Alcohol Use Disorder Vs. Social Drinking: Knowing The Difference


Alcohol is a widely consumed and socially accepted beverage. However, for some individuals, what starts as social drinking can progress into a more severe condition known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Understanding the differences between social drinking and AUD is crucial to identifying potential problems early and seeking appropriate help. This comprehensive guide will explore the distinctions between social drinking and AUD, risk factors, warning signs, and available resources for those in need.

Social Drinking: What It Looks Like

Social drinking refers to moderate and responsible alcohol consumption within a social or recreational context. Critical characteristics of social drinking include:

Moderation: Social drinkers consume alcohol in moderation, typically adhering to recommended guidelines for safe drinking. This often means limiting consumption to a specific number of drinks per day or week.

Control: Social drinkers can control their alcohol intake and choose not to drink in situations where it may be inappropriate or unsafe.

Low Risk: They have a low risk of experiencing negative consequences of alcohol use, such as health problems, legal issues, or relationship conflicts.

Non-Compulsive: Social drinking is not driven by a compulsive need to drink; individuals can easily abstain from alcohol when desired.

Occasional: Social drinkers drink occasionally during social gatherings or special events.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD): Recognizing the Signs

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by an inability to control alcohol consumption despite adverse consequences. Recognizing AUD involves identifying specific signs and symptoms:

Loss of Control: Individuals with AUD often find it challenging to limit the amount of alcohol they consume and may repeatedly attempt and fail to cut down.

Craving: A strong desire for alcohol is a common feature of AUD, leading to increased alcohol consumption.

Neglect of Responsibilities: People with AUD may neglect their work, school, or home responsibilities due to alcohol use.

Tolerance: Over time, individuals with AUD may develop tolerance, requiring more significant amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effect.

Withdrawal Symptoms: Withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, nausea, or anxiety, may occur when alcohol use is reduced or discontinued.

Loss of Interest: Hobbies, social activities, or relationships may take a backseat to the need to drink.

Continued Use Despite Consequences: Individuals with AUD continue to drink despite experiencing negative consequences like health problems, legal issues, or damaged relationships.

Inability to Quit: Efforts to quit or reduce drinking are often unsuccessful.

Understanding the Gray Area

Recognizing that the line between social drinking and AUD is not always clear-cut is essential. Some individuals may exhibit mild to moderate AUD symptoms without meeting the full diagnostic criteria. For individuals struggling with drug addiction, it is important to understand that the inability to quit or reduce drug use is a common issue. Continued use despite negative consequences such as health problems, legal issues, and damaged relationships is a clear indication of addiction. It is also crucial to recognize that there may be a gray area between recreational drug use and addiction, where individuals may exhibit mild to moderate symptoms without meeting the full diagnostic criteria.This gray area highlights the importance of early intervention and seeking help when signs of problematic drinking arise.

Risk Factors for Developing AUD

Several risk factors can increase an individual’s vulnerability to developing AUD:

Genetics: Family history of AUD or a genetic predisposition to alcohol dependence.

Mental Health: Co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma.

Early Onset: Starting alcohol use at a young age.

Peer Pressure: Frequent exposure to peers who engage in heavy drinking.

Environmental Factors: Living in an environment with easy access to alcohol and limited social support.

Seeking Help for AUD

Recognizing the signs of AUD is a crucial first step towards seeking help. There are various resources available for individuals struggling with AUD:

Medical Evaluation: Consult a healthcare professional specializing in drug addiction treatment for a thorough evaluation and diagnosis.

Therapy and Counseling: Evidence-based therapies, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET), effectively treat AUD.

Support Groups: Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery offer support and a sense of community for those in recovery.

Medications: In some cases, medicines may be prescribed to reduce cravings or alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

Rehabilitation Programs: Inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs provide intensive treatment and support for individuals with AUD.


Distinguishing between social drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder is crucial for early intervention and appropriate treatment. While social drinking is characterized by moderation and control, AUD involves loss of control, craving, and negative consequences. Recognizing the warning signs and risk factors for AUD is essential for seeking help and achieving a healthier relationship with alcohol. With the proper support and resources, individuals can overcome AUD and regain control of their lives.