What’s the Difference Between a Drunk and an Alcoholic?

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Certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, expert addiction and chemical dependency counselor, certified for more than twenty years of experience in adolescent, adult and family psychotherapy.
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Difference Between a Drunk and an Alcoholic

What Is A Drunk? 

There’s a saying that captures it: “A drunkard is someone who is habitually drunk, but may be sober just now. A drunk is someone who is drunk now.” This popular saying translates to basically someone whose mental or physical abilities or health are compromised or controlled by alcohol consumption, but without it reaching a point where the person feels the compulsion to drink alcohol.

What Is An Alcoholic?

Alcohol use disorder, alcoholism . . . whatever. There’s other issues than just “excessive alcohol use.” There are other factors at play besides just “excessive alcohol consumption.” Alcohol use disorder is a long-lasting and frequently disabling condition. The desire to drink alcohol despite potential negative outcomes like health issues, mental health struggles, and social challenges.

People with an AUD often follow a cycle of decline, developing tolerance to alcohol which requires them to consume higher amounts of alcohol to achieve the same level of intoxication as previously. Often, it will take larger quantities of alcohol, consumed less time between drinks, to get a person drunk. The body, during prolonged alcohol ingestion, may become physically dependent upon a certain amount of alcohol to maintain proper bodily functions. If one reduces or stops drinking alcohol, the body reacts with symptoms of withdrawal.

“Intoxication means you’re drinking more alcohol than your body can handle, than it can break it down,” said Amanda Donald, MD, an addiction medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine.

The following phases of intoxication vary from individual to individual as they are age, sex, weight and other factors dependent. In summary, they include:

  1. Sobriety or low-level intoxication
  2. Euphoria
  3. Excitement
  4. Confusion
  5. Stupor
  6. Coma
  7. Death

From Drunk to Alcoholism

If your pattern of drinking transitions from being casual or occasional to one of increasing frequency and quantity and then dependency, you likely have AUD (alcoholism). And if your pattern of drinking results in repeated significant distress and problems functioning in your daily life, you may have AUD. 

It can range from mild to severe. However, even a mild disorder can escalate and lead to serious problems, so early treatment is important.

The severity can vary from mild to extreme. Nevertheless, a mild disorder has the potential to worsen and result in severe issues, leading to serious problems, so early treatment is important.

When Does Alcohol Become a Problem?

Alcohol becomes an issue when it begins to impact one’s daily life, health, relationships, and obligations, indicating a transition to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Identifying alcoholism at an early stage can lead to successful intervention. Look for these signs:

Physical symptoms:

  • Blackouts
  • Facial redness
  • Regular stomach problems
  • Unsteady coordination

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Drinking alone
  • Being violent or aggressive while consuming alcohol
  • Ignoring personal and professional duties

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Guilt feelings following alcohol consumption
  • Being defensive about how much one drinks
Alcohol Become a Problem

Differences Between a Drunk and an Alcoholic

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) highlights that the main distinctions between a drunk (problem drinker) and an alcoholic lie in the amount, regularity, and dependency on alcohol consumption, as well as the effects on daily life.

Drinking in Moderation

Men should not consume more than 2 drinks a day and women should not consume more than 1 drink a day when drinking alcohol. Drinking in moderation is more beneficial for health than drinking excessively.

Binge Drinking

For the average adult this is an alcohol consumption habit that results in a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or above. This is the same as consuming 5 or more drinks for men, or 4 or more drinks for women, in about 2 hours at least once in the past month.

Heavy Alcohol Use

According to NIAAA, heavy drinking in men is consuming five or more drinks in one day or 15 or more in a week. For women, drinking four or more drinks in a single day or consuming 8 or more drinks weekly. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heavy alcohol use is classified as binge drinking on at least 5 days within the previous month.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption may escalate the likelihood of developing AUD in an individual. An individual with alcoholism is distinct from a casual drinker because they struggle to manage their alcohol consumption, even when it negatively impacts their relationships, employment, health, and finances. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to additional damage to the brain.

Binge Drinking and Alcohol Abuse, Which One Needs Treatment?

Early treatment is necessary for both binge drinking and AUD. Intervention is necessary based on how often and how severely someone drinks and whether they have developed a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol.

At The Encino Recovery and Detox Center, we don’t just treat addiction; we nurture the spirit, heal the mind, and empower individuals to reclaim their lives. If you or a loved one is on the precipice, seeking a way out of the darkness of alcohol addiction, remember that help is just a call away. Your journey to wellness, purpose, and a brighter tomorrow begins with that first step.


How Alcohol Impacts the Brain. What Alcohol Can Do to Your Health. 2023. Northwestern Medicine Healthbeat.

Alcohol Intoxication: What You Should Know. 2018. Healthline.com 
Alcohol’s Effects on Health. Research-based information on drinking and its impact. 2023. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Administrator / Chief Clinical Officer
Certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, expert addiction and chemical dependency counselor, certified for more than twenty years of experience in adolescent, adult and family psychotherapy.
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