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Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism: What is the Difference?

On the surface, there may not appear to be many key differences between binge drinking and alcoholism. Although the terms may be used interchangeably, they describe two different patterns of drinking. Not everyone who binge drinks is an alcoholic, and not every alcoholic is a binge drinker–so what is the difference, and when is it time to seek help for alcohol abuse?

Understanding what binge drinking is, what the signs of alcoholism are, and what the differences are between the two can help you decide whether or not it’s time to get help from an alcohol rehab center near you.

What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that increases blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. A BAC of this level is typically achieved after a woman has four or more drinks or a man has five or more drinks during a two-hour period of time.[1]

One drink is defined as a beverage that contains roughly 14 grams of alcohol, which is found in:[2]

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor

Binge drinking is dangerous because a BAC over 0.08% indicates intoxication which can lead to poor decision-making, accidental injury, alcohol poisoning, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Binge drinking is common among all age groups, but it is never safe. In 2021, nearly 12.6% of 12th graders, 28% of college students, and 11.4% of adults over the age of 65 engaged in binge drinking on any given month.[1]

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, formally known as “alcohol use disorder” or AUD, is a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by the inability to control one’s drinking and dangerous patterns of drinking. Alcohol use disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition that can affect the way you think, feel, and behave.

Unlike binge drinking, alcoholism is not characterized by any specific number of drinks. Instead, it is characterized by drinking behaviors, patterns, and consequences.

The formal criteria for diagnosing alcohol use disorder are as follows:

  1. Your safety has been at risk due to your drinking, for example, from drunk driving.
  2. You spend a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking.
  3. Your daily activities, including work and family time, are impacted by your drinking.
  4. Despite feeling depressed or anxious from drinking, you struggle to stop.
  5. You frequently consume more alcohol than intended.
  6. You’ve attempted to cut back on your drinking without success.
  7. You have difficulty focusing on anything other than drinking at times.
  8. You’ve given up hobbies or meaningful pursuits due to your drinking.
  9. Your drinking has caused problems with friends and family, yet you continue to drink.
  10. You experience withdrawal symptoms like shakiness or nausea when you stop drinking (known as alcohol dependence).
  11. You require increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the same level of intoxication (known as alcohol tolerance).

If you meet 2-3 symptoms you may have a mild AUD. 4-5 symptoms indicate a moderate AUD and 6 or more symptoms indicate a severe AUD.

In 2021, approximately 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder, making it one of the most common substance use disorders in the U.S.[3]

In the long term, alcoholism can increase the risk of:

  • Liver disease
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Malnutrition
  • Neurological damage
  • Seizures
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Depression and other mental health conditions

Does Binge Drinking Mean You’re an Alcoholic?

Many people binge drink at some point in their lives, but they don’t develop alcoholism. Binge drinking can happen on a single occasion, multiple occasions, or on a regular basis. People who binge drink on occasion but don’t exhibit more than 2 symptoms of AUD are likely not struggling with alcoholism.

On the other hand, it may be true that many alcoholics binge drink, but binge drinking isn’t a requirement to be considered an alcoholic. Someone can be an alcoholic without binge drinking if they spread out their drinks over several hours rather than drinking a lot of alcohol at once.

Highlighting the Key Differences Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

Both alcoholism and binge drinking are dangerous and come with a variety of risks, but they are very different from one another. Some of the key differences include:

  • Cause of drinking – People with alcoholism tend to abuse alcohol due to an untreated mental health condition, unresolved emotions, or past trauma. Contrarily, many people binge drink for enjoyment and socialization.
  • Frequency of drinking – Binge drinking occurs over a short period of time (two hours), and once the effects wear off, many people will wait several days, weeks, or months before binging again, whereas people who are addicted to alcohol drink it nearly every day without taking breaks.
  • Physical dependence – Binge drinkers aren’t always physically dependent on alcohol because they don’t drink every day, however, alcoholics are physically dependent because of how often they drink, and they will experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop drinking.
  • Mental obsession – Alcoholics have a mental obsession with drinking and experience intense cravings if they don’t drink, but binge drinkers who aren’t alcoholics don’t experience the same mental craving.
  • Drinking environment – Binge drinking often occurs at parties, clubs, or social gatherings, whereas alcoholics may drink alcohol at any time or any place. People struggling with alcoholism are also more likely to drink in private to avoid being found out by others.
  • Ability to stop – Binge drinkers can stop drinking when they want to, but people struggling with alcoholism cannot control their drinking, so they lack the ability to stop drinking even when abstinence is in their best interest.

When is it Time to Get Help?

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that often gets worse without treatment, so if you display any of the signs of alcohol use disorder, attending rehab can help improve your quality of life. If you experience a lack of control over your drinking, physical withdrawal when you stop drinking, or if your family and friends are concerned about your drinking patterns, it’s likely time to seek professional help.

Find Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today

Here at Next Step Recovery, our trusted admissions counselors are available now to take your call, assess your needs, and help you choose the treatment program that’s right for you. If you or someone you love are struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, please call now, and let us help you start your recovery journey.


  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH): Alcohol’s Effects on Health; Understanding Binge Drinking, Retrieved April 2023 from
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH): Alcohol’s Effects on Health; What is a Standard Drink?, Retrieved April 2023 from
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH): Alcohol’s Effects on Health; Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States: Age Groups and Demographic Characteristics, Retrieved April 2023 from

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