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Risks of Binge Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes binge drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption that sharply raises blood alcohol levels over a relatively short time frame. More precisely, this involves an elevation of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dL over the course of two hours—which occurs after approximately 5 drinks for men and 4 for women .1 Among underage drinkers (those under 21 years old), 90 percent of all alcohol is consumed in binge drinking sessions.2 One in six adults in the United States is estimated to binge drink (consuming approximately 7 drinks in one sitting) about 4 times a month.3

People who binge drink expose themselves to various risks, including legal repercussions (e.g., DUI) and alcohol-related health consequences; people who binge drink are also at increased risk of developing an alcohol problem, or alcohol use disorder (AUD).4 Should drinkers lose control of their actions during a binge session, they may become victims of a crime, commit a crime while under the influence, or be involved in a vehicular accident. Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, someone who binge drinks may stop breathing or suffer from alcohol poisoning. While some people are able to drink in moderation without experiencing pronounced health problems, people who regularly binge drink are at increased risk of several significantly detrimental health issues.

Prevalence of Binge Drinking

While binge drinking is most common among college students and other young adults (i.e., 18-34 years), people from all demographics participate in binge drinking.4 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the total number of drinks consumed during binge drinking behavior are done so by men and women older than 35.3

Binge drinking is more common in households with income levels of $75,000 or more than in lower-income households. Men are more likely to binge drink, per the CDC, at a rate that is almost double women.4

Health Effects of Binge Drinking

Excessive drinking can lead to impaired judgment and decision making, lowered impulse control, and memory issues. People who drink too much, too quickly—such as during a binge drinking session—may also be particularly at risk of alcohol overdose. Excessive alcohol can depress a person’s breathing, reaction times, and motor coordination.5 Alcohol overdose (sometimes referred to as alcohol poisoning) can be fatal.

Other signs and symptoms of alcohol overdose may include:5

  • Profoundly altered mental status.
  • Confusion.
  • Vomiting.
  • Breathing problems (slow and/or irregular breaths).
  • Slow pulse.
  • Drop in body temperature.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Loss of consciousness.

People who binge drink often talk about “blacking out,” but these blackouts can be a sign of alcohol poisoning. A person’s blood alcohol concentration continues to go up even after they have stopped drinking or passed out. As a result, attempts to “sleep it off” may result in serious health complications and even death.8

If alcohol poisoning is suspected, emergency medical help may save a life. Call 911 immediately.

In addition to a cumulative risk of alcohol overdose, chronic binge drinking and other forms of excessive alcohol use are associated with several long-term health effects. These include:2,3,5

  • High blood pressure.
  • Increased stroke risk.
  • Other cardiovascular issues such as alcoholic cardiomyopathy, anemia.
  • Liver disease (e.g., alcoholic steatohepatitis, cirrhosis, increased risk of liver cancer).
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Gastritis, gastric/duodenal ulcers.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Chronic vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency and related neurological disease (i.e., Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome).
  • Accidental injuries (e.g., motor vehicle accidents, drowning, etc.).
  • Increased risk of injuries associated with assault, domestic violence, etc.
  • Job issues (e.g., increased risk of unsafe work environment, loss of productivity, etc.)
  • Increased risk of certain infectious diseases (e.g., STDs, infectious pneumonias).
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., head and neck cancers, liver cancer, breast cancer).
  • Sexual dysfunction.

Additional Risks of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking may pose specific risks to adolescents and young adults, ages 18-25—an age group that commonly engages in binge drinking. Active brain development may last until age 25, and binge drinking can impact this development.6,7 In addition, binge drinking can negatively affect decision-making abilities, which may already be somewhat underdeveloped in young adults.

Binge drinking is often associated with driving under the influence while intoxicated. This can result in injury and death, to the driver, passengers, bystanders, and other people on the road. Since judgment is significantly impaired while binge drinking, it is more likely that individuals will engage in risky behavior, and this includes drinking and driving.5

Physically, a person who has consumed several alcoholic drinks in one short drinking session may experience significantly lowered motor coordination and problems with reaction time—essentially, they may lose control of their body, which could lead to physical injuries. Falls and other accidents are more likely, and these can often result in serious injuries. Automatic processes such as the gag reflex may also be diminished; if a person passes out due to binge drinking and then vomits, they may be more likely to choke on their own vomit, suffocate, and even die as a result.5

If a person is unaware of what is happening around them due to drunkenness, they may be more likely to become victims of a crime. They may be sexually or physically assaulted, or they may take part in unintended and unprotected sexual intercourse. As a result, binge drinking brings the heightened risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis, or other sexually transmitted diseases, due to unprotected sex.5,6

 

Alcohol Use Disorder

The NIAAA indicates that women at low risk for developing an alcohol use disorder consume no more than 3 drinks per day and no more than 7 per week and, for men, no more than 4 drinks per day and 14 per week. People who consistently binge drink fall outside of this range, are at relatively increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.1

As mentioned, when young people drink, they tend to drink a lot—more than 90% of the alcohol consumed by young people occurs in the context of binge drinking. Additionally, studies have indicated that people who start drinking before the age of 15 may be 4 times as likely to meet criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in the future.9 Statistics such as these underscore the importance of early intervention and treatment for teens who engage in binge drinking.

People who struggle with alcohol use disorder oftentimes have developed significant physiological alcohol dependence and are at risk of experiencing an unpleasant and, in some cases, dangerous withdrawal syndrome. In these instances, a period of supervised medical detox followed by comprehensive addiction treatment can help ensure a safe and complete recovery.

References

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking Levels Defined.
  2. Foundation for a Drug-Free World. (2015). The Truth About Alcohol—What is Binge Drinking?
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Fact Sheets—Binge Drinking.
  4. Kanny, D., Naimi, T. S., Liu, Y., Lu, H., & Brewer, R. D. (2018). Annual Total Binge Drinks Consumed by U.S. Adults, 2015American journal of preventive medicine54(4), 486–496.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
  6. University of Rochester Medical Center. College Students and the Dangers of Binge Drinking.
  7. Hiller-Sturmhöfel, S., Swartzwelder, H.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol’s Effects on the Adolescent Brain—What Can Be Learned from Animal Models.
  8. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Alcohol poisoning.
  9. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). Underage Drinking.
About The Contributor
Scot Thomas, M.D.
Senior Medical Editor, American Addiction Centers
Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating... Read More