Binge Drinking: What It Is, Its Health Effects & How to Stop

Ann Schreiber

Ann Schreiber

Medically reviewed by Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Updated on September 03, 2023

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The numbers are staggering: 29.5 million Americans aged 12 and over had alcohol use disorder in the past year, according a national survey on drug use and health.

And, 1 in 6 adults in the U.S. are binge drinkers, 25% of them binge drinking on a weekly basis.

Binge drinking accounts for most cases of excessive alcohol use, and it's distinct from alcoholism and alcohol use disorder (AUD). Learn more about what it is, the health implications of binge drinking, contrasts with alcoholism and strategies to curtail its grip.

What is binge drinking?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. This typically happens when a woman has four or more drinks or a man has five or more within roughly two hours.

Across the United States, the legal limit is 0.08%, according to Forbes.

Is binge drinking alcoholism?

Binge drinking and alcoholism are two different things. But those who engage in binge drinking have a higher risk of alcohol dependency.

"The difference between binge drinking and meeting the clinical diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder is the element of control," said Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer with American Addiction Centers. “Alcohol addiction is partially defined as the inability to cease consumption despite the negative consequences of alcohol intake, the need to consume more to reach the desired effect, and intense cravings."

When it comes to binge drinking, he said, the individual does not experience those symptoms.

“Most of those who binge drink likely are not dependent on alcohol, nor would they meet the diagnostic criteria for an AUD, but they may be more likely to develop one,” Weinstein said.

This distinction is crucial in understanding the relationship between excessive alcohol use and the potential for more profound and lasting effects on one's relationship with alcohol.

Signs of binge drinking

Besides consuming four to five drinks (or more) within two hours, signs of binge drinking include:

  • Frequent blackouts or memory gaps
  • Guilt or worry about excessive drinking
  • Legal troubles linked to alcohol use
  • Fatigue and irritability after drinking
  • Defensiveness about drinking habits
  • Unplanned excessive consumption
  • Early-day drinking
  • Substituting enjoyable activities with drinking or making drinking central to weekend plans

Binge drinking's effects on your health

Excessive alcohol consumption triggers an array of immediate and enduring health hazards, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Short-term health risks include:

  • Injuries such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, burns and drownings
  • Acts of violence, including suicide, homicide, sexual assault and partner violence
  • Alcohol poisoning, an urgent medical crisis linked to elevated blood alcohol levels
  • Risky sexual behaviors leading to unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases like HIV
  • Miscarriages, stillbirths and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) for pregnant women

Long-term health risks include:

  • High blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, liver disease and digestive issues
  • Weakening of the immune system, heightening susceptibility to illnesses
  • Cancers affecting the breast, mouth, esophagus, throat, voice box, colon, liver and rectum
  • Mental health disorders encompassing depression and anxiety
  • Cognitive deficits, memory issues and conditions like dementia
  • Social challenges such as family strife, work-related conflicts and unemployment
  • Alcohol use disorders or alcohol dependence, snaring individuals in a cycle of dependency

How to stop binge drinking

Predominantly prevalent among adults aged 18 to 34, the rate of binge drinking is higher among men than women.

“When it comes to binge drinking, social factors play a significant role in whether a person will drink to excess," writes John Clapp, a professor of behavioral health at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “When people go out with the intention of drinking with other like-minded people, the likelihood of drinking more heavily and drinking across an extended period of time increases significantly.”

Employing self-regulation and mindfulness strategies is essential to reducing risks. Weinstein offered these recommendations to help someone stop binge drinking:

  • Allow only a certain number of drinks per outing.
  • Take stock of when and why binge drinking occurs to see if a pattern exists or if specific issues need to be addressed.
  • Consume water or another alcohol-free beverage while out drinking.
  • Take along a friend who can help keep you accountable and maintain focus on not binge drinking.
  • Have an exit plan, should the temptation to binge become too great. At this point, it may be beneficial to speak to a professional about your relationship with alcohol.

Seek help if binge drinking is out of control

Recognize the signs of excessive binge drinking: frequent blackouts, guilt, legal troubles, fatigue and more. If these signs resonate, remember that help is available. Reclaim control and well-being with resources like:

  • National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for confidential assistance.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Visit SAMHSA's website for information and a treatment locator.
  • Local Support Groups: Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offer support and guidance.

Your journey toward overcoming binge drinking can start today, with accessible resources ready to guide you toward positive change.

SOURCE: Lawrence Weinstein, MD, chief medical officer, American Addiction Centers, Brentwood, Tenn.

References

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States: Age Groups and Demographic Characteristics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Binge Drinking

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Alcohol Use and Your Health

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Understanding Binge Drinking

Cleveland Clinic: What Is Binge Drinking? Signs To Look Out For

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work: How to Reduce Binge Drinking: Strategies for Big Parties or a Night In

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Homepage

Alcoholics Anonymous: Homepage

Forbes: Blood Alcohol Level Chart 2023

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