Binge drinking is a significant contributor to a number of preventable alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. annually. While it may not seem as serious, or even recognizable, as more conventional forms of alcoholism, binge drinking is associated with many alcohol-related health risks.
The rise of binge drinking — and related hazards — has prompted public health officials, educators, people looking to study healthcare administration, educators, and drug and alcohol advocacy organizations to take a closer look to gain insight into preventing this form of alcohol abuse.
Binge drinking vs. alcoholism
Binge drinking and alcoholism are just two of the many behaviors that constitute alcohol abuse. Binge drinking is often taken lightly and dismissed as “just having a good time” or “normal college behavior.” Binge drinking is essentially heavily consuming alcohol in a short period of time.
Alcoholism is associated with a daily dependency on alcohol. Binge drinking may be more episodic or portray a sense of being “in control” compared to some of the symptoms associated with alcoholism.
A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that “nearly 20% of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes.” While binge drinking and alcoholism may be related, it is essential to make the distinction between the two to understand the health risks. Knowing the underlying causes, frequency, and risks involved with these behaviors can also shed light on how to treat them.
What is considered binge drinking?
Binge drinking is defined for the typical adult as “consuming five or more drinks for men, or four or more drinks for women, in about two hours.” Alcohol tolerance levels differ from person to person, and some individuals may reach a higher blood alcohol content (BAC) with less alcohol depending on body weight and other factors.
However, binge drinking can be more generally described as the heavy, episodic consumption of alcohol in a short period. People who binge drink are at higher risk of succumbing to alcohol poisoning, accidental injury, or even death.
Binge drinker vs. alcoholic: What’s the difference?
A binge drinker isn’t necessarily an alcoholic, and an alcoholic isn’t always a binge drinker. When classifying these different forms of alcohol abuse, it often depends on the frequency in which an individual drinks, how much they drink, the circumstances under which alcohol is consumed, and physical dependency.
Treatment options will be different for those who are binge drinkers as opposed to individuals who are alcohol dependent. Here’s a general overview of these differences:
- Heavy consumption
- Usually in social settings
- Short period of consumption
- May not be dependent
- Not defined by quantity consumed
- May drink in isolation or secretively
- Consumes alcohol habitually and/or daily
- Dependence on alcohol and may not be able to control or stop drinking
What is the binge drinking epidemic?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, and over 90% of U.S. adults who drink excessively report binge drinking in the past 30 days.
Although binge drinking is more commonplace among young adults aged 18 to 34, high school students and older generations are not exempt. These statistics from the CDC present a troubling insight into the severity of this behavior, and the importance of stopping binge drinking.
Who is binge drinking?
A research study compiled by the CDC provides detailed demographic information as to who binge drinks by which age group:
The 18- to 34-year-old demographic is traditionally the college population and young adults, and it’s during this period when most people start experimenting with alcohol. High school students also report binge drinking; however, more than half of the total number of binge drinkers are 35 and older.
The CDC also says that binge drinking is twice as common among men than women.
Binge drinking in college
Colleges and universities are a particularly high-risk environment for binge drinking. Drinking in college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience. In fact, almost 60% of college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost two out of three of them engaged in binge drinking during that same timeframe.
A college setting can produce an atmosphere that tolerates or even encourages binge drinking, and it’s crucial for parents, students, teachers, and faculty to be aware of these tendencies.
Although students attending college online may not be at risk for the same degree of peer pressure or campus-based drinking culture, binge drinking is not exclusive to students living or attending class on campus. In fact, studies show that nontraditional students report higher levels of stress and depression and may be even more likely than traditional college-aged students to use or abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism.
That means online students and adults returning to school to complete a degree should be aware of the risks associated with alcohol abuse and binge drinking.
In 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought new insights into the effect of quarantine and isolation on binge drinking habits. The CDC was proactive in highlighting the dangers of alcohol abuse as a means to deal with the effects and isolation from the pandemic. While self-quarantine and isolation can leave many detached from the social aspects of daily life, it’s important to seek other, more productive outlets.
Physical activity is one of the most recommended ways to deal with daily stress and pressure. Just going for a quick walk or getting some fresh air can help provide the mental reset needed to meet school or work obligations
Alcohol abuse facts: Measuring the personal and public health impact
When someone partakes in binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse, they are not only hurting themselves. The consequences of alcohol abuse could be enormous and not at all limited to the person drinking.
Physical effects of alcohol abuse and binge drinking
The effects of alcohol abuse take a toll on your entire body. Even if you binge drink only once, your body may suffer short-term effects. Prolonged alcohol abuse can lead to much worse conditions.
The short-term effects of alcohol abuse
- Impaired vision
- Mood swings
- Loss of memory
- Slurred speech
The long-term effects of alcohol abuse
- Cardiovascular disease
- Higher risk of stroke
- Depression and anxiety
- Reduced fertility
- Cirrhosis of the liver
Healthline reports that binge drinking can also affect your:
- Heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, or sudden death from heart failure.
- Alcohol is a diuretic, which causes the kidneys to produce more urine. This, alone or with vomiting, can lead to dehydration and dangerously low levels of sodium, potassium, and other minerals and salts.
- Alcohol inhibits the gag reflex, which can lead to vomit, saliva, or other substances entering the lungs. This can cause inflammation or infection in the lungs.
- A single session of heavy alcohol use can lead to dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Alcohol-related deaths and injuries
The loss of coordination, mood swings, impaired vision, and other effects of binge drinking may lead to unfortunate events and even tragedy.
The consequences of drinking frequently affect others — so much so that alcohol-related public health risks are a major concern. Binge drinking and other alcohol abuse may lead to alcohol-related deaths such as car crashes or intentional or unintentional injuries.
Economic effects of alcohol abuse
Binge drinking costs everyone. In a 2010 finding (later confirmed in 2018), these costs resulted from losses in workplace productivity, healthcare expenditures, criminal justice costs, and other expenses. Binge drinking was responsible for 77% of these costs, or $191 billion.
There is a cost associated with many alcohol-related accidents. Personal and public service expenditures are needed to cover the criminal justice charges of a DUI. Healthcare expenses are required for injuries and sexually transmitted diseases caused alcohol abuse. Businesses even lose money when employees who abuse alcohol see a decrease in productivity.
Consequences of alcohol abuse among college students
The adverse outcomes of alcohol abuse for college students are sometimes profound, life-altering events. Driving while impaired can lead to debilitating injuries and even death. Alcohol poisoning is yet another risk that can cause severe illness or fatality.
Alcohol-fueled mood swings, often involving violence, result in a large number of physical and sexual assaults. About 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Additionally, academic performance may decrease due to missed classes and unsatisfactory exam or class scores due to alcohol abuse.
Underage drinking risks and consequences
Binge drinking does not only involve college students. Alcohol abuse and underage drinking has even been identified in middle and high school students.
Underage drinking poses many of the same health and safety risks and can lead to a lifetime of alcohol disorders. Youths may be influenced to drink due to peer pressure, wanting to take risks, or even stress. However, alcohol-related problems can significantly impede an adolescent life.
A report by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states, “In 2018 , 7.7 million young people ages 12 20 reported that they drank alcohol beyond ‘just a few sips’ in the past month.” It also helps to note that children are generally smaller than the average adult. This means their alcohol tolerance is usually much less and that binge drinking is more likely. So, while children drink less than adults, the chances of their experience being classified as binge drinking is drastically increased.
How to stop binge drinking and prevent alcohol abuse
Binge drinking and alcohol abuse can be prevented, or at least held to a minimum, through several protective measures.
In many instances, the community can step forward in helping those who binge drink and abuse alcohol, while developing prevention strategies to deter future alcohol abuse. Most importantly, awareness is vital to understanding how to stop binge drinking and prevent alcohol abuse. Once recognized, members of the community, educators, parents, and healthcare administrators can help alleviate the public health risks and costs.
The CDC alcohol program
The CDC provides statistical data to help prevent the heavy consumption of alcohol. Through research, public health surveillance, and providing national leadership and partnership, the CDC has provided much of the scientific knowledge we use today to prevent binge drinking and provide treatment of alcohol-related illnesses.
Public health surveillance systems and research
The CDC’s public health surveillance systems track the correlation between binge drinking, underage drinking, and their influence on health. Through the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, and Alcohol-Related Disease Impact application, we are gaining a growing body of knowledge on how to combat binge drinking and alcohol abuse.
Health promotion and prevention strategies
The Guide to Community Preventive Services, aiming to prevent excessive alcohol consumption, has compiled a list of recommended alcohol intervention including:
- Increasing alcohol taxes
- Regulation of alcohol outlet density
- shop liability
- Maintaining limits on hours of sale
The role of teachers and educational leaders in combating alcohol abuse
Alcohol abuse can be tackled preemptively through school programs. Before students even start drinking, schools can be an effective platform to raise awareness about the dangers of alcohol abuse.
Prevention and intervention programs have shown enormous progress, such as Raising Healthy Children and the Project Toward No Drug Abuse. Through training of similarly aged students, identifying healthy social influences, teaching the social norms of alcohol (and that they don’t apply to children), teachers and educational leaders are reaching students to lower the statistics of children consuming alcohol in the first place, as well as becoming more aware of the dangers of drinking in the future.
The role of healthcare administrators and providers
Healthcare administrators should become as informed as possible on binge drinking and alcohol abuse to provide the leadership necessary for healthcare professionals and providers to deploy the most reliable prevention and intervention strategies possible.
Serving as an ambassador between patients and community facilities, healthcare administrators and providers can talk to patients and understand their alcohol-related illnesses or problems.
In being more conscious of binge drinking and alcohol abuse, healthcare administrators, professionals, and providers can drive awareness among patients. Through this shared knowledge, healthcare professionals and patients can determine the best possible prevention and treatment options for each patient.
How students and families can prevent binge drinking
Parents and families should take it upon themselves to talk with their children about the dangers of alcohol abuse. If parents incorporate alcohol-related they can make a significant impact on their children’s decisions about drinking. Encouraging your children to surround themselves with the right peers, not give in to peer pressure, and other positive behaviors can play a vital role in healthy habits for the future.
In a digital-savvy world, technology and apps may help prevent binge drinking among students. For example, electronic interventions can be provided on a student’s smartphone to alert them of the negative consequences of drinking and even about how much they are spending on alcohol. This data can constantly remind a college student of the realities of binge drinking.