“Alcoholism” is a term often used to describe someone with severe alcohol dependence. An alcohol use disorder is a medical diagnosis that can be mild, moderate or severe.

If you have ever tried to find statistics on alcoholism rates in the United States, you might have noticed a term used in its place: alcohol use disorder (AUD). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2019 reported 14.5 million people aged 12 and older, or 5.3% of this age group, having an AUD. Additionally, 414,000 adolescents ages 12–17, or 1.7% of this age group, live with an AUD.

This may confuse some people used to the terms “alcoholic” and “alcoholism,” though. What is an alcohol use disorder? How does it differ from alcoholism? Is there any difference at all? With the prevalence of Alcoholics Anonymous, the term alcoholism has become widely used in reference to anyone struggling with an alcohol problem. But do all alcoholics have an AUD? Is everyone with an AUD an alcoholic?

What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies various mental illnesses and disorders. Mental health professionals use it nationwide to categorize and diagnose individuals seeking treatment.

The updated DSM-V, released in May 2013, combined the two former categorizations of abnormal alcohol use (alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence) into one diagnosis: alcohol use disorder. The severity of an individual’s AUD is broken into classifications: mild, moderate or severe.

The DSM-V classifies individuals as having an AUD if they meet any two of the eleven criteria listed below in the same 12-month period:

  1. Drinking more or for a longer period of time than intended
  2. Feeling incapable of cutting back on the amount of alcohol consumed
  3. Becoming sick for an extended period of time as a result of drinking too much
  4. Inability to concentrate due to alcohol cravings
  5. Inability to care for a family, hold down a job, or perform in school
  6. Continuing to drink despite problems caused with friends or family
  7. Decreased participation in activities which were once important
  8. Finding oneself in dangerous or harmful situations as a direct result of drinking
  9. Continuing to drink despite adding to another health problem, feeling depressed or anxious or blacking out
  10. Drinking more as a result of a tolerance to alcohol
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

If you have experienced at least two of the above conditions in the same 12-month period, this suggests the potential for an alcohol use disorder. Whether you have mild, moderate or severe AUD depends on how many of these conditions apply to you:

  • Mild: Two to three
  • Moderate: Four to five
  • Severe: Six or more

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism” is a term often used to describe someone with a severe form of alcohol dependence. Many times people use it to refer to someone who simply drinks too much. Alcoholism is more severe than simply having a bad weekend, though.

Individuals with alcoholism have many of the symptoms listed in the DSM-V criteria. Whether you drink every day or are a weekend binger, if you drink more than expected or continue to drink despite the consequences, you may be an alcoholic.

The term “Alcoholic” is often used in regards to the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.” However, neither Alcoholics Anonymous nor its members will tell you whether or not you are an alcoholic. Instead, they insist you are the only one who can make that decision.

Related Topic: Am I an Alcoholic? Take the Quiz

What Is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a diagnosis used by medical professionals to describe someone with an alcohol problem to varying degrees. Alcoholism is a non-medical term used most often in everyday language and within the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

If you see a doctor for your alcohol use, they will not diagnose you as an alcoholic. Instead, they will use the symptoms in the DSM-V to determine whether you have a mild, moderate or severe AUD.  If you go to Alcoholics Anonymous, very rarely will you hear the term alcohol use disorder. However, a variety of alcoholic types attend meetings.

How Do I Know if I Have an AUD or Alcoholism?

Although it is best to consult with a medical professional for expert advice, you can do a quick self-check. Ask yourself whether you have any of the symptoms listed above and see how many apply to your life.

If you are struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, it is best to seek help. You can attend a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous or, if your symptoms are more severe, you can find an alcoholism treatment program.

With more than 15,000 treatment centers in the United States alone, there are a variety of options for those living with alcoholism, from alcohol detox to online rehabs and teletherapy. Finding a community of your peers who are also trying to get sober can help provide support during early recovery. You don’t have to manage your alcoholism alone.

If you think you’re struggling with an alcohol use disorder and want professional help, call The Recovery Village. Our helpful representatives can discuss your situation with you, explain your treatment options, and get you started on the path to lifelong recovery. 

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and  Statistics.” June 2021. Accessed August 10, 2021.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder: A comparison Between DSM-IV and DSM-V.” April 2021. Accessed August 10, 2021.

Alcoholics Anonymous. “Chapter 4 — We Agnostics.” Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, 4th edition, 2001. Accessed August 11, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.