Alcohol is an integral part of life in many cultures and countries. People drink on holidays and to celebrate special events, but sometimes things go too far. One drink leads to another, another, and yet another. This kind of over-drinking, both by people with alcohol use disorders and those who normally have healthy drinking patterns, is dangerous and can trigger life-threatening health complications.
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What is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it is drinking an amount of alcohol that leads to a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08. The amount of alcohol and pacing of drinking that leads to a BAC that high depends on individual factors. But generally, it means five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in about two hours.
At a BAC of 0.08, balance, reaction times, speech, vision, and hearing start to be impaired. Reasoning, memory, and the ability to control impulses are also impaired. In other words, binge drinking leads to getting drunk.
It is also important to correct a common myth about a drinking binge. Most people who drink too much at once are not alcoholics, according to the Community Preventive Services Task Force, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The myth that only alcoholics drink a lot in one sitting makes many social drinkers let down their guard when they are around alcohol. Just “one more drink” does not seem so bad because many people believe they can’t binge drink, and that only alcoholics do.
This is a dangerous misconception, and the truth is that many people engage in this harmful type of drinking.
The Immediate Effects of Excessive Alcohol Consumption
The effects of binge drinking have an impact on almost every system in the body. It is more dangerous than drinking lesser amounts and at a slower rate because the body can metabolize and excrete only about one unit of alcohol per hour. What is not processed is left behind in the blood. Alcohol levels start to rise, and all the major organs of the body can be adversely affected.
The severity of binge drinking symptoms varies by individual. For instance, those who have an underlying liver or kidney disease process alcohol more slowly than healthy people. A person’s weight, what they have eaten, and overall health can also have an effect on how alcohol is processed, and how it affects the body. Some of the side effects of drinking to excess include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Uncontrolled urination
- Loss of bowel control
- Difficulty breathing
- Lack of muscle coordination
- Blurred or double vision
- Reduced body temperature
- Elevated blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythms
- Drop in blood-sugar level
- Impairment or loss of judgment
- Loss of consciousness
Why is Binge Drinking Dangerous?
The immediate side effects of binge drinking can cause harm, but repeatedly engaging in this pattern of drinking can also cause long-term damage to health. While drunk, a person may have poor coordination, blurred vision, and impaired judgment, all of which can lead to accidents and risky behaviors. Some of the short-term dangers of binge drinking include:
- Unintentional injuries to self and others (falls, drunken driving, drowning)
- Injuries from sexual or physical assault or domestic violence
- Unwanted pregnancies
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Alcohol poisoning
- Heart failure
- Hemorrhagic stroke
A very serious potential consequence of excessive alcohol consumption is alcohol poisoning. This occurs when a person has consumed so much that his or her blood-alcohol concentration reaches toxic levels. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. As a result, breathing slows down, and the heart rate becomes abnormal. If alcohol poisoning is left untreated, it can be fatal.
Another way that drinking too much can be fatal is by the fact that alcohol inhibits the gag reflex. This is the involuntary mechanism of the body that kicks in, when needed, to prevent choking. Intoxicated people can choke on their vomit.
There are also long-term effects of binge drinking that result from making a habit of consuming excessive alcohol. For instance, a child born to a mother who drank excessively may have fetal alcohol syndrome, a lifelong condition. For the person who engages in frequent excessive drinking, potential health problems include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart Arrhythmia
- Fatty liver disease
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Memory and learning difficulties
- Infections caused by a weakened immune system
- Increased risk of mouth, esophagus, liver, throat, and breast cancer
Binge Drinking Statistics
- More than 38 million adults in the U.S. (one in six) binge drink at least four times per month.
- On average, binge drinkers consume eight drinks per session.
- Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 years binge drink the most.
- Adults aged 65 years and older have the lowest rates of excessive drinking, at just over four percent.
- Men binge drink twice as much as women.
- Most people under the age of 21 who drink engage in binge style drinking.
- Excessive drinking costs the U.S. economy about $191 billion in losses, every year, from health problems, crime, and loss of productivity.
How to Stop Binge Drinking
Drinking to excess can quickly become a bad habit that is hard to stop or manage. Triggers are common, including being around people who drink or having a stressful day at work. Stopping or slowing down drinking, even for people who don’t meet the criteria for a severe alcohol use disorder, can be very challenging. There are several steps individuals can take to resist the urge to binge drink.
Abstain from Alcohol
One way to cut out harmful drinking habits is to give up alcohol entirely. This is not easy to do, and some tips can make it go more smoothly:
- Speak to a doctor first. Some people who binge drink do have a severe problem with alcohol and may need professional help, including guided detox.
- Learn how to manage alcohol cravings. The craving for a drink can quickly derail abstinence.
- Consider going to rehab to learn how to stop drinking successfully. It is essential to keep up with therapy or support groups after completing rehab.
Some individuals may choose to manage a binge drinking problem, not by abstaining completely but by slowing down and better managing alcohol consumption. Drinking quickly builds up a tolerance, so take steps to slow down and savor each drink. This will lead to fewer drinks consumed.
Even when complete abstinence is not the goal, giving up alcohol for a night or two, or for a particular social event that may lead to over-drinking is a healthy choice.
Often, people feel compelled to drink alcohol at social gatherings so that they don’t look out of place. With a glass in hand—with anything in it but alcohol—it is easier to avoid questions about drinking or not drinking.
It is important to try to understand the underlying reasons for excessive drinking. For many people, this leads back to stress and other negative emotions. By avoiding stress when possible and learning healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety, it is easier to say no to a drink, or several.
For both those abstaining and those just trying to cut back, triggers can get in the way. These are people, places, events, or feelings that in the past were followed by drinking and may include:
- Seeing other people drink
- Being in bars and pubs
- Being around alcohol
- Feeling stressed
- Being around an old drinking buddy
- Being unable to manage or bear alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Learning how to quit binge drinking isn’t always easy, but it is so important to change this problematic habit before it causes serious consequences and long-term health problems.