Binge drinking is a significant contributor to a number of preventable alcohol-related deaths in the US 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, those 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 which 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, with no apparent frequency.
Alcoholism is associated with a daily dependency on alcohol. It is a clinical disease that many functioning members of society are dealing with and can be treated. 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 percent 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 alcohol abuse 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 5 or more drinks for men, or 4 or more drinks for women, in about 2 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 by definition 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 alcoholics. Here is a general overview of these differences:
- Binge Drinker
- 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 US adults binge drinks about four times a month, and over 90% of US adults who drink excessively report binge drinking in the past 30 days. Binge drinking is more commonplace among young adults aged 18 to 34 years old, however, 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 2015 youth risk behavior surveillance system and behavioral risk factor surveillance system data provided the CDC with detailed demographic information as to who binge drinks by which age group:
Image Alt Text: CDC surveys show who is binge drinking by age.
Ages 18 to 34 years old is traditionally the college population, and when most people start experimenting with alcohol. At the same time, high school students also report binge drinking. However, more than half of the total amount of binge drinkers are aged 35 and older. The CDC also says that binge drinking is twice as common among men than among women.
Binge Drinking in College
Colleges and universities are a particularly high-risk environment for binge drinking. Many campuses enable a “party culture” in which drinking alcohol is encouraged. Drinking in college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience. In fact, almost 60 percent of college students aged 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost 2 out of 3 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 is crucial for parents, students, teachers, and faculty to be aware of these dangers.
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 non-traditional 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 are at risk, and should be aware of the risks associated with alcohol abuse and binge drinking.
Alcohol Abuse Facts: Measuring the Personal and Public Health Impact
When someone partakes in binge drinking and other alcohol abuse, they are not only hurting themselves. Often, the behavior associated with alcohol abuse creates public health hazards as well. To aggravate the situation, the costs of the consequences of alcohol abuse could be astronomical, 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. In a short period, and 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:
- Heart. Heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, or sudden death from heart failure.
- Kidneys. 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.
- Lungs. 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.
- Pancreas. A single session of heavy alcohol use can lead to dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Alcohol-Related Deaths & Injuries
The loss of coordination, mood swings, impaired vision, and other effects of binge drinking may lead to unfortunate events, and even tragedy. The regrettable 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. It can also lead to STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex.
Economic Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Binge drinking costs everyone. The CDC reports that:
“Drinking too much, including binge drinking, cost the United States $249 billion in 2010, or $2.05 a drink. These costs resulted from losses in workplace productivity, health care 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 because of alcohol abuse. Businesses even lose money when employees who abuse alcohol see a decrease in productivity. Binge drinking and alcohol abuse are, in actuality, quite costly for everyone.
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 missing class, and subsequently unsatisfactory exam and class scores due to alcohol abuse.
Underage Drinking Risks and Consequences
Binge drinking does not only involve college students. Regrettably, alcohol abuse and underage drinking have 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 that, “In 2015, 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 that their alcohol tolerance is usually much less, and that binge drinking is more likely to occur. 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 in any shape or form. 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 is combatting the binge drinking epidemic as a public health issue by providing statistical data in preventing the heavy consumption of alcohol. Through conducting studies, 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 and 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, to prevent excessive alcohol consumption, has compiled together a list of recommended several alcohol intervention methods the community should take it upon themselves to enforce:
- Increasing alcohol taxes
- Regulation of alcohol outlet density
- Dram shop liability
- Maintaining limits on hours of sale
- Electronic screening and brief interventions
- Enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors
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 to understand their alcohol-related illnesses and problems.
In being more conscious of binge drinking and alcohol abuse, healthcare administrators, professionals, and providers can drive awareness to patients. Through this shared knowledge, healthcare professionals and patients can come to the best possible prevention and treatment options for each patient.
How Students and Families Can Prevent Binge Drinking
Parents of families should take it upon themselves to talk with their children about the dangers of alcohol abuse. If parents are well versed in alcohol-related issues, and the proper parenting styles, they can make a significant impact on their children’s decisions toward drinking. Encouraging your children to surround themselves with the right peers, and not giving in to peer pressure, and fostering 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 how much they are spending on alcohol if they are drinking. This data can constantly remind a college student of the realities of binge drinking.