Among long-term alcoholics, binge drinking may be reserved to describe a period of continuous alcohol drinking that endures for several days or longer, sometimes called “going on a bender.” More accurately, “binge drinking” describes any day or occasion in which five or more drinks are consumed. Binge drinking can be dangerous. It can occur any day or any weekend among people — especially young adults — who for the most part are not alcoholics. It’s important to call attention to this pattern of drinking, because it is a sign of possible alcohol dependence, because it can lead to other problem behaviors, and because, in the worst case, it may be fatal.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is the consumption of five or more alcoholic drinks in a row, or — according to most experts — four or more drinks for a woman. The size of a “drink” depends on what variety of alcohol you’re drinking. Alcohol in all forms — even beer — is dangerous if you drink enough of it. For example, each of the following has about the same amount of alcohol and has the same effect on your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC):
- A 12-ounce beer or wine cooler
- A 5-ounce glass of white or red wine
- A 2.5-ounce glass of a fortified wine such as sherry or vermouth
- A jigger (1.5 ounces) of 80-proof distilled spirits such as vodka (either straight or in a mixed drink)
- About 4 ounces of a liqueur
“Light” beers may have slightly less alcohol that regular beer. But lower-alcohol products, such as beer, are no safer than hard liquor, such as whiskey, if you consume too much in one sitting. If you are like most people, drinking more than four or five drinks within a few hours will produce a BAC of 0.08 percent or more. (In most states, the legal level is 0.10 BAC.) In other words, you’ll be drunk and too impaired to drive a car. There is clear evidence that impaired judgment actually begins at lower BAC levels, about 0.04 percent. It may be possible to drink five drinks without showing obvious signs of drunkenness if you are a chronic drinker or if you are a big person who spreads your drinking out over five or more hours and eats while you are drinking. Nonetheless, with an exception for people who are chronic long-term drinkers, impairment in your judgment, your reaction time, and your coordination is clearly related to your BAC, and with or without chronic drinking, any bout of heavy drinking can be dangerous.
How Common Is Binge Drinking?
The statistics are alarming. According to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, about 20 percent of Americans aged 12 and older are binge drinkers (that is, they had at least five drinks in a row at least once in the past month). Even more specifically:
- About 30 percent of high school seniors binged in the past two weeks, according to the University of Michigan’s 2001 Monitoring the Future Study.
- About 40 percent of people aged 18 to 25 are binge drinkers, with the highest rates among 21-year-olds (48.2 percent) and full-time college students (43 percent).
- About 40 percent of college students engaged in binge drinking in the past two weeks, according to a survey from the Harvard School of Public Health. College binge-drinking rates are highest among men, whites, students at four-year colleges, residents of fraternity or sorority houses, and athletes.
In good news, however, up to 65 percent of college students — the group with the highest rate of binge drinking — don’t binge. In fact, about 20 percent of college students don’t drink at all.
What Are The Consequences Of Binge Drinking?
In addition to the harmful effects of alcohol itself, people who engage in this pattern of alcohol abuse are more likely to do risky things. Such risky behaviors can put the drinker in danger, and they also can hurt other people. Some of the most extensive data on the consequences of binge drinking come from studies by Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., a Harvard researcher. Wechsler found that alcohol’s effects are most extreme for frequent binge drinkers (his term for those who have binged at least three times in the past two weeks).
|Associated Risks||The Statistics|
|Drunk driving||About 58 percent of frequent college bingers drink and drive, compared with 18 percent of drinkers who don’t binge. And according to U.S. government statistics from 2000, about 1,600 people aged 15 to 20 died in a car crash involving a young driver who had been drinking.|
|Sexual assault||Each year, an estimated 100,000 college women — nearly 4 percent — are forced to have sex while drunk. The rate is more than double for for women who are frequent binge drinkers.|
|Blackouts (memory loss)||Half of frequent bingers and one-quarter of occasional bingers have blackouts after drinking. Duke University researchers found that 10 percent of students had a blackout in the past two weeks and 40 percent had one in the past year as a result of binge drinking.|
|Alcohol poisoning||According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, alcohol poisoning contributes to at least 1,300 deaths in the United States each year. The cause is often asphyxiation, heart attack, or choking on one’s own vomit.|
|Unplanned or unprotected sex||Frequent binge drinkers are likely to have unplanned sex (41 percent) or unprotected sex (21 percent) after drinking. Thus, binge drinking increases the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.|
|Accidents and injuries||According to U.S. government statistics from 2000, almost one-third of pedestrians aged 16 or older killed in traffic crashes were drunk. And Dr. Wechsler reports that more than one in four frequent bingers have been injured while drinking.|
|Property damage||One in four frequent binge drinkers say they have damaged property while drinking.|
|Academic problems||More than 40 percent of frequent binge drinkers say they have gotten behind in schoolwork because of drinking.|
How Can You Avoid Binge Drinking?
If you go to a bar or a party where you know that alcohol will be served, try these tips to avoid excessive drinking:
- Volunteer to be the designated driver, and don’t drink any alcohol. Stick to soda, water or other nonalcoholic beverages.
- If you want to drink alcohol, decide in advance how many drinks you will have, and stick to your limit. To avoid a significant BAC, consume no more than one drink if you are female or two if you are male.
- Pair up with a friend who also wants to avoid drinking too much. Remind each other to stop or switch to soda when you hit your limit. Remember, “just one more” may impair your judgment and make it harder to stop.
- Sip slowly — don’t exceed one drink an hour if you are having more than one drink. Your body continues to absorb alcohol for up to 90 minutes after your last sip, so you may not realize right away how it’s affecting you.
- Never drink on an empty stomach.
- If you have a mixed drink, add more soda and more ice.
- Try not to participate in drinking games or rituals such as drinking through a beer bong or funnel. The intended result is always excessive drinking — and alcohol easily can reach dangerous levels.
- Don’t drink more just because the drinks are cheap or free or because you paid a fixed cover charge.
Finally, remember that most of the pressure you may feel to drink alcohol is internal. If you don’t want to drink, people who care about you will accept that decision. You don’t need to drink to have fun.