Unlike many other addictive substances, alcoholic beverages are legal, advertised on TV, and integrated into virtually every social event – so is alcohol considered a drug, or is it something else entirely?
Is Alcohol Considered a Drug?
Consider this scenario: Every morning, Bob takes a prescription medication to help manage his anxiety. He has a cup of coffee before he leaves for work, a cigarette after lunch, and a cold beer at the end of the day.
Based on this description, would it be fair to describe Bob as a habitual drug user?
In modern American society, the term “drug” has a decidedly negative connotation. When people use this word, they’re often referring to illicit substances such as cocaine, meth, or fentanyl – not caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
By that standard, Bob clearly isn’t a drug user. But is that standard correct?
It’s no secret that the way words are commonly used doesn’t always line up with their actual definitions. For example, here’s how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes drugs: “A drug is any substance that can change how a person’s body and mind work.”
Caffeine can provide a boost of energy. Nicotine can have a relaxing, pleasurable effect. And alcohol can change how a person moves, speaks, thinks, and feels.
Are these common (and legal) substances actually drugs? Is alcohol considered a drug? According to one of the nation’s premier health organizations, the answer to both of these questions is yes.
To circle back to the scenario at the top of this section, most people would likely still argue that Bob’s actions don’t qualify him as a habitual drug user. And we’re not arguing that someone in Bob’s shoes should be branded with this admittedly derogatory term. But we are acknowledging that alcohol and several of the other substances that Bob ingests on a daily basis can, indeed, be accurately described as drugs.
Is Alcohol As Dangerous as Other Drugs?
Why is alcohol considered a drug if it is legal and virtually omnipresent in our society? That has to mean that it must be safer than substances that are banned or highly regulated, right?
While It would be virtually impossible to rank the relative danger that every drug poses, it is safe to say that alcohol is far from harmless.
Depending on how much and how often someone drinks alcohol, they may be at risk for myriad negative outcomes, including:
- Cognitive problems
- Damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys
- Physical injuries due to impaired judgement and coordination
- Diminished performance in school or at work
- Difficulty obtaining and keeping a job
- Ruined relationships
- Being arrested, fined, and jailed
- Financial ruin
- Development or worsening of mental health challenges
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol use disorder is the clinical term for alcohol addiction (or alcoholism). As established in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), alcohol use disorder is characterized by symptoms and behaviors such as the following:
- Powerful cravings for alcohol
- Spending considerable amounts of time drinking and recovering from the effects of alcohol
- Failing to meet personal, occupational, or social responsibilities due to alcohol abuse
- Continuing to drink after incurring harm as a result of prior alcohol abuse
- Developing tolerance, or needing to drink more in order to achieve the desired effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit drinking or attempting to reduce the amount of one’s alcohol use
- Wanting to stop using alcohol, but being unable to do so
Someone who exhibits these types of symptoms should be assessed by a qualified professional. Receiving an accurate diagnosis can be an essential step on the path toward long-term recovery.
Is Alcohol Addiction Different Than Other Addictions?
Alcohol use disorder is a type of substance use disorder (which is the clinical term for drug addiction). This reinforces the view that alcohol is considered a drug. But is alcohol addiction different from other types of addiction?
In some ways, it is. In other ways, it’s not.
Here are two similarities:
- Addiction involves powerful cravings, loss of control, and an inability to stop using a substance even after being harmed by it. This is as true of alcohol addiction as it is of addictions to opiates, benzodiazepines, and other drugs.
- Alcohol addiction is a chronic, progressive disease – just like addictions to other drugs are.
And here are two differences:
- Alcohol withdrawal can be much more dangerous than withdrawal from most other drugs. Experts estimate that about 5% of people who go through alcohol withdrawal will develop delirium tremens, a set of severe symptoms that can be fatal if not properly treated.
- Recovery from alcohol addiction can be complicated by the fact that alcohol plays such a prominent role throughout our society. For example, with a few lifestyle changes, someone who is recovering from heroin addiction can be relatively certain that they won’t be in a room where heroin is present. For someone who is in recovery from alcoholism, avoiding all exposure to alcohol is highly unlikely.
One other important similarity between alcoholism and other forms of addiction is that they are all treatable conditions. When someone receives effective care from a reputable provider, they can end their substance abuse and build a foundation for a drug-free future.
Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment in Worcester
Lake Avenue Recovery offers customized outpatient treatment for adults who have become addicted to alcohol and other drugs. At our center, experienced professionals provide personalized services within a safe and highly supportive environment. When you’re ready to quit drinking for good, the Lake Avenue Recovery team is here for you. Visit our Contact Us page or call us today to learn more or to schedule a free assessment.