Alcohol Addiction Vs. Alcohol Dependence | What's the Difference?

Alcohol Addiction and Alcohol Dependence

The first step toward sobriety is acknowledging and accepting that you have an alcohol problem – but how do you define a “problem?” According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), you may have an alcohol addiction when drinking alcohol repeatedly causes you distress or harm. And depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may also have an alcohol dependence.

The terms “alcohol addiction” and “alcohol dependence” are often used interchangeably, but there are clear differences between the two conditions. Understanding those differences can help you overcome your alcohol problem and begin to live a happy, sober life.

What is alcohol addiction?

Drinking alcohol has become part of the fabric of our society. But all too often, what starts out as moderate, recreational drinking changes rapidly into alcohol abuse and addiction. Alcohol addiction is characterized by the compulsive need to drink despite the negative consequences it has brought on your life. Addicts experience cravings for alcohol, and often have no control over limiting how much they drink.

Over time, people with an alcohol addiction will develop an increased tolerance for alcohol, meaning they’ll have to drink more and more to achieve the same state of inebriation. As that tolerance builds, your brain chemistry can change, creating a debilitating alcohol dependence.

Alcohol addiction can lead to alcohol dependence

While addiction describes the psychological compulsion to drink, dependence describes the physical reliance on alcohol. When you have an alcohol dependence, it can feel nearly impossible to quit because your body needs it to function properly. Without it, your central nervous system is thrown into an overexcited state and your body goes into serious withdrawal, with painful and potentially dangerous physical symptoms, such as:

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Anxiety

  • Tremors

  • Sweating

  • Insomnia

In severe cases, you may experience high blood pressure, hallucinations, or seizures.

A fine line between addiction and dependence

Though the two conditions are often linked, alcohol addiction can exist without alcohol dependence. Some people who are addicted to alcohol may not think they need treatment for their problem because they don’t need to drink to function physically, and their lives appear to be in reasonable order. For example, high-functioning alcoholics are usually able to keep up appearances, hold down a job, maintain relationships, and pay all their bills on time. Their ability to “keep it together” often causes them to be in denial about their situation, even when they’re falling apart behind the scenes.

The consequences of untreated alcohol addiction

With or without an alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse is always dangerous, and long-term addiction will eventually catch up with you. The consequences of letting your alcohol addiction go untreated include:

  • Risky behavior

The choices you make while you’re under the influence of alcohol can put your life at risk. These include drunk driving, unsafe sexual encounters, and careless actions that result in accidental injuries.

  • Severe health problems

There are many diseases that result from prolonged heavy drinking, including heart disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, and several types of cancer.

  • Depression

Chronic drinking can lead to changes in your brain chemistry that cause serious bouts with depression, although it’s important to note that many people with depression often turn to alcohol to self-medicate as well.

  • Dementia

Studies have shown that long-term drinking can cause nutritional deficiencies and brain damage that lead to dementia as you age.

Stop drinking with help from the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research

At the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, we know how hard it can be to admit you have a problem. If you’ve been struggling with alcohol abuse, our treatment study can be your first step toward sobriety. Using cutting-edge research from some of the top scientists in California, our study complements and reinforces traditional treatment by focusing on the physiological changes within in the brain. Our research is designed to help people with alcohol addiction to stop drinking and start leading healthier, more productive lives.

To find out more about our alcohol treatment study in San Diego, call us at (858) 784-7867.