What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is defined as a woman consuming 4 or more alcoholic drinks in under 2 hours and a man consuming 5 or more drinks in under 2 hours. Binge drinking is a common and dangerous way to consume alcohol. It’s responsible for 77% of the damage done by drinking in the United States.
Different Levels of Drinking
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) separates levels of drinking by blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and number of drinks consumed. These categorizations are also separated by sex; women typically require fewer drinks to achieve similar levels of drunkenness as men. In this context a “drink” is a standardized unit of measurement, which is different for different types of alcohol.
One standard drink of:
- Beer: 12-oz. (one can)
- Wine: 5-oz. (one glass)
- Distilled Spirits: 1.5-oz (one shot)
This first tier of drinking is roughly categorized by number of drinks, rather than BAC. To be considered a moderate drinker, you must drink no more than two drinks a day as a male and one a day as a female.
Because this type of drinking is associated with more serious health concerns, the NIAA uses both BAC and number of drinks to give the clearest possible picture of its classification. By NIAA standards, a BAC level of .08 g/dL, which is also the legal limit for driving in most of the US, is considered to be a sign of binge drinking. They estimate that this result would take four drinks for females and five drinks for males, both within two hours.
Heavy Alcohol Use
This last classification is based more on frequency of drinking along a larger time scale. Heavy use is defined as binge drinking five times or more within the last month and is associated with serious health complications if it continues chronically.
Who Is Binge Drinking?
By NIAA and CDC standards, almost every age group with access to alcohol binge drinks, from high school students to senior citizens. Binge drinking is most common in adults from the ages of 18 to 34, but adults 35 and older drink over half the volume of alcohol that’s consumed through binge drinking. Frequent binge drinking at any age is an issue, but it is especially serious in adolescent and college populations.
While the purpose of college still centers around academic achievement and earning a degree, the social component has expanded greatly as a larger portion of the population chooses higher education. Often, social interaction in college is accompanied by some amount of alcohol, whether or not the students are old enough to drink legally.
A national survey found that 60% of college students 18-22 drank within the last month. Of those that drank, 66% had also binge drank in that month. These drinking habits are so prevalent that 20% of college students meet the criteria for having an alcohol use disorder, a compulsive consumption of alcohol that becomes detrimental to other parts of life. Unfortunately, these patterns often form before people are even in the college drinking environment.
When compared to their adult counterparts, adolescent drinkers consume more alcohol at once. Overindulgence is a common side effect of reduced availability. Because adolescents aren’t legally allowed to drink, any social event where they have access to alcohol can lead to overconsumption. This type of behavior can evolve into binge drinking as these teens head towards college, setting them up for serious issues if it gets out of control.
Habitual binge drinking can lead to episodes of high-intensity drinking, described as drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol in one occasion. Anyone, adolescents especially, engaging in this behavior risks alcohol poisoning and a host of destructive behaviors.
Risky Behavior While Binge Drinking
Drinking large amounts of alcohol in short periods of time not only leads to possible physiological consequences but also can cause the people drinking to make poor decisions. Getting into a car with the intent to drive while drunk or riding in a car with a drunk driver both occur more frequently while binge drinking. Assault and sexual assault also spike in populations engaging in frequent binge drinking.
Each year, nearly 700,000 college students report being assaulted by an intoxicated peer, and 100,000 report alcohol-related sexual assault. The stereotypical reduction of inhibition also leads to an increased chance of STI transmission and unplanned pregnancy. The threat of physical harm from risky behavior after binge drinking is only part of the equation when considering physical health.
Physical Effects of Binge Drinking
The prevalence of binge drinking in modern culture means that most people know at least some of the symptoms associated with it. It necessarily shares many short-term effects with normal alcohol consumption, but these effects are usually more intense because of the volume of alcohol consumed. Binge drinking chronically exposes people to serious health issues and often results in an addiction if they can’t break the habit.
- Loss of coordination
- Increased blood pressure
- Fluid entering the lungs
- Memory loss
- Reduction in blood sugar
- Inflammation of the liver
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Irregular heartbeat
- Increased risk of stroke and dementia
- Reduced fertility and libido
- Damage to digestive health and gut biome
It’s Never Too Late to Get Help
The risks associated with habitual binge drinking can be minimized by reaching out for help. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are dangerous and require professional treatment. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact a treatment provider today to discuss treatment options.
Author: Michael Muldoon | Last Updated: February 2, 2023
Medical Reviewer: Theresa Parisi