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Binge drinking and alcoholism – what are the similarities and differences?

If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking – and you are concerned about whether it would be classed as binge drinking or alcoholism – this blog looks into these two terms, how both can be considered problem drinking and ways to access the right level of support.

Can binge drinking be classed as alcoholism?

Binge drinking is when a person consumes a significant amount of alcohol in a single session. The NHS defines binge drinking as “drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk”. The Office of National Statistics outlines that binge drinking for men is consuming eight or more units in a single session, and drinking over six units in a single session for women.

Alcoholism is defined by Drinkaware as the most serious form of problem drinking, where a person has a strong, often uncontrollable desire to drink.

When it comes to binge drinking and alcoholism, both can be classed as problem drinking and both can be incredibly destructive. The experiences and issues that a person deals with when it comes to heavy binge drinking and alcoholism can be similar in some instances. These include the following:

  • Ignoring the impact their drinking has on themselves and other people - they can become defensive if someone expresses concerns. They may also try to rationalise their drinking and their behaviours to try and show that they don’t have a problem with alcohol
  • Becoming unable to function normally - they may become incapable of carrying out their usual responsibilities. This can impact multiple areas of their lives, including their academic or work performance, their relationships, their children and their health. They are also likely to have trouble with decision making and may struggle with losing control of their emotions
  • Blackouts and memory loss - heavy alcohol use can lead to the person experiencing blackouts and short term memory loss, which can be incredibly risky and dangerous
  • Being unable to control their alcohol intake - they may drink more than they originally intended to in a single session
  • Using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism - they may use alcohol in an attempt to deal with certain thoughts, memories or emotions
  • Long-term health problems – a person who is a heavy drinker is at risk of causing significant long-term damage to their health. It can increase the risk of brain damage, liver disease, strokes, heart problems, cancer and infertility. It can also impact mood and memory, and lead to a person experiencing mental health problems

For someone dealing with alcoholism, they can also experience the following:

  • Physical withdrawal symptoms when alcohol leaves their body - these symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, headaches, tics and tremors, shaking and shivering, excessive sweating and fatigue. Please visit our page on alcohol withdrawal for further information on this
  • An intense craving for alcohol - this can occur for a number of reasons. A person may feel that they need to drink in order to cope with certain worries and emotions. Also, as regular and heavy alcohol use chemically alters the brain, and causes the brain to become used to functioning with these altered levels, a person will experience cravings if the alcohol in their system dips
  • Lost interest in hobbies or activities - a person who is addicted to alcohol is likely to lose interest in things that were once important to them, such as friendships and hobbies, as their focus centralises around their alcohol use

It is important to remember that there isn’t a specific amount of alcohol needed for someone to be dealing with alcoholism. Also, a person may identify themselves as a binge drinker or a heavy drinker, when they are in fact addicted to alcohol, if they feel ashamed or are in denial about the problem that they are dealing with.

Can binge drinking lead to alcoholism?

When someone is binge drinking, and using alcohol heavily, this behaviour can leave the person at a higher risk of developing alcoholism. Drinking heavily and regularly can increase a person’s tolerance to alcohol, where they then need to drink more in order to feel its effects. This increase in tolerance can lead to a person becoming physically dependent, where they need alcohol in their system to function properly, and will experience withdrawal symptoms if they don’t.

This can then result in a person drinking more regularly to ward off these physical withdrawal symptoms.

Taking steps to stop drinking

It is not recommended that a person tries to give up alcohol on their own without first seeking medical advice.

If you do have a physical dependency on alcohol, suddenly stopping drinking can be dangerous. Alcohol withdrawal can also lead to delirium tremens (DTs), a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, which can be life-threatening, where your symptoms worsen quickly and require immediate medical care.

Accessing professional support is highly recommended for people who have a drinking problem, as it can promote long-lasting and sustainable recovery. A medically assisted detoxification programme may also be needed when you are physically dependent on alcohol, so that you’re able to withdraw from alcohol in a safe environment.

Where to turn if you are worried about binge drinking or alcoholism

If you are worried about binge drinking or alcoholism, there is help available.

Admitting that you need help isn’t shameful or embarrassing. But, we do understand that it can be difficult to acknowledge. Remember, reaching out is a sign of strength - you are willing to put steps in place to make a change, and that is commendable.

At Priory, we are able to provide you with an initial assessment to determine the right form of treatment for you. The team will be able to determine whether residential rehabilitation may be beneficial, if medically assisted detoxification is needed, or whether day therapy or hourly therapy sessions would be more appropriate.

At our rehabilitation centres throughout the UK, you can access residential care, where you have the time and space to begin to understand the reasons for your drinking and start on your path to recovery through therapy, group sessions, workshops, seminars and individual working time.

We also offer day therapy and outpatient therapy, where you can discuss your drinking and the issues relating to this, in a safe space with a qualified professional.

Coronavirus information

In light of the coronavirus outbreak, our addiction treatment team have been working hard to quickly and effectively adapt our practices so that we are able to safely provide addiction support.

We are able to offer free assessments for new inpatients via the telephone or through online communication platforms such as Skype. And, for people within our residential treatment programme, we are ensuring social distancing measures and infection control measures are adhered to.

Our online therapy service - Priory Connect - also allows us to provide therapy sessions with highly trained therapists who are expert in their fields. For more information on our online therapy service, please visit our Priory Connect page or read our online therapy blog.


Blog reviewed by Claire Rimmer (BA (Hons), Dip.Psychology, FDAD (NCAC)), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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