What Is Binge Drinking and Who’s at Risk?

Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% or higher. The number of drinks it takes to reach that level can depend on a person’s body weight, but the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that women would typically need four or more drinks within about two hours to constitute binge drinking, while men would need five or more drinks within that same window. 

What Are the Dangers of Binge Drinking

One in 6 U.S. adults engages in binge drinking, with 25% doing so at least weekly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Binge drinking is nearly twice as common among men than among women, and is most common among younger adults aged 18 to 34.

While people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) may binge drink, most people who binge drink do not have an AUD. 

Alcohol use disorder (AUD): a medical condition diagnosed by a doctor when a person’s drinking causes distress or harm. The condition can range from mild to severe depending on how many symptoms of the AUD are present.

Still, the CDC calls binge drinking “the most common, costly and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use” in the United States. Alcohol use is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, with an estimated 88,000 alcohol-related deaths annually, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA). Alcohol consumption is also one of the four behaviors contributing to a large portion of the country’s chronic disease burden.

The CDC reports that some health risks associated with binge drinking include:

  • Injuries from motor vehicle crashes, falls, burns and alcohol poisoning.
  • Violence including homicide, suicide and sexual assault.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Unintended pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage and stillbirth.
  • Chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and liver disease.
  • Different types of cancer, including breast, liver and colon.
  • Memory and learning problems.

6 Risks of Binge Drinking in College Students

Research shows that college students are among the heaviest users of alcohol. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 33% of college students ages 18 to 22 reported binge drinking in the past month. Public health experts have a number of concerns related to this pattern of excessive alcohol use. 

Alcohol affects the brain. 

A person’s brain continues to develop into their mid-twenties. The misuse of alcohol during adolescence and early adulthood can impact brain development, according to the NIAAA’s interactive body tool for understanding the effects of alcohol. In the short term, alcohol impairs the brain’s ability to control balance, memory, speech and judgment, resulting in a higher chance of injuries or death, blackouts, violence, unsafe sexual behavior and other negative outcomes. Long-term effects of alcohol misuse include problems with memory, sleep and mood.

Alcohol can increase your risk of disease. 

For people ages 18 and older, even one or two alcoholic drinks per day can increase the risk of certain cancers. In its write-up on how alcohol affects the body, the NIAAA explains that “drinking heavily over the years can cause irreversible damage to virtually every organ.” 

Binge drinking can harm your heart. 

The NIAAA also explains that binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can both affect the heart. Alcohol interferes with the heart’s electrical impulses and can cause the heart to beat too rapidly or irregularly. Both binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure and lead to strokes, even in people without coronary heart disease. 

Binge drinking can hurt your stomach. 

Alcohol misuse can cause stomach irritation, ulcers and bleeding. “Alcohol affects the digestive tract, allowing bacteria to escape and circulate in the bloodstream, potentially causing disease. Even a single episode of binge drinking can cause gut leakage,” writes the NIAAA.

Binge drinking can increase the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors. 

A majority of sexual assaults in college involve alcohol or other substances. College students who reported binge drinking in the previous year were more than twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually or have unplanned sex, putting themselves or others at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Alcohol use can affect academic performance. 

About 1 in 4 college students report negative academic consequences from drinking, including missing or falling behind in classes, doing poorly on exams and receiving lower grades.

Public Health Interventions That Address Binge Drinking

Alcohol is the most accessible of all the substances linked to substance abuse. It’s part of many people’s daily routines and many social interactions. And without proper education, increased prevalence in society often leads to increased consumption and the risks associated with substance abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told Yahoo Finance.

“Any drug that’s legal is going to result in much greater damage in terms of the populations than illicit substances,” Volkow said. “Not because they’re more dangerous, but because of their wide access and consumption.”

There are, however, a number of public health policies that have been shown to decrease alcohol consumptionReviewed evidence-based population-level interventions include the following: 

  • Increasing alcohol taxes.
  • Reducing/restricting alcohol promotions and marketing.
  • Limiting alcohol outlet density.
  • Maintaining limits on hours and days of alcohol sales. 
  • Retaining the minimum legal drinking age of 21 years.
  • Enforcing laws prohibiting sales of alcohol to individuals under age 21. 
  • Adopting responsible beverage service training laws.
  • Adopting a 0.05% blood alcohol concentration limit for driving.

Resources for Finding Support for Binge Drinking

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers an extensive array of resources, including an alcohol treatment navigator, short videos on alcohol misuse and tools such as worksheets, calculators and drink tracker cards. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline; 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24/7 information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.

Moderation Management™ is a nonprofit organization that helps people who want to cut back on their drinking through face-to-face meetings, video and phone meetings, chats and private online support communities. Resources include ABSTAR, Moderation Management’s online drink tracker, downloadable blood alcohol concentration (BAC) tables and many other tools to control alcohol consumption

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is perhaps the most well-known program run for and by people in recovery from an alcohol use disorder. For more than 80 years, AA has taught people how to get and remain sober long-term through a 12-step program and meetings throughout the United States that are open to anyone with a desire to stop drinking.

SMART Recovery is a support group for people suffering from varying types of addiction, including alcohol addiction. SMART stands for Self-Management And Recovery Training, and the group bills itself as a science-based, self-empowering approach to overcoming addiction. The organization sponsors face-to-face meetings worldwide, daily online meetings, an online message board and 24/7 chat room. Free registration is required to access online resources.

Sunnyside, formerly called Cutback Coach, is an app that offers personalized suggestions for healthier drinking habits based on the results of a short quiz about users’ goals.

CheckUp & Choices is a clinically validated online program that screens people for alcohol use disorder. It provides feedback on individuals’ drinking habits and options for cutting back. 

Ria Health is an online alcohol treatment program staffed by licensed nurses and physicians and covered by some insurance plans. Treatment methods may include counseling and prescribed medications for alcohol use disorder.

NIAAA: College Drinking – Changing the Culture is a robust website focused on underage drinking and binge drinking among college students. Resources for students, parents and college administrators include research, statistics, fact sheets, an interactive tool showing alcohol’s effects on the body, alcohol myths and how to get help. 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to act as a substitute for medical advice. If you or somebody you know is misusing alcohol and needs assistance, please reach out to a licensed health practitioner for help.