Problem drinking is one of the most pervasive forms of substance abuse in the United States, and it includes alcohol use disorder, heavy drinking, and binge drinking. Any pattern of consuming too much alcohol, whether it is in one sitting or over time, constitutes problem drinking.
All forms of problem drinking are dangerous, but binge drinking is one of the most immediately risky forms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that binge drinking is the most costly, common, and deadly form of alcohol abuse in the nation. Consuming too much alcohol in one sitting can lead to physical harm, alcohol poisoning, coma, seizures, and even death. People who engage in binge drinking on a regular basis are at a very high risk for developing an addiction to alcohol.
What Is Binge Drinking?
The term binge drinking is applied to consuming too many servings of alcohol over the course of one “event,” typically a few hours, to the point that the liver is not able to process the amount of alcohol quickly enough to avoid serious consequences. To understand binge drinking, it is important to understand what constitutes a serving of alcohol:
- One 5-ounce glass of wine
- One 12-ounce serving of beer (a bottle or can)
- One 1.5-ounce serving of liquor (one shot)
The liver can process about one serving of alcohol per hour. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that drinking more than one serving in an hour leads to mild intoxication and a rise in the body’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC). There are some metabolic differences between men and women, so the definition of binge drinking is different by gender; if a woman drinks four or more drinks, or a man drinks five or more drinks, in one two-hour period, it generally raises the BAC to 0.08, which is the legal limit at which it is no longer safe to drive.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that binge drinking is not just one occasion of consuming too much alcohol; rather, binge drinking is experiencing this problem at least once per month.
Although drinking too much can make a person sick the next day with a hangover, and it can lead to serious injury, hospitalization, and even death, most adults in the United States engage in this problematic behavior at some point. The CDC found that:
- One in six adults in the country binge drinks four times per month, or about once per week.
- More than 90 percent of adults report binge drinking at least once in the past month.
- When adults binge drink, they consume eight drinks per binge on average.
- This dangerous form of problem drinking is most common among adults ages 18-34.
- Men binge drink twice as often as women, but it is becoming more societally acceptable for women to binge drink, and it is also being diagnosed more often in women.
- White women are more likely than other ethnic groups to binge drink, with rates increasing 40 percent between 1997 and 2016.
- Adolescents, under age 18, binge more heavily than other age groups, often via “extreme binge drinking,” or consuming up to 15 servings of alcohol in one event.
- Adults over the age of 60 are drinking more alcohol, including binge drinking, which is dangerous when mixed with existing health problems or medications.
Unlike alcohol use disorder and heavy drinking, people who struggle with binge drinking do not consume alcohol every day. They may spend several days away from alcohol, but when they do drink, they typically consume too much, too quickly. This practice is still dangerous, and it can cause acute and chronic problems.
How Harmful Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking causes many serious problems, from accidents to chronic health issues. The CDC reports that some of the most harmful, but common, problems associated with binge drinking include:
- Unintentional accidents like car crashes, falls, head injuries, and burns
- Chronic illnesses like heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and liver disease
- Elevated risk of violence, including suicide, homicide, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault
- Contracting a sexually transmitted infection or becoming pregnant due to risky behavior, blackouts, or being a victim of sexual assault
- Problems during pregnancy, including miscarriage and stillbirth
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or sudden infant death syndrome
- Elevated risk of cancer, especially of the mouth, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast
- Memory and learning problems
- Increased mental illness risk, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and worsening symptoms of other conditions
- Alcohol poisoning
- Alcohol dependence
Binge drinking can take years off a person’s life or cause an acute problem leading to death. This problematic practice costs the US a lot of money in terms of lost worker productivity, healthcare expenditures, criminal justice costs, and other expenses. Problem drinking in general cost the US $249 billion in 2010, of which 77 percent ($191 billion) was related specifically to binge drinking.
Is Binge Drinking a Sign of a Larger Problem?
While not all binge drinking is a sign of a more serious problemwith alcohol – some people may binge drink in social settings unintentionally, for example – studies have linked binge drinking in adolescence and early adulthood to chronic problem drinking later in life. For example, a 2004 longitudinal study reported by SAMHSAfound that males who struggled with binge drinking in adolescence were twice as likely to continue binge drinking in adulthood; females who struggled with adolescent binge drinking were three times as likely to continue this form of alcohol abuse. Teenagers who engage in binge drinking are also 11 times more likely to engage in additional risky behaviors, including consuming other addictive substances like nicotine or marijuana.
Treatment to Overcome Binge Drinking and Alcohol Abuse
A person who engages in binge drinking may not know they have a problem. They may be in denial because they do not drink every day, although they are not in control of their drinking when they do consume alcohol. They may not understand the risks when they begin to drink too much, more often. For people who struggle with this kind of problem drinking, their loved ones may express concern.
Signs that occasional binge drinking is becoming a bigger problem include:
- Feeling irritated when loved ones express worry about drinking
- Inability to cut down on how much alcohol is consumed
- Inability to control how much one drinks during one event
- Craving alcohol and seeking it out more often
- Experiencing hangovers or other illness more often
- Preferring the company of people who drink to those who do not
- Feeling like alcohol is the only way to relieve stress or feel happy
Getting appropriate, evidence-based treatment for problem drinking starts with a visit to an addiction specialist, either a physician or a therapist. A medical diagnosis of alcohol use disorder or problem drinking will guide further treatment, including appropriate medical detox procedures, rehabilitation and therapy, and support group options. Fortunately, as problem drinking is better understood, more treatments are available to help those struggling.