What is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption within a short period of time. It’s more common than you think, and it can be prevented with the right tools and support.
Binge drinking is a very common drinking habit, even in those who don’t meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. Many people who binge drink can go days without drinking, but when they do drink, they drink in high volumes and in quick succession. Binge drinking is often associated with social drinking and drinking games, but it can happen in a variety of different environments.
I started binge drinking in college and continued throughout my 20s. In my circles, it was normal to drink a large amount of alcohol. High-intensity drinking games were routine for us. Binge drinking didn’t seem over the top because everyone else was drinking that way too. Only after I quit drinking did I realize how dangerous it was.
How Many Drinks Constitutes Binge Drinking?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as consuming approximately five or more alcoholic drinks in under two hours for men or four or more drinks in under two hours for women.
It’s important to recognize what ‘one drink’ means. A standard drink in the United States consists of about 14g of alcohol. A 12 fl oz can of beer, a 5 fl oz glass of wine, and a 1.5 fl oz shot of distilled spirits are all considered ‘one standard drink.’ To put this into perspective: A standard bottle of wine (750ml) contains about five 5 oz drinks. If you consume an entire bottle of wine in one sitting, it would be considered binge drinking.
Binge Drinking Demographics: How Common Is it?
When most people think of binge drinking they picture college students on spring break. Despite these assumptions, binge drinking is more prevalent than you might think.
It’s true that adults aged 18-34 are more likely to binge drink than other groups. That said, binge drinking is increasing among older adults. One study found over 10% of adults 65 or older reported binge drinking in the past month, and these rates are climbing.2 Other studies show that one in six of adults in the United States binge drink. Out of these individuals who do binge drink, 25% report binge drinking at least weekly. Out of the population of US adults who drink excessively, an overwhelming 90% of them participate in binge drinking.
There are a few other demographics to be aware of. Binge drinking is more common in men than women and among adults with household incomes of $75,000+. It is also more common among those who are non-Hispanic White, and those who live in the Midwest.
What Are the Effects of Binge Drinking?
When you drink high amounts of alcohol in short periods of time, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises quickly. This is because your body can only process approximately one drink per hour. When your BAC is high, many of your bodily functions shut down, causing the short-term symptoms we often associate with being ‘drunk’. Consistently binge drinking can also cause more permanent damage on the body, resulting in long-term effects.
Short Term Effects
- Physical problems like dehydration, nausea, vomiting, or headaches
- Increased risk of violence and injuries
- Memory gaps (blackouts)
- Difficulties with concentration, impaired decision-making, and slower reflexes
- Increased heart rate
- Impaired vision
- Risk of alcohol poisoning
Long Term Effects
- Increased mental health challenges like anxiety and depression
- Weakened immune system
- Increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases
- Liver damage
- Long-term memory impairment, like alcohol-induced dementia
- High blood pressure
- Chronic gastrointestinal issues
Risks of Binge Drinking
Not only can binge drinking impact your physical abilities and long-term health, but it can also lead to dangerous situations that put both you and others at risk. Some of these consequences can include:
- Unsafe sexual encounters
- Relationship problems
- Accidental injuries
- Financial strain
- Problems at work
- Risky behaviors
- Shame and regret from behavior while intoxicated
- Increased risky behaviors, like driving under the influence
- Participation in activities you wouldn’t otherwise
I was a binge drinker from the very beginning. I had many negative consequences that may have been obvious to others, but I didn’t see my drinking as a problem. The effects of my drinking were similar to those of people around me. It wasn’t until my drinking affected my parenting at age 30 that I decided to stop.
Binge Drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder
People who binge drink have a higher risk of alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by drinking more than you intend to for longer than you intend to. Binge drinking doesn’t necessarily mean you have alcohol use disorder, but it’s a sign that your relationship with alcohol may have become unhealthy and that, without intervention, you may develop AUD.
AUD is diagnosed on a spectrum. Anyone meeting two of the eleven criteria during a 12-month period would receive a diagnosis of AUD. The severity of AUD—mild, moderate, or severe—is based on the number of criteria met. Alcohol use disorder is now the agreed upon term by the medical community, as opposed to other labels like alcohol abuse, dependency, or alcoholism.
It’s important to remember that AUD is a medical condition, not a moral failing. Just like many other medical conditions, there are treatment options that can help you get the relief you deserve.
How to Prevent Binge Drinking
Although common, binge drinking is entirely preventable. There are things we can do both on the individual level and within our communities to empower a healthier relationship with alcohol. Here are a few ways to get started:
Find Activities That Don’t Involve Drinking
Believe it or not, you can be social without alcohol. You don’t “need” to have drinks to have a good time. It’s much easier said than done, especially if that’s what you’re used to doing. But with time, it will feel more normal, and you might start to look forward to creating these authentic memories without alcohol. Try planning daytime sober activities, or look for local events that are not alcohol-centered.
Surround Yourself With Like-Minded People
Have you heard the saying, “if you hang out at the barber shop long enough, you’ll get a haircut?” If you spend time around people who binge drink, you’re more likely to join because you don’t want to feel left out. Surrounding yourself with people who support your goals or joining a sober community can help you stay accountable and encouraged.
Support Group: Managing your drinking post-quarantine
Seek Professional Support
We don’t have to have all the answers ourselves. Speaking with a therapist or physician is a great way to get professional guidance and treatment. There is medication to stop drinking that can help reduce alcohol cravings as you work to change your drinking. And in alcohol therapy, you can learn strategies for reducing your alcohol intake while addressing co-occuring conditions like anxiety and depression.
Taking care of yourself should be most important, yet many of us struggle to prioritize it. Creating small habits can make a huge difference in our overall wellbeing. When we feel better, we’re less likely to crave an escape through binge drinking.
Here are some self-care ideas to incorporate into daily life:
- Move your body regularly. Go for a walk, do morning yoga, or join a gym.
- Stay nourished. Drink enough water, eat nutritious foods, and treat yourself too!
- Do more of what you enjoy. Find new hobbies and participate in meaningful events.
- Give back. It feels good to help others. Find local places that need volunteers.
- Get enough rest. Take breaks from work, and take naps if you’re tired.
- Be mindful of screen time. Give your brain a break for a few hours each day.
- Get outside. Breathe fresh air. Let the sun shine on you. Find peace in nature.
The culture around excessive drinking is already changing, and we each can play a role in creating a society with healthier boundaries when it comes to alcohol. Start the conversation with your friends or family, and share this article with them. The best way to learn and create change is by sharing experiences and having open conversations. Our future generations depend on it.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Binge Drinking, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm.” Accessed Feb 14th, 2023.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Binge Drinking, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/binge-drinking.” Accessed Feb 14th, 2023.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use in the United States, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/NIAAA_Alcohol_Facts_and_Stats_2.pdf.” Accessed Feb 14th, 2023.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder.” Accessed Feb 14th, 2023.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What Is a Standard Drink, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink.” Accessed Feb 14th, 2023.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Binge Drinking Among Adults, by Select Characteristics and State — United States, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7041a2.htm?s_cid=mm7041a2_w.” Accessed Feb 14th, 2023.