What is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Addiction?

There are many similarities between alcoholism and addiction, but what are the real differences? Outside of the name, either way both suffer from a hopeless state of body and mind. Even in AA or NA meetings, there is still an unspoken taboo about people who identify as both, especially when they are in ‘closed’ meetings. But when you break down the specific aspects that each of us suffer from, it is more or less the same.

What is Addiction?


Addiction, while typically pertaining to drugs and alcohol, can include all physical things we consume such as food and cigarettes. Addiction can also encompasses abstract behaviors such as gambling or purchasing seemingly harmless products such as collectible novelties. Typically it falls under two categories, substance dependence, or drug addiction, and behavioral addiction such as a gambling addiction. When a person is addicted to something, they cannot control how they use it to the point where they become dependent. Many people are able to be engaged in activities or consumption without any significant problems. Others, however, experience damaging psychological or physical effects when their habit has become an addiction.

Dr. John Sharp, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction, has this to say on the definition of addiction:

Recently, the American Society of Addiction Medicine came out with an updated definition of addiction, which identified five other aspects: inability to abstain consistently, impairment of behavioral control, cravings, diminished recognition of significant problems, and dysfunctional emotion responses. I think it’s fair to say you can apply those aspects to both drug users and alcoholics.


Is Alcoholism an Addiction?


When an alcoholic takes a look at their problem from an objective point of view, they can see very similar issues they share with any drug addict. Inability to control their use, obsession, making choices despite known consequences, changes in their thinking—all of which is under a shroud of denial; they really are no different. Alcoholism is merely another form of addiction, but with a name.

Alcoholism has often been referred to as the most inappropriately named disease, as it has to do with so much more than alcohol. An alcoholic suffers even when alcohol is not consumed. Ask anyone who has been around Alcoholics Anonymous, almost universally they will admit that their problem with drinking was much more of a solution than the problem itself. They consumed it to the point of dependence, or in other words, addiction.


So What Are The Differences?


The differences lie in how each person chooses to deal with their disease. There are people who have found a solution to their drinking issue in Alcoholics Anonymous, and those with an addiction to heroin who have found theirs in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous. That being said, there are also those who have found solutions in both. There are many alcoholics who have become addicted to other substances, and there are a lot of people who are addicted to drugs and when they stop the drugs, they become addicted to alcohol. Had Bill Wilson also identified as an addict, the minutia and taboo surrounding identifying as one or the other may have been non-existent.


  • Adam Sledd
    Posted at 13:31h, 15 October Reply

    There are also millions who choose to address their substance use disorders without participating in a 12-step fellowship.

    • Avi Satz
      Posted at 14:08h, 15 October Reply

      Thanks for your participation Adam, could you please share some other options that someone can look into to address their substance dependency issues?

  • Angie
    Posted at 16:45h, 03 April Reply

    The main difference is alcohol is socially accepted. Drug addicts in some instances happen accidentally because of a failing health care system where medical employees are being pushed harder and paid less or how hospital s are quicker to give you a pill then fix treat the problem.

  • Valerie
    Posted at 23:02h, 01 April Reply

    I have recently become aware of the updated DSM-V. Thrilled that one of the new symptoms is inability to concentrate due to alcohol cravings. That has been a huge issue for me. I have gone to AA, 3 rehabs, counseling, Life Ring, CDRP, tried different medications for anxiety, etc., but still relapsed. I was finally seen by an addiction specialist who prescribed baclofen. I now have a program that includes, but is not limited to, AA, Life Ring, Kaiser, my PP and psychiatrist, as well as medication. Baclofen has helped with anxiety and cravings; I have never felt better. And I don’t have to think about it “one day at a time” or announce myself as an alcoholic. I grieve for the suffering alcoholic who has not been told about these anti-craving medications, only AA.

  • Jaime Pimienta
    Posted at 22:26h, 15 May Reply

    My greatest concern is to my son (27) who is/was addicted to heroin, had smoked pot, tried meth, mushrooms and other hellucinagents, etc. Suffered an OD in 2016. He’s been sober for a while, however, inhales vapors from a vaping device, openly and sometimes cigarettes.
    Now I see beer bottles and (sometimes) hard liquor bottles. Drinks alone in the middle of the night along with bowlfs of sugar cereals with dirty dishes left in the sink for the next morning. Sleeps all day. No prospects toward a rewarding future; no vision of a greater future. Only independent, dead end jobs that leave my son at the mercy of those who hire him, underpay him, and fire him if he doesn’t earn a certain quota.
    His behavior is another matter. Acts rather childish around me. Maybe it’s because I’m Dad. But academically he can’t hack it in academia (colleges) because of the drug and alcohol abuse through the years.
    Sad to say, I’m at the end of my rope as well. I’ll have to take action if this problem with my son escalates.

    • Jody Harshman
      Posted at 15:41h, 15 August Reply

      Personally I agree with them being both addictions. But I know from personal experience that alcohol has a profound effect on the physical body, from the first drink my has a abnormal reaction to alcohol. I have not found this reaction when using drugs. The mental part seems to coincide with each other, even withdraw from either drugs or alcohol. With the levels of severity being different on length of use, quantity, and the substance ots self. Alcohol in my body does something as if my body has been waiting for alcohol my whole life.

      • Derek Free
        Posted at 18:58h, 31 August Reply

        Jamie –

        Thank you for your comment! We agree, while some individuals may have a drug or drink of choice, for a true addict or alcoholic often the behavior can be the same no matter what they choose to use.

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