Alcohol Dependence vs Alcoholism: Is There a Difference?

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Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV.

Alcohol Dependence vs Alcoholism: Is There a Difference?

Alcohol is a widely consumed beverage in the UK and around the world. While many people can enjoy alcohol in moderation without any problems, others may find themselves struggling with alcohol-related issues.

Two terms often used in discussions about alcohol-related problems are "alcohol dependence" and "alcoholism."

Are they the same thing, or is there a difference? That’s what we will be exploring in this blog post. Read on to learn more about alcohol dependence and alcoholism, their key distinctions, and how you can overcome alcohol use disorder.

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence, sometimes referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a medical condition characterised by a strong craving for alcohol, loss of control over its consumption, and withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop or cut down on drinking.

Alcohol use disorder is a broader term used to describe a range of alcohol problems such as alcohol abuse and dependence. Having an unhealthy pattern of drinking could fall under the term “alcohol use disorder’.

Dependence typically refers to the physical addiction to alcohol. There are approximately 602,391 dependent drinkers in the UK. However, 82% of these people are not receiving treatment.

It's important to note that alcohol dependence exists on a spectrum, meaning that people can experience varying degrees of severity. For example, you may have a strong dependence on alcohol, whereas others may only experience a mild dependence.

When you become physically dependent on alcohol, you will likely experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop drinking or cut down on the number of alcohol units you are used to.

These symptoms can be both psychological and physical - and can be unpleasant. This is why we recommend that you detox with professional support.

Key Characteristics of Alcohol Dependence

Now you have a brief understanding of alcohol dependence, let’s explore some of the key characteristics.


First and foremost, one of the key signs you are dependent on alcohol is that you experience alcohol cravings - an intense desire to drink alcohol.

This craving can be both physical and psychological, making it challenging to resist the urge to drink. Because of cravings, you may be more likely to binge drink and spend more time drinking.

Loss of Control

If you are dealing with alcohol dependence, you will more than likely find it difficult to limit your alcohol intake. You may begin with the intention of having just one or two drinks but end up drinking more than you planned.

Likewise, you may find it difficult to stop drinking once you start - which can lead to you drinking for several days in a row. If you are addicted to alcohol, you may feel as though you need to drink alcohol to function.


Over time, those with alcohol dependence may develop tolerance. This means that you will need to drink more alcohol to feel ‘drunk’. In time, this may lead to you drinking more and more to chase the initial feeling of intoxication.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When you are dependent on alcohol and you try to stop drinking or significantly reduce your alcohol consumption, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, anxiety, and even seizures. Severe withdrawal may involve delirium tremens.

Neglecting Responsibilities

Alcohol dependence can lead to neglecting important responsibilities at home, work, or school due to the preoccupation with drinking. This can have an effect on your family life, career, and your friends too.

Failed Attempts to Quit

Another characteristic of dependence is the desire to quit but failing to do so. For example, you may repeatedly attempt to quit or cut down on your alcohol consumption but struggle to maintain your sobriety and end up relapsing.

Continued Use Despite Harm

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can have various negative effects on your mental health and physical health - and your life in general.

For example, dependency may cause health issues, relationship issues, or legal troubles related to alcohol. Despite this, you may continue to drink alcohol - causing the effects to increase in severity.

Alcoholism: Is it Different to Alcohol Dependence?

The term "alcoholism" is commonly used to describe a severe form of alcohol dependence. However, the key distinction is that "alcoholism" is not a clinical term used in the medical field.

Instead, it is often used informally to describe someone with a chronic and severe alcohol problem. The terms “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” aren’t used in professional settings because they can be stigmatising. It is less stigmatising to say “somebody with alcohol dependence” or “a person dealing with alcohol addiction” than to call them an alcoholic.

Alcohol dependence, which is also known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, describes the most serious form of high-risk drinking, with a strong - often uncontrollable - desire to drink. It means drinking at a level that causes harm to your health.

In summary, while alcohol dependence is a recognised medical condition, "alcoholism" is a term often used in everyday language to describe a more severe form of dependence.

Both involve problem drinking or binge drinking, but the term "alcoholism" lacks the clinical specificity of "alcohol dependence" and may carry different connotations for different people.

It's essential to use precise terminology when discussing alcohol-related issues, especially in a healthcare or treatment context.

How to Overcome Alcohol Dependence

If you or you have a friend or family member with alcohol dependence or alcoholism and want to quit drinking, the best thing you can do is seek help.

In the UK, there are many resources available to help you overcome substance abuse. Alcohol rehab is a great form of alcohol addiction treatment - a comprehensive rehab programme can help you to overcome the physical dependence as well as address the social and psychological aspects of addiction.

The NHS provides a range of services for those with alcohol-related problems, from initial assessments to specialist treatment programmes.

Some people prefer to attend local support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and similar support groups offer a supportive environment for individuals in recovery from substance abuse and addiction.

At Help4Addiction, we can provide you with expert advice on the best approach for you. For example, you may benefit from private treatment facilities that offer a more personalised approach to recovery, or you may prefer to attend rehab on an outpatient basis.

We will take your preferences and needs into account and connect you with the most suitable treatment provider.

Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, and recovery is possible. It's never too late to make positive changes and regain control of your life.

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