Alcohol makes so many appearances in our lives, from a beer or two after work to a glass of wine with dinner to a cocktail while on holiday, that it can be easy to forget that it is addictive like many drugs.

Alcohol dependence is one of the most serious national public health concerns. You can find signs of it among the rich and poor, in all regions of the country, and all social and ethnic groups. Millions of Americans are dependent on alcohol, and most of them have families that suffer and endure the consequences, often severe, of living with the illness. If you or a member of your family is addicted to alcohol, remember you’re not alone; and like many other illnesses, addiction can be treated.

It refers to the compulsion to use alcohol in order to feed good feelings or avoid negative ones. This is different from enjoying a casual drink, as addiction can cause severe and lasting damage to your health and the well-being of those close to you. Alcohol addiction is an intricate problem that can difficult to detect, especially in a society where drinking a lot is socially acceptable. But is there a difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence?

With alcohol abuse, the recurrent and heavy drinking makes a person likely to fall into all kinds of trouble – from physically putting themselves in harms way, like with drinking and driving, to failing to fulfil family, work, or social obligations – though they may still be able to carry on their lives with some normality.

With alcohol dependence or addiction, on the other hand, alcohol takes over the primary role in a person’s life, causing them to give up important relationships and activities because of their drinking. You know you’re addicted when you feel the need for more alcohol than usual to achieve the desired effect.

As dependence becomes more established, the individual spends more and more of their time thinking about alcohol, or participating in the necessary activities to obtain, use, or recover from the alcohol effects. Eventually, the individual person acknowledges that he or she gets the shakes when they don’t drink, causing them to keep drinking to escape the experience of these withdrawal symptoms.