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Binge Drinking: Effects, Risks, and Dangers of Binge Drinking

5 min read · 7 sections
Binge drinking is a form of excessive alcohol use and a significant problem in the United States. In fact, roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults between the ages of 20 and 49 die from causes related to excessive drinking every year.1 So let’s take a closer look at this practice, including its effects, related dangers, and potential treatment options.
What you will learn:
Effects and dangers of binge drinking.
Relationship between binge drinking, overdose, and alcohol use disorder.
Treatment options for alcohol misuse, including naltrexone.

What Is Binge Drinking?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that increases your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to roughly 0.08 grams per deciliter. While alcohol affects everyone differently, this 0.08 level is typically achieved with 5 standard drinks in 2 hours for men and 4 drinks in 2 hours for women.2

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol that put those measures into perspective. The CDC recommends that if adults choose to drink, they should do so in moderation, defined as a daily consumption of 2 or fewer standard drinks for men and 1 or fewer for women.3

Based on this data, a significant number of people in the U.S. don’t drink in moderation. According to data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), of those 12 and older 47.5% (i.e., more than 133 million people) drank alcohol in the past month and 21.5% of this age group (i.e., 60 million people) were binge drinkers.4 CDC data further reveals that 25% of binge drinkers participate in binge drinking at least weekly on average, and 25% consume at least 8 drinks during a binge.1

Binge Drinking Signs and Symptoms

Aside from the obvious indications of rapid alcohol consumption, there are additional telltale signs that someone may have engaged in binge drinking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers the following typical and predictable effects of a 0.08 BAC for most people:5

  • Poor muscle coordination, including impaired balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing.
  • Difficulty detecting danger.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Impaired self-control and increased impulsivity.
  • Poor reasoning skills.
  • Memory impairment.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Impaired ability to process information.
  • Impaired sensory perception.

Effects of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking can lead to a number of short- and long-term effects on your physical and mental health. Acute effects are generally dose dependent, with risks increasing along with higher quantities of alcohol and more frequent binges.6 Note, however, that even a single episode of heavy or binge drinking is associated with heart rhythm disturbances and potentially fatal cardiovascular events.7

Short-Term Effects of Drinking

The following data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows various short-term effects of alcohol and the respective BAC levels at which these effects are typically experienced:8

  • Mild speech, coordination, attention, and balance impairment (0.0—0.05%).
  • Sleepiness (0.0—0.05%).
  • Perceived beneficial effects such as relaxation (0.0—0.05%).
  • Increased risk of aggression in some people (0.06—0.15%).
  • Moderate speech, coordination, attention, and balance impairment (0.06—0.15%).
  • Significantly impaired driving skills (0.06—0.15%).
  • Increased risk of injury to self and others (0.06—0.15%).
  • Moderate memory impairment. (0.06—0.15%).
  • Severe speech, coordination, attention, and balance impairment (0.16—0.30%).
  • Unsafe driving impairment (0.16—0.30%).
  • Dangerously compromised judgment and decision-making capabilities (0.16—0.30%).
  • Vomiting and other signs of alcohol overdose (0.16—0.30%).
  • Loss of consciousness (0.16—0.30% and 0.31-0.45%).
  • Life-threatening overdose toxicity (0.31-0.45%).
  • Significant risk of death via suppression of vital functions in most users (0.31-0.45%).

Binge Drinking: Blackouts and Overdose

Binge drinking can increase your risk of alcohol-related blackouts and overdose.2 An alcohol-induced blackout is when someone experiences gaps in their memory during a period when they were intoxicated. Unlike passing out (aka syncope), which is when someone becomes unconscious as a result of alcohol use, a blackout involves memory loss during a time when the individual is still conscious, moving around, talking, etc.9

An overdose, on the other hand, happens when there is too much alcohol in the bloodstream and the brain loses control over basic life functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature regulation.8

Alcohol overdose can be dangerous if it is not treated quickly, so it is important to be aware of the following signs of alcohol overdose:8

  • Mental confusion.
  • Difficulty remaining conscious, or difficulty waking from sleep.
  • Dulled responses, e.g., no gag reflex.
  • Vomiting.
  • Slow breathing (i.e., fewer than 8 breaths per minute).
  • Irregular breathing, e.g., 10 seconds or more between breaths.
  • Slow heart rate.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Extremely low body temperature.
  • Blue skin color or paleness.
  • Seizures.

Chronic Conditions Related to Alcohol Misuse and Binge Drinking

Long-term binge drinking and chronic alcohol misuse can lead to the development of a host of chronic diseases and conditions including:10,11

Additional Dangers of Binge Drinking

Regardless of whether binge drinking is a one-time affair or a chronic behavior, it can lead to additional risks such as:10

  • Accidents and injuries (e.g., motor vehicle accidents, drownings, burns, falls, etc.)
  • Violence (e.g., suicide, homicide, intimate partner violence, sexual assault).
  • Risky sexual behavior (e.g., unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, and exposure to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases).
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, miscarriage, and stillbirth among pregnant women.

Binge drinking sometimes takes place in situations that involve other types of substance use. This practice of using two or more substances within a short period of time is called polysubstance use. When polysubstance use involves alcohol, individuals may be at an increased risk of many of the aforementioned hazards. Additionally, the intoxicating effects of multiple substances may be stronger and more unpredictable than a single drug alone. As such, polysubstance use can be deadly.12

Finally, binge drinking can negatively affect your mental and emotional well-being. Based on the findings of several studies, binge drinking is linked to heightened negative emotional states, including greater severity of depression and anxiety and difficulty in recognizing emotional cues of others. Plus, binge drinkers exhibit diminished emotional response compared to those who don’t partake in binge drinking.13

The Connection Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

Most people who engage in binge drinking are not dependent on alcohol, and not everyone who drinks will develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD) (i.e., the clinical term for alcohol addiction).14,15 However, binge drinking still poses a serious threat to your physical and mental health, and it may be an early marker of vulnerability for developing an alcohol use disorder.14,16

What is an alcohol use disorder (AUD)?

To be diagnosed with an AUD, a person must exhibit at least two of the following within a 12-month period:17

  • Alcohol is often consumed in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  • Individuals have a persistent desire or have made unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
  • Individuals experience cravings or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  • Recurrent alcohol use results in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, and/or home.
  • Alcohol use continues despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  • Individuals demonstrate recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  • Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  • Tolerance develops, as defined by either of the following:
    • A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect.
    • A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  • The individual experiences withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
    • The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol.
    • Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Binge Drinking and College Students

College students have higher binge-drinking rates than their non-college peers.18 According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 30% or 10.3 million young adults aged 18-25 participated in past-month binge drinking.19

Other alarming statistics related to binge drinking and college students include the following:18

  • According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 1,500 college students aged 18-24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, like motor vehicle crashes, each year.
  • Nearly 700,000 students aged 18-24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
  • While estimates aren’t exact since so many sexual assaults go unreported, researchers indicate that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault during their time in college—many of these assaults involve alcohol or other substance.
  • Survey results indicate that college students who binge drank alcohol at least 3 times per week were 6 times more likely to perform poorly on a test or a project as a result of drinking than students who drank but never binged. The students who binge drank were also 5 times more likely to miss class.
  • Approximately 15% of full-time college students aged 18-22 meet the criteria for past-year alcohol use disorder in 2022.

The reasons why college students drink vary. For some, drinking is a coping mechanism or a way to deal with the stress and pressures of daily student life. For other students, drinking helps them feel less inhibited and more comfortable in social situations. Still, others are pushing boundaries while living on their own for the first time. And for most students, college life poses a whole lot of firsts when it comes to alcohol—unstructured time, widespread availability to alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults.18

Who might be the most vulnerable to binge drinking in college? It depends on the student. However, freshmen may be at risk for heavy drinking and other alcohol-related consequences because for most, it’s the first time they’re living without their parents and boundaries. Additionally, the Greek system and prominent athletic programs tend to be associated with higher alcohol consumption.18

Can Naltrexone Help Reduce Binge Drinking?

In a word, yes. Naltrexone is an FDA-approved drug for the treatment of both opioid and alcohol use disorders.20

When it comes to its alcohol-related use, naltrexone works by binding to and blocking opioid receptor activation throughout the body. In doing so, naltrexone is thought to blunt some of the rewarding effects of alcohol, potentially reducing cravings to drink or a desire to keep drinking once you have started.20

For those who engage in binge drinking, naltrexone may help to decrease the pleasure that comes from drinking, which could help someone limit the amount they drink at one time. Since it can help to reduce the speed of drinking, it may also work to lower the peak BAC levels achieved during an episode of heavy drinking.21

Naltrexone is typically prescribed after detox has taken place to avoid unpleasant side effects such as nausea and vomiting.20 Keep in mind, however, that naltrexone is only one part of a comprehensive treatment plan for alcohol use disorder. So while naltrexone may be employed during treatment, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider and/or addiction specialist to determine the best form of treatment for your unique needs.

Treatment for Compulsive Binge Drinking

Treatment plans for alcohol misuse are customized for each individual, so there’s no single path to recovery that everyone must follow. That said, treatment for alcohol use disorders that involve binge drinking or other problematic patterns of excessive alcohol use often include detox along with various inpatient and outpatient levels of care. Treatment options include:

Regardless of the treatment format or setting you and your care team select, it is important to stay in treatment for the full length of prescribed care, as doing so may help improve treatment outcomes and promote long-lasting recovery.22

Many facilities, such as several of those under the American Addiction Centers umbrella, offer additional services and/or treatment options related to special populations. For example, AAC options include:

If you or a loved one is struggling with binge drinking or think you might be at risk for an alcohol use disorder, help is available today. Reach out 24/7 to American Addiction Centers at for a free, private consultation. AAC can answer your questions about everything from treatment types to insurance verification and can help you take your first steps toward recovery today.

 

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