Alcohol consumption is a common element of social gatherings, meals, and celebrations. In many situations, alcohol use is far from being a disorder, but is instead a means for relaxation and enjoyment. Yet everyone has a different tolerance and response to alcohol. Factors such as age, family history, gender, quantity and frequency of consumption influence our relationship to alcohol. When alcohol use exceeds healthy levels, or combines with other underlying issues, it can lead to alcohol abuse and dependency. Using alcohol excessively to cope with or avoid stressful situations can signal a greater problem with alcohol use. Moreover, alcohol use disorder can have devastating consequences for the drinker as well as his or her family and friends.
Knowing the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is important in clarifying our understanding of problematic drinking. Alcohol dependence, often referred to as “alcoholism,” occurs when an individual is physically or psychologically dependent on drinking alcohol. Alcohol abuse, which includes binge drinking, is present when there is recurrent harmful use of alcohol despite negative consequences. Both conditions are now classified by the DSM-5 as alcohol use disorder.
A third or more of American families are directly affected by an alcohol problem at one time or another. The impact has both personal and social repercussions. Family dynamics change in ways that negatively impact relationships with spouses, children, and siblings. Finances may suffer when the drinker loses his or her job or engages in acts of recklessness, such as gambling or driving under the influence. Alcohol uses disorders take a toll on everyone involved in the drinker’s life.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. In the United States, one standard drink contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:
12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol