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Due to the fact alcohol use is widespread and relatively accepted in our society, there remains some confusion between the terms alcohol dependence and alcoholism. In truth, they are not the same although naturally related. Alcohol dependence is actually the consequence of addiction unless a person attends an alcoholism treatment program.

Abusing alcohol, becoming dependent and developing alcoholism are often seen as different sets of symptoms and behaviors that reveal how a person is progressing along the spectrum of alcohol use disorder. In this article, we show how each of the three sets of symptoms develops. No matter what stage of the spectrum a person is, there is an appropriate alcohol treatment center offering appropriate care.

Alcohol Abuse

People abuse alcohol in different ways, some indulging in binge drinking intermittently and others developing a daily routine that includes drinking alcohol. When someone is abusing alcohol, they start to exhibit some of the harmful behaviors including driving while intoxicated or drinking at the expense of other responsibilities at work or home.

It is important to remember that an individual abusing alcohol is not necessarily set on a course to alcoholism. Alcohol abuse is the first phase of addiction and its tell-tale signs are generally displayed by uncharacteristic or risky behaviors and a sense that the person is not “themselves.”

Alcohol Addiction

It is difficult to distinguish the difference between alcohol abuse and addiction. Alcoholism is primarily characterized by an inability to stop using alcohol no matter how devastating the consequences on the individual’s life. When a person has developed alcoholism, they will no longer be able to control their cravings for alcohol because it has become a compulsion. This is one of the major signs an individual has developed alcohol addiction or alcoholism.

An alcoholic develops a tolerance to alcohol that leads to them drinking more and more to get the desired effects. The most common sign someone is tolerant to alcohol is when withdrawal symptoms start to emerge when they’re not drinking. Some people with alcoholism can get withdrawal symptoms overnight because they haven’t consumed alcohol while sleeping.

It is when someone begins to develop a tolerance to alcohol that’s accompanied by withdrawal when they stop that they risk developing alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Dependence

An individual is alcohol dependent if their tolerance levels have reached such a degree as to be dangerous to their health. The issue of tolerance and withdrawal creates an endless cycle of using alcohol to prevent withdrawal symptoms while having to consume progressively more to prevent them from developing.

Withdrawal symptoms for a person who is alcohol dependent can be alarming and include:

  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Cold sweats
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Seizures and fits
  • Delirium tremens or DTs

Some withdrawal symptoms can persist for a few weeks after abstaining from drinking which is why it’s always recommended for people with alcohol dependence attend an alcohol treatment center. Medical supervision is particularly important through alcohol detox as some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, particularly for more severely addicted patients.

Taking a Broader Look at Addiction vs. Dependence

Alcohol dependence is broadly accepted as being the most severe form of alcoholism although it does not always develop in every patient who has become addicted. Here, we take another look at the relationship between dependence and addiction:

Addiction can occur without dependence: It doesn’t necessarily follow that a person who has become addicted to alcohol also has dependence.  The difference is that alcohol-dependent individuals have a physical need to use alcohol because their tolerance levels and withdrawal symptoms have reached a level where their body craves the substance. However, it is possible for someone to be addicted to alcohol without their body’s needing the substance. They may not exhibit any withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking and so are unlikely to have developed tolerance to alcohol.

Dependence can occur without addiction: Alcohol dependence and addiction are closely related although they can develop independently. Physical dependence is characterized by a high tolerance to alcohol and uncontrollable cravings emerging very soon after stopping drinking. Other negative behaviors linked to alcohol dependence include unnecessary risk-taking and often theft from loved ones and friends as they seek to fund their habit. The bottom line is that addiction is invariably driven by deep-rooted emotional or psychological reasons, whereas dependence is defined by a physical need to abuse alcohol.

When to Seek Out an Alcoholism Treatment Program

Alcoholism in all its forms is a complex illness to treat and many people have difficulty determining when they need to seek help. Bear in mind that if someone is questioning whether they have an issue with alcohol in the first place; it is likely that they do.

Generally speaking, if the answers are “yes” to the following statements, it is recommended to attend an alcoholism treatment program:

  1. Unsuccessful attempts are often made to cut back on drinking.
  2. It is difficult to say “no” to a drink even immediately after another.
  3. Work performance is poor and attendance is unpredictable, due to drinking.
  4. Feelings of remorse about how much alcohol was consumed the night before.

There is no shame in reaching out for help when alcohol use has become an issue and there are numerous alcoholism treatment drugs and therapeutic paths to a happy and fulfilling life in recovery. Irrespective of the level of alcohol dependence or addiction, patients completing a program in an alcohol treatment center are empowered to regain control of their lives, allowing them to rebuild a better and healthier future for themselves and their loved ones.

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