods of withdrawal. While intoxicated, you may act inappropriately, experience severe mood swings and be physically inhibited by the many short-term effects of alcohol abuse. When you stop drinking or drastically reduce your alcohol intake, you may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms, which may include nausea, headaches, shakiness, sweating, insomnia and even seizures. These symptoms make it very difficult to function normally at home or work and often lead people to begin drinking again.

Alcoholism also includes a consistent habit of binge drinking which causes social problems, can result in serious health issues and may put you or others in very unsafe situations.

Behavioral and Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse

There are many health risks associated with both short-term and long-term alcohol abuse and any consumption of alcoholic beverages should be done with careful consideration. Short-term effects of alcohol abuse may include:

  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased brain activity
  • Mood swings
  • Blackouts
  • Impaired memory and attention
  • Coma

Long-term effects of alcohol abuse may include:

  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Increased risk of esophagus, mouth, liver or breast cancer
  • Vision damage

Behavioral risks of alcohol abuse may include:

  • Drunken driving
  • Unsafe sexual activity
  • Lowered inhibitions (engaging with strangers, falling or jumping off objects, etc.)

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    Am I an Alcoholic?

    Many people develop unhealthy drinking habits because they use alcohol as a way to relieve stress, cope with the loss of a loved one, deal with depression and anxiety, or just get away from the struggles of everyday life. You may not even realize you or a loved one has an alcohol abuse disorder because it has slowly become a way of life!

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines a basic criteria to determine if an individual has an alcohol abuse disorder, as well as the severity of it. AUD can be classified as mild, moderate or severe, based on the number of criteria items met. If you answer “yes” to at least two of the following questions, you may need to seek professional treatment for your drinking habits.

    In the past year, have you:

    1. Drank more or longer than you intended to?
    2. Tried to stop drinking but found that you couldn’t?
    3. Spent a significant amount of time drinking or being hungover?
    4. Had strong cravings for a drink?
    5. Had problems with family and friends or issues at school or work as a direct result of your drinking habits?
    6. Continued to drink despite the problems with family, friends, co-workers or teachers?
    7. Gave up leisure activities you typically enjoy to drink instead?
    8. Put yourself or others in numerous unsafe situations while drinking?
    9. Continued to drink despite feelings of depression, anxiety or other health problems?
    10. Had to drink more to achieve the desired effect?
    11. Experienced withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wore off?

    Maintaining Safe Drinking Habits

    If you choose to drink alcohol, it is best to practice safe drinking habits. On the other hand, if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, under the age of 21, planning on driving or have a medical condition that would be made worse by consuming alcohol, it’s best not to drink at all.

    The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that men have no more than four drinks and women have no more than three drinks on any given day. Additionally, it’s recommended that men consume no more than 14 drinks per week and women have no more than 7 drinks per week.

    Even these standards may be unsafe for you, as safe drinking really just depends on your age, overall health, and the way your body responds to alcohol.


    1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
    2. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015.htm#tab2-46b
    3. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink
    4. https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/What-counts-as-a-drink/Whats-A-Standard-Drink.aspx
    5. https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/Is-your-drinking-pattern-risky/Whats-Low-Risk-Drinking.aspx
    6. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/alcohol-substance-abuse-and-depression
    7. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/basics/definition/con-20020866
    8. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
    9. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
    10. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/dsmfactsheet/dsmfact.htm
    11. https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/alcohol/

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