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What is the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism?

Binge drinking and alcoholism aren't necessarily the same thing.
Binge drinking and alcoholism aren't necessarily the same thing.
© Image Source/Corbis

Binge drinking and alcoholism might seem like one and the same. When you think of an alcoholic, you might envision someone who drinks massive amounts of alcohol each and every day, a pattern that would certainly qualify as binge drinking. But that isn't always the case. Some binge drinkers are alcoholics, and some alcoholics are binge drinkers, but the two don't totally overlap.

To be sure, binge drinking and alcoholism are both forms of alcohol abuse, and they pose a lot of the same health risks: injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, liver disease, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. Both binge drinkers and alcoholics often need help to stop the destructive pattern, but they're not identical.

Binge drinking is actually more prevalent than alcoholism -- it's the most common form of excessive alcohol consumption in the United States. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a period of consumption in which a person's blood-alcohol concentration reaches .08 percent. (All 50 states have laws making it illegal to drive at this level.) This means five or more drinks in two hours for men, and four or more for women [source: NIAAA].

More than half of the alcohol consumed in the United States is downed in binges, and -- a fact that will come as no shock to anyone who's been to college -- young people do the lion's share of the binge drinking. It's most common among 18- to 34-year-olds, and a full 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by the under-21 crowd is binge-drunk [source: CDC].

Alcoholics can certainly be binge drinkers, but there isn't a set number of drinks that makes someone an alcoholic. Not all alcoholics get deliveries from the liquor store every day. The key is the physical addiction to alcohol, the constant craving for it, and the inability to control drinking and get through the day without it. A common phrase is "drinking to feel normal," which doesn't necessarily come into play for binge drinkers.

In fact, many of those who binge drink on the weekends could be perfectly fine getting through the week with no drinks at all. But although they might not qualify as alcoholics, they'd certainly meet the criteria for heavy drinking, possibly averaging the same number of drinks per week as many alcoholics. And even if a binge drinker doesn't suffer from withdrawal symptoms or have a physical compulsion to drink every day, it's an unhealthy pattern that he or she might need assistance to break.

So although there are differences between binge drinking and alcoholism, there's also plenty of connection -- they're both part of the same dangerous cycle of alcohol abuse. Binge drinkers and alcoholics have the same health problems, and their habits cause relationship stress and harm their ability to work. And all too often, one leads to the other.