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What Are the Dangers of Binge Drinking?

whiskey_glassAccording to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 87 percent of adults in the US report drinking at some point in their lives. For most of these people, drinking alcohol is an occasional activity that is part of relaxing, celebrating, dining, or socializing.

Not everyone drinks moderately, however. Nearly 25 percent of adults report binge drinking at least once in a given year. Binge drinking is characterized by having a large number of alcoholic drinks in a single, short period of time; generally, this means five or more drinks for men, or four or more drinks for women.

People who binge drink more than five days in a month or who drink heavily more often are at risk of alcohol use disorders and alcohol addiction. However, even one bout of binge drinking can have major risks. It’s important to be aware of these risks and understand the relationship between binge drinking and alcohol use disorders.

Alcohol Effects

The effects of alcohol on the body include:

  • Relaxation of the central nervous system
  • Slowed heart rate and breathing
  • Reduced motor coordination
  • Lessened ability to concentrate
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed response to stimulus

Alcohol’s effects vary depending on the person.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that this can be based on a person’s individual health factors, age, weight, family history, race, cultural origin, how often the person drinks, and how much the person drinks. No matter how an individual is affected by alcohol, increasing the amount of alcohol consumed in a short period of time increases the effects, which can have serious consequences for the individual’s immediate and long-term health.

Short-Term Risks of Binge Drinking

Some people may feel that a one-time binge-drinking episode can’t do much to harm them in the long run. However, research from the Psychological Bulletin indicates that this is not the case. Effects on the brain from binge drinking can be detrimental to cognitive functioning, specifically memory capabilities. In addition, the cycle of bingeing and withdrawing from alcohol can cause increased neurological damage.

With particularly high levels of binge drinking, these can be potentially fatal reactions. As an example, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that binge drinking is more highly associated with alcohol-impaired driving than other forms of drinking. This is a risk for severe automobile accidents; a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that alcohol-related car accident deaths account for more than 30 percent of all driving accident fatalities.

Single incidents of binge drinking can result in severe consequences based on various other factors as well. Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time can result in dangerous physical and behavioral reactions like:

  • Memory blackouts
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors
  • Extreme nervous system suppression that can affect breathing and heart rate
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Accidents
  • Violence

Regular Binge Drinking

As described above, when a person indulges in binge drinking on a regular basis, it can cause problems related to cycles of drinking and withdrawal. A study from Alcohol Alcohol indicates that repeated withdrawal from alcohol contributes to increasing memory problems and decreased cognitive functions.

In addition, regular binge drinking can turn into a pattern that can lead to alcoholism. A recent study by scientists at the Stanford University of Medicine, published in Science Magazine, demonstrates that certain enzymes may contribute to the increased craving for alcohol after binge drinking that can then lead to addiction.

This danger of binge drinking can in turn lead to the dangers of long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism that have profound effects on physical, mental, and social health. For these reasons, binge drinking can actually be considered to be a type of alcohol use disorder and may require intervention to help the person manage the issues that arise around this type of alcohol consumption.

Long-Term Heavy Drinking Risks

The risks of drinking heavily over the long-term include a number of physical, psychological, and societal problems that can have permanent effects on the person who engages in these behaviors. Risks of long-term drinking, as described in an NIAAA Fact Sheet, include:

  • Damage to organs, such as the heart, liver, brain, and pancreas
  • Cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, colon, and breasts
  • Psychological issues
  • Depressed immune system
  • Damage to relationships and social support structures

For these reasons, binge drinking is not to be taken lightly. Even one binge-drinking event can have serious consequences, and multiple events can lead to further physical and mental health issues. Keeping these factors in mind can help people maintain moderation in drinking and avoid problems into the future.

Dangers of Binge Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as excessive alcohol consumption that raises the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08. Typically, this involves drinking four servings of alcohol for women and five servings of alcohol for men in two hours or less. Unfortunately, many people in the US engage in binge drinking, and they do so on a regular basis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in six adults in the United States binge drinks at least four times per month, consuming eight drinks on average during the binge.

Binge drinking brings BAC up to a level at which coordination and decision-making are damaged, and it is unsafe to drive. The body and brain can also suffer harm, especially when binge drinking occurs repeatedly.

Is binge drinking a form of alcoholism?

Not necessarily, although it is an indicator of alcohol use disorder in some people. A study conducted by the CDC surveyed data from 138,100 adults between 2009 and 2011, and found that one in three adults drinks excessively; about 10.5 percent of binge drinkers met the qualifications for alcohol addiction. The study defined alcohol addiction as excessive alcohol ingestion that interfered with work and home life, damaged important relationships, and continued compulsively in spite of legal or financial problems directly caused by drinking too much and too often. While binge drinkers consumed too much alcohol during one event and may binge on alcohol consistently, they did not fit the definition for addiction. That said, binge drinking is still dangerous and problematic.

Can you build a tolerance to alcohol from binge drinking?

Consistent exposure to any drug, including alcohol, will increase the body’s tolerance to the substance; people who binge drink alongside routine heavy drinking (more than seven drinks per week, typically) are more likely to develop tolerance to alcohol. This means they must consume more alcohol to feel intoxicated.

People who primarily binge drink, and do not drink heavily on other occasions, are actually at less risk of developing a tolerance to alcohol. In a study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors in 2012, a group of binge drinkers were compared to nonrisk drinkers. The study measured alcohol’s impairment of motor coordination and found that binge drinkers consistently needed time to reduce their BACs before passing the test; nonrisk drinkers, who moderately consumed alcohol, did not need the same refractory period. Neither group showed acute tolerance to alcohol’s effects.

Tolerance is associated with the routine consumption of large quantities of alcohol, so binge drinking is only associated with tolerance when it is one of many ways a person drinks too much.

Does binge drinking require treatment?

Binge drinking can be a symptom of alcohol use disorder. For example, a person addicted to alcohol might binge if they try to quit and relapse, or if they are unable to get alcohol and then acquire it again; it has also been associated with a compulsive loss of control over how much a person drinks. When binge drinking is part of a larger pattern of problem drinking, the person should seek help to detox from alcohol and then enter a rehabilitation program.

If binge drinking is not associated with other patterns of alcohol use disorder, it can still be dangerous. People who engage in social binge drinking may seek help from a therapist to set better, moderate guidelines for themselves. Self-monitoring and setting goals – for example, only drinking two beverages in any social situation, then consuming water or non-alcohol beverages – are good methods for people who want to stop binge drinking and for those whose doctors tell them to drink less for health reasons.

What can happen if you simultaneously binge drink and take other drugs?

Since alcohol is a legal intoxicant for people ages 21 and older in the US, most adults consume alcohol at some point in life. Mixing alcohol and other drugs, whether prescription or recreational drugs, can cause serious side effects.

When prescription medicines are mixed with alcohol, even in moderate amounts, the substances can combine to increase drowsiness and dizziness, change heart rate and blood pressure, or damage the stomach, intestines, liver, and kidneys. The combination can also make some medicines, like antidepressants, less effective. In some instances, like when combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, the person can increase the sensation of being drunk, which can lead to a dangerous loss of physical coordination and amnesia.

The large amounts of alcohol consumed during binge drinking combined with prescription medications can seriously harm the body and mind, leading to mood swings, ulcers, internal bleeding, and bruises, sprains, or broken bones from falling. The DAWN Report, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), found that the combination of alcohol, benzodiazepines, and/or opioids led to emergency room admittance, a longer hospital stay, and more serious health outcomes than those substances alone.

It is unfortunately common for people who struggle with substance abuse to also consume alcohol. When illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, or heroin are combined with alcohol, the outcome is unpredictable. For example, the THC in marijuana is absorbed faster into the body when a person also drinks, and that can lead to drowsiness, loss of coordination, and paranoia, not a sense of relaxation. Combining alcohol and cocaine increases the risk of heart attacks and aggression.

What binge drinking methods are most harmful?

There are many reasons a person may binge drink, and peer pressure is a contributing factor. For many people, drinking due to stress, depression, or to show off can lead to alcohol poisoning. Methods of binge drinking include:

  • ShotsOne shot of hard liquor is 1.5 fluid ounces, and each serving is roughly 40 percent alcohol. This measurement is standard for bartenders making mixed drinks or serving shots. Taking shots with someone in a social situation, either to loosen up or competitively, can quickly lead to dangerous levels of alcohol in the blood, especially if the round of shots is followed by drinking beer, wine, or mixed drinks.
  • Shotgunning beer: This may also apply to wine or mixed drinks, but most often, “shotgunning” a drink applies to beer. This involves consuming the beverage as fast as possible out of a can, sometimes by cutting a hole in the can rather than drinking from the top.
  • Beer bong or funnel: This involves a simple device made from a funnel and a piece of hose. A person on one end is supposed to drink beer – or other alcoholic beverage, though most often beer – as fast as possible as it is poured into the funnel. The person on the receiving end may consume more than one beer during the process, which could lead to alcohol poisoning.
  • Alcohol enemasThis practice began as a method of absorbing alcohol through other, thinner membranes than those found in the stomach, so the person becomes drunk very quickly. Urban legend holds that this practice prevents vomiting and hangovers; however, vomiting is an important way for the body to reject too much alcohol and potentially avoid alcohol poisoning.

All types of binge drinking are dangerous. Drinking moderately is okay for people who do not have alcohol use disorder, but consuming too much alcohol in one sitting can lead to organ damage and failure because of alcohol poisoning.
Who binge drinks the most?

NIAAA notes that, in 2015, 26.9 percent of adults in the US, ages 18 and older, self-reported that they participated in binge drinking in the prior month. Statistically, men typically drink more than women, and they are more likely to engage in competitive drinking; however, women’s rates of binge drinking are increasing nationally. Non-Hispanic white adults were more likely to engage in binge drinking than Hispanic or African American adults. Young adults, ages 18-24, were more likely to binge drink than other age groups, but those ages 25-34 were right behind (28.2 percent and 27.9 percent, respectively). People with some college education, but who were not college graduates, were the most likely to binge drink (19 percent), and people who made $75,000 per year or more were more likely to binge drink.