Alcohol Dependence Vs. Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol dependence occurs when your body adapts to the chemical changes that can occur after long-term alcohol abuse. Alcohol addiction is characterized by intense cravings and uncontrollable alcohol use, regardless of the consequences.

Alcohol dependence and addiction are sometimes used interchangeably to describe conditions related to alcohol abuse.

Although there are many similarities between the two, dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms, and addiction is characterized by an inability to stop drinking on your own.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol interacts with several different neurotransmitters in the brain, including glutamate and dopamine. These chemical messengers are involved with learning, memory, and reward. They also contribute to the pleasurable effects of alcohol, like euphoria, relaxation, and reduced inhibitions.

Alcohol dependence occurs when your body adapts to the effects of alcohol and depends on it to function normally. If you try to reduce alcohol consumption, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • shakiness
  • mood swings
  • vivid dreams
  • impaired thinking

Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening and may also cause severe symptoms, including seizures and delirium tremens (DTs). Signs of DTs may include high blood pressure, tremors, confusion, and hallucinations.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is the uncontrollable urge to drink, despite harmful consequences. Someone with an alcohol addiction may experience intense cravings that make it difficult to control how much or how often they drink.

If you have an alcohol addiction, it is also likely that you also have a physical dependence to alcohol. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the 5th Edition (DSM-5) now classifies alcohol abuse and dependence as the same condition—alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction).

The criteria for alcohol addiction listed in the DSM-5 includes:

  • drinking when you don’t want to
  • spend a lot of time thinking about alcohol
  • drinking alcohol interferes with relationships or responsibilities
  • loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • continued drinking, even if it interferes with physical or mental health
  • increased tolerance
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking

Alcohol use disorder can range from mild to severe, depending on how many symptoms you experience.

What Factors Contribute To Alcohol Addiction?

Several risk factors can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder (SUD), like alcohol addiction. Family history of addiction, genetics, environment, past history of trauma, and co-occurring mental health disorders may increase the risk of alcohol or drug abuse.

In addition, excessive alcohol use for a long period of time increases the risk of an alcohol use disorder.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the different levels of alcohol use include:

  • moderate drinking, which is about 2 drinks for men and 1 drink for women
  • binge drinking, which is the consumption of more than 4 (for women) or 5 (for men) drinks in 2 hours
  • heavy drinking, which is more than 14 drinks per week (for men) or more than 7 drinks per week (for women)

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol addiction is a complex disease that can benefit from comprehensive, individualized treatment. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol problems, seeking treatment is crucial.

Alcohol use disorder can worsen mental health conditions and cause severe health problems, including liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver.

Depending on your needs, a treatment provider may connect you with the following types of substance abuse treatment:


A detoxification program is likely the first step in your treatment plan if you are dependent on alcohol. During inpatient detox, healthcare professionals will monitor the severity of your symptoms and provide medication, if needed.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), MAT programs can be beneficial if you struggle with opioid or alcohol misuse.

A MAT program combines medications, like naltrexone or disulfiram, along with therapy to reduce cravings and alcohol consumption.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment, also known as residential treatment, allows you to live at the treatment center while participating in a wide-range of treatment services, including behavioral therapy, individual counseling, support groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous), and healthy activities.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment programs, which are offered at Northeast Addictions Treatment Center, allow you to live at home and travel to the treatment center for scheduled sessions.

Outpatient treatment programs are available at varying levels of intensity, including partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), and outpatient therapy.

If you or a loved one would like to learn more about our treatment programs, please call our helpline today.

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

Published on

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This page does not provide medical advice.

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