Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) vs. Alcoholism

alcohol use disorder vs alcoholism

There are many different terms used to describe disordered drinking and problem drinking. The most commonly used term is “alcoholism.” However, while alcoholism is commonly used, it is not a medical term for problem drinkers. 

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the term used by medical professionals to describe individuals who suffer from an addiction to alcohol. Even then, people with an alcohol use disorder can suffer from varying problems with alcohol. While one person may suffer from binge drinking, another individual could suffer from steady and long-term alcohol abuse. 

Problem drinking is a complex condition that can be experienced and described in a variety of ways. While alcohol use disorder and alcoholism are often used interchangeably, many people wonder if they are the same thing. 

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

When an individual’s alcohol abuse progresses into a severe issue, it is referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism.”[1]

In other words, individuals with an alcohol use disorder may experience mild symptoms of alcohol abuse, moderate symptoms of alcohol dependence, or severe symptoms of alcohol addiction. 

Diagnosing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Alcohol use disorder is a clinical diagnosis that is characterized by disordered drinking. This diagnosis can be further classified as mild, moderate, or severe. AUD is classified by the following:[1]

  • Mild – two to three symptoms of AUD
  • Moderate – four to five symptoms of AUD
  • Severe – six or more symptoms of AUD

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th Edition (DSM-V), outlines the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder. Individuals who display a combination of the following 11 symptoms may have an AUD:[1]

  • Drinking more or longer than intended 
  • Wanting to moderate or quit drinking in the past but being unable to 
  • Spending a lot of time drinking and recovering from the effects of drinking 
  • Experiencing cravings or strong urges to drink alcohol 
  • Drinking alcohol begins to interfere with the home, family, work, or school 
  • Continuing to drink despite facing problems in one’s personal life
  • Giving up obligations or activities that were once important to drink 
  • Getting into dangerous situations while drinking 
  • Continuing to drink despite facing psychological or physical health problems 
  • Having to drink more than previously to experience the same effect (tolerance)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the individual does not drink 

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a term used to describe an individual who suffers from severe alcohol dependence. The term “alcoholism” is used interchangeably with alcohol addiction. 

Oftentimes, individuals who are described as an alcoholic meet the criteria for a severe alcohol use disorder. According to the National Library of Medicine, “Severe AUD is sometimes called alcoholism or alcohol dependence.”[2]

People suffering from alcoholism often struggle with the majority of all of the symptoms of alcohol use disorder described in the DSM-V. In other words, people who have developed a tolerance to alcohol, experience symptoms of withdrawal when they do not drink, and have a difficult time quitting alcohol use could be described as an alcoholic. 

Additionally, the terms “alcoholism” and “alcoholic” are primarily used in 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). While these programs do not label anyone as an alcoholic, they outline the characteristics of alcoholism and allow people to make that decision for themselves. 

It is important to note that alcoholism is not a medical term. Instead, it is a term that was primarily coined by individuals who suffer from and have recovered from alcohol abuse, addiction, and alcohol use disorder. 

The Main Difference Between Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder and alcoholism can be used interchangeably in many instances. The main difference between the two terms is that alcohol use disorder is a medical term that requires a diagnosis, while alcoholism is a term used in recovery programs and by the general public.

In other words, an individual will never be diagnosed with alcoholism by a psychiatrist or medical professional. Instead, individuals will be given the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. However, people who attend an alcohol rehab program or 12-step recovery meetings will primarily hear the term alcoholism rather than AUD. 

Another difference between AUD and alcoholism is that alcohol use disorder defines the severity of an individual’s disordered drinking, whereas, alcoholism is an umbrella term for problem drinkers.

Individualized Alcohol Recovery at Moving Mountains

Individuals who abuse alcohol and have severe issues with alcohol dependence most likely suffer from both alcoholism and an alcohol use disorder. With that being said, anyone who struggles with disordered drinking and an addiction to alcohol should attend professional treatment. 

Thankfully, substance abuse treatment programs like Moving Mountains Recovery Center provide individuals with a safe and comfortable place to recover from alcoholism. Contact us today for more information on our alcohol rehab programs. 


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