Alcohol Addiction vs Alcohol Dependence: What’s the Difference?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), just under 30 million Americans over the age of 12 abuse alcohol to some extent. That’s approximately 10.5 percent of that age group.

But not all drinking problems are the same. Substance abuse can take numerous forms. Some people are physically dependent on alcohol, but others are addicted to it. They may seem like the same thing, but there is a difference between the two of them, and the differences can be significant.

At Luxe Recovery, we want to help people recover from the effects of alcohol, whether it’s addiction or dependence.

Understanding the Difference Between Alcohol Addiction and Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences. Alcohol dependence refers to a physical condition characterized by tolerance, which is when a person’s body acclimates to alcohol misuse and requires more alcohol to achieve the same level of drunkenness.

A person may also experience withdrawal symptoms when they’re unable to drink. It involves a physiological adaptation to alcohol, making it challenging to stop without experiencing discomfort or health issues. 

On the other hand, alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), encompasses both physical dependence and psychological cravings.

Addiction is marked by an inability to control drinking, obsessive thoughts regarding alcohol, and continued use despite knowing or suffering its harmful consequences. It is a broader term that includes compulsive behavior and a loss of control over one’s drinking habits.

While dependence focuses on the physical aspects of alcohol abuse, addiction includes a psychological component that drives the compulsive need to drink.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

AUD, also known as alcoholism, is a medical condition characterized by an inability to control alcohol consumption despite negative consequences. It entails a strong compulsion to drink alcohol, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and continued drinking despite the harm it does to one’s health, relationships, and responsibilities.

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence is a condition wherein an individual develops a physical reliance, or dependence, on consuming alcohol. Like AUD above, it involves tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when not able to drink.

Dependence can often lead to AUD and a compulsive need to consume alcohol despite suffering negative consequences.

Is One Worse Than the Other?

Alcohol dependence specifically refers to the physical reliance on alcohol, which is the combination of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.

This can make it difficult for individuals to stop drinking without medical intervention, and untreated dependence can lead to serious health issues such as liver disease and neurological damage.

Alcohol addiction is the physical dependence and psychological compulsion to drink alcohol. This means addiction includes the elements of dependence but also involves a loss of control over drinking behavior and persistent use despite adverse consequences.

The psychological aspect of addiction can lead to more major problems in life, such as strained personal relationships, legal issues, and mental health disorders.

Both conditions are serious and require treatment, but the broader scope of AUD, which includes both physical and psychological elements, can be considered more encompassing and potentially more difficult to treat effectively.

How to Tell if You Have Alcohol Addiction or Alcohol Dependence

To determine if you have alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence, observe the signs and symptoms associated with each condition. Alcohol dependence is primarily marked by physical aspects such as tolerance, where you need more alcohol to achieve the same effects, and alcohol withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, sweating, nausea, or anxiety when not drinking.

You may experience strong physical cravings for alcohol and find it difficult to stop drinking despite trying to cut back or reduce drinking.

Alcohol addiction includes the physical components of dependence but also involves a psychological compulsion to drink. This may manifest as an inability to reduce or stop drinking despite a desire to do so, constantly thinking about drinking and prioritizing drinking over responsibilities at work, school, or home. 

Furthermore, alcoholics will continue to drink despite relationship issues and engage in risky behaviors, such as drunk driving, which are key indicators of addiction. 

If you recognize any of the signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism, especially multiple, then you may have an alcohol problem, and it is crucial to seek professional help for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.

Both conditions are serious and require intervention to prevent further harm and improve overall well-being.

Treatments for AUD and Alcohol Dependence

Treatment programs for AUD and alcohol dependence can have a lot of overlap, as the main goal is to help alcohol abusers stop or control alcohol use. Treatment options for the two conditions may include:


One of the most important steps in treating substance use is to detox a patient. This is when all substances are purged from a person’s body. This can be uncomfortable due to withdrawal, but it is a vital step in treatment.


Some medications, such as naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram, can help reduce cravings, manage withdrawal symptoms, and discourage drinking by producing unpleasant effects when alcohol is consumed.


Counseling can help support a person’s recovery from addiction and dependence by giving them a safe space wherein they can delve into the underlying causes of their heavy alcohol use. Therapists can also help with mental health conditions that may contribute to a person’s use of alcohol.

Counseling can help in understanding alcohol use and help people develop healthy coping mechanisms to change their patterns of drinking.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous can help in maintaining sobriety by giving a recovering alcoholic a sense of community. Often, addiction can leave a person feeling isolated, which can cause depression and exacerbate their substance abuse.

Support groups can also be an opportunity to learn about AUD and recovery, as other members may be further along in their recovery. Group members can also hold each other accountable.

We Can Help You With Alcohol Abuse

Drinking can be a particularly difficult addiction to overcome. With an illicit drug, a person has to find a dealer and hope that the one they find isn’t an undercover police officer. With prescription medication, a person needs a doctor to prescribe them the medication, which can be hard as doctors may be apprehensive if a patient has a history of substance addiction. 

Alcohol, on the other hand, is perfectly legal and freely available. Its consumption is a normal part of society. So a person in recovery may have to face triggers and many people in recovery will falter.

Treatment is available and can help a person rebuild their life, even if the road to recovery comes with detours. Contact us now to discuss the treatment options that’ll best suit your needs.

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