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What Is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Problematic Drinking?

Alcohol distorts the way we think, it can make us act silly, make poor choices, and behave in ways that may cause feelings of regret. Naturally, this causes problems, even for non-alcoholics. Alcohol abuse can develop into problematic drinking even when there is no diagnosis of alcoholism.

So, what is problematic drinking?

What’s Alcoholism?

Before we can identify what problematic drinking is, we must first understand the distinction between drinking too much and alcoholism.

An alcoholic is someone who has developed a physical dependency on alcohol, which means their body develops a physical need for it.

The physical need for alcohol can manifest in different ways, in its simplest form it’s considered to be a drinker’s inability to control how much they consume. In subjects with developed alcoholism, physical dependence symptoms become more apparent, such as showing signs of withdrawal or delirium tremens when they stop consuming alcohol.

Needless to say, alcoholics suffer from a number of shortcomings that extend from their social life to their health, which are also traits shared by problematic drinking.

What’s Problematic Drinking?

A problematic drinker is someone whose drinking is not under control, without being physically dependent on alcohol.


Alcohol is a subtle foe that can also trouble non-alcoholics. A problematic drinker, as the term suggests, may drink itself to the point of becoming troublesome, they may drink often, or on occasion, stop and pick up without a pattern. Unlike alcoholics they may be able to decide when to stop drinking, yet, they may willfully choose to overdo it and keep going.


For example, a problematic drinker may often become angry, abusive, or act in a demeaning way after having a few drinks. They may become overly irresponsible while drinking, perhaps choosing to drive under the influence.


In short, a problematic drinker will exhibit the same social-behavioral problems as an alcoholic, without any of the withdrawal or physical symptoms that an alcoholic would have. 

What’s the Difference Between Alcoholism and Problematic Drinking

Understanding the difference between what is problematic drinking and what is alcoholism can help us identify when a person may or may not need help and to go to detox. Nevertheless, a person doesn’t have to be an alcoholic to seek help with substance abuse, if alcohol is interfering with their life in a negative way, the drinker must make a resolution to stop before irreparable damage is caused, in which case the problematic drinker may follow a similar recovery path of those who are alcohol dependent.

Problematic drinking can become alcoholism, as binge drinking and heavy drinking increases the chances of developing an alcoholic disorder. Therefore, problematic drinkers should seek to avoid falling into addiction and cutting the issue as early as possible.

Some of the symptoms that are unique to an alcoholic may include:

  • Not being able to stop drinking despite wanting to
  • Feeling angry or irritated if alcohol runs out
  • Hands shaking or having tremors after drinking
  • Hallucinations
  • Trouble sleeping without alcohol
  • Hiding drinking habits from others
  • Strong alcohol cravings
  • Needing to drink more to feel the same effects

Symptoms that may be shared by both alcoholics and problem drinkers:

  • Binge drinking often
  • Getting into trouble because of drinking
  • Spending a lot of time and resources recovering from alcohol consumption
  • Failing to fulfill responsibilities such as family and work due to alcohol use
  • Risking physical danger like when driving drunk or being abusive

When to Seek Help

Not being an alcoholic does not mean a person shouldn’t seek help if alcohol becomes a problem in their life. Problematic drinking can be as dangerous as alcoholism, as abusers may find themselves in situations that put their lives and the lives of others in danger. 

If signs and symptoms of problematic drinking are present, you or your loved one may need to seek help regardless of the severity of the condition.

Talking to a Recovery Expert

Now that you understand what alcoholism is and what problematic drinking is, you are better able to identify if a problem might be present with yourself or others. When a problem becomes evident, then it’s time to get help!

90210 Recovery offers individualized treatments tailored to fit every patient’s needs. Our holistic, evidence-based approach is designed to uncover the root cause of your alcohol abuse problems, get to the bottom of the issue, and help you or your loved one get sober and stay that way.

Contact 90210 Recovery today for a consultation and speak to one of our recovery experts today!


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