Sober vs. Clean: What’s the Difference?

sober vs clean

Sober and clean are two of the most commonly used words by those battling an alcohol or drug addiction, by their loved ones and by people employed in this field to help them recover. What differentiates these words? As is sometimes the case when comparing a couple of words, the answer is not clear-cut, but we will discuss the main differentiations between them as well as in what ways these words are similar to each other.

A Commonly Used Distinction

One of the most common distinctions between someone saying that they are sober versus saying that they are clean is that sober is a word often used in relation to alcohol use or lack thereof while clean is often spoken or written by those not using a different type of drug.

That said, some do also use the word sober when speaking about drug use, such as someone saying that they are not under the influence of any substances whatsoever, not only alcohol. However, it is relatively rare for an individual to say that they are clean when they are referring to alcohol. Usually, in that latter example, they would instead say that they are sober.

Of course, simply looking up the dictionary definitions of these two words will further help differentiate and clarify what they mean in peoples’ minds.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word sober describes someone who is “not intoxicated” as well as an individual who is “abstaining from drinking alcohol or taking intoxicating drugs” and is “refraining from the use of addictive substances.”

So, it is true that this word can apply to all types of intoxicating drugs, not just alcohol. However, it is not as commonly used in that way. It should also be noted that the Oxford English Dictionary defines someone who is sober as being “free from the influence of intoxicating liquor.”

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster states that one of the definitions of clean is to be “free from drug addiction,” indicating that this word is used much more often to refer to recovery from non-alcohol drug-related addictions.

Clean Does Not Necessarily Mean Clear-Headed

Another distinction that many make is that being sober is more so having a clear state of mind as opposed to being clean.

For example, someone who has been addicted to alcohol may have stopped consuming that substance, meaning that they are clean of it, but that does not necessarily mean that they are mentally recovered or acting in an even state of mind.

That could be for a few reasons. One is that they are still going through the detox process, which can be extensive and often results in the individual really struggling mentally. Also, those undergoing detox or in the time that follows often need to then get a handle on the roots of their alcoholism in order to push themselves through this part of the path towards creating a long-term solution.

In this sense, to be sober means that you are more so comfortable with your state of mind than not. Consider that one of the common non-addiction definitions of sober is to be in a serious, calm state of mind. This can also be applied to someone overcoming an addiction as those who are sober in the recovery-from-addiction sense tend to more so experience emotions such as seriousness and calmness.

More to the point, some view being sober as having, for the most part, recovered from an addiction, not still being immersed in the recovery process.

Being Clean as It Relates to Recovery

For the most part, someone who is defined as being clean is not currently consuming any drugs, no longer has that substance in their body and has completed any necessary detox process but has not necessarily done anything else to combat that addiction and help create long-term success.

In other words, they are not utilizing a treatment center, taking advantage of a support group, learning more about what caused their addiction to take hold and how they can get past it, engaging in meditation in relation to it or otherwise being proactive in their recovery process.

The main concern over simply ceasing use without getting to the roots of the problem is that the risk of a relapse goes up significantly. This is especially true in the early going but generally remains so for some time afterwards. That latter point is also why many recommend that those who are sober, even for years, continue to participate in these types of activities to help that remain the case.

Being Sober as It Relates to Recovery

Conversely, being sober as it relates to recovery is defined by many as more so having a sober mindset in addition to no longer having the substance in your body.

Another way to look at this is to consider a saying that Alcoholics Anonymous has long used: “Alcohol is but a symptom.” That means that for someone who is addicted to alcohol or, for that matter, to any substance, much more needs to be done than to simply attack the drug use itself. In other words, there is much more depth to the issue than ceasing use.

Also keep in mind that there are three primary branches of sobriety, and all should be addressed in order to progress towards overall sobriety.

Physical sobriety is, in essence, the same as being clean as far as these types of definitions for those words are concerned. That means that the substance is no longer in your body, generally allowing your thought process to be clearer and more focused than it was before.

Emotional sobriety is related to the mental element of the recovery process. For example, what is being done to rectify mistakes that were made while addicted as best as possible? Also, is work being done to regain lost connections, if desired and possible, as well as create positive new ones?

Social sobriety is similar in some ways to emotional sobriety, but it more so relates to re-entering society as a whole in a healthy way as opposed to improving specific, individual relationships with others. Part of this process can include, in a sense, making amends with society.

Challenges in Defining Recovery

Relating to the challenges of defining exactly what being clean and what being sober mean is another common struggle: defining recovery as that word relates to an addiction to alcohol or other type of drugs.

That is partially because recovery is a very individual journey, most notably because we all are different, meaning that our body reacts to and interacts with drugs and alcohol differently and also recovers from an addiction to one of those substances in its own unique way.

In addition, recovery, like all aspects of life, is more grey in nature as opposed to a simple case of being black or white – i.e. recovered or not. For instance, someone who has just started on their journey towards being clean and sober has taken important progress towards that while, in some ways, someone who most would define as being clean and sober for years may still experience urges from time to time and not feel that that they are 100% there and perhaps never will.

Also of note is that the recovery process is not a linear one. Setbacks will tend to happen from time to time although the intent is for those instances to decrease in number as recovery progresses.

living happy

Importance of Understanding Terminology

It is important to understand recovery-based terminology as best as you can as it relates to your situation as well as, if you are in a recovery facility, others undergoing their own recovery journeys. Clean and sober are just two of those words.

For instance, someone engaging in inpatient treatment essentially lives in a recovery facility for a period of time while those instead taking advantage of outpatient treatment still go about their day-to-day lives while being treated, such as sleeping at home and regularly going to work.

If there are any words that you are hearing in a recovery setting that you do not understand, make sure to ask someone what they mean or do your own research. The reasons for this suggestion are two-fold. You want to understand what people are saying to you and to others, and you need to ensure that you are being understood as accurately as possible when you are communicating.


If you are looking to get clean and sober or perhaps have achieved one but not the other, consider reaching out to Long Island Treatment Center for assistance in helping you experience significant progress on your recovery journey. We understand how difficult this time in your life has been and how challenging recovery can be, and we are here to help you recover in the way that is best for you.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Long Island Treatment Center