Binge Drinking Effects, Risks & Dangers
Binge drinking is a potentially dangerous pattern of ingesting large quantities of alcohol over a short period of time. In the U.S., binge drinking is a serious public health concern, especially among college-age adults (ages 18-to-22). Roughly 40% of college students in the U.S. report binge drinking.1
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Binge Drinking Definition
Binge drinking is the consumption of large amounts of alcohol over 2 hours or less resulting in a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or 0.08 grams per deciliter of alcohol or higher.2
For men, a BAC of 0.08% or 0.08 grams per deciliter of alcohol or higher is often reached after drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks.2 For women, it typically occurs after drinking 4 or more alcoholic drinks.2 Though BAC most commonly refers to the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood, such standardized levels of intoxication can be estimated through both blood and breathalyzer tests. In one’s blood, BAC is the measurement of the weight of ethanol in grams per deciliter of blood.3 In one’s breath, BAC is the measurement of the weight of ethanol in grams per 210 liters of breath.3
People may subjectively experience alcohol intoxication differently for several reasons, including how much alcohol they consistently drink, their subsequent level of alcohol tolerance, individual differences in alcohol metabolism, additional substance use, and more. In turn, this variability can make BAC and the number of drinks someone has had an inconsistent indicator of intoxication or drunkenness.3
Binge Drinking & Alcohol Abuse: Signs of a Problem
Although not everyone who binge drinks has an alcohol abuse problem, binge drinking can increase a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD).4 AUD’s diagnosis is based on characteristic patterns of problematic alcohol use to have taken place during a 12-month period. Several of these diagnostic criteria include:5
- Having strong cravings for alcohol.
- Inability to cut down on alcohol use.
- Significant efforts to get alcohol, drink alcohol, or an increased amount of time needed to recover from drinking alcohol.
- Alcohol use causes an inability to complete tasks at home, school, and/or work.
- Using alcohol despite alcohol causing social and interpersonal issues.
- Avoiding social, work, and other activities due to alcohol use.
- Continued use of alcohol in hazardous situations such as while driving.
- Use of alcohol despite having health or psychological issues related to alcohol use.
- Alcohol tolerance, which is shown by the need to use more alcohol to feel its desired effects.
- Withdrawal symptoms when one attempts to stop using alcohol.
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Is Binge Drinking Considered Alcoholism?
Binge drinking does not necessarily mean that a person is an alcoholic or suffers from severe AUD.6 However, binge drinking may increase the risk of a person developing AUD sometime in their life. Monitoring how a person uses alcohol, including the amount of alcohol consumed, may help determine if a person is binge drinking.7
Causes & Risk Factors for Binge Drinking
Several sociological and psychological factors may contribute to binge drinking. These factors include:8,9,10
- Living or socializing in a drinking culture such as at some colleges or in families with heavy drinkers.
- Peer pressure, especially among young adults.
- Low cost of and easy access to alcohol.
- Having poor coping skills.
- Experiencing trauma(s).
- Low educational goals.
- Depression and anxiety.
Health Impacts & Negative Effects of Binge Drinking
The physical effects and mental repercussions of alcoholism can be devastating. Alcohol is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.11 Each year, approximately 88,000 people (62,000 men and 26,000 women) in the U.S. die from alcohol-related causes. An estimated 9,967 people die from alcohol-impaired driving fatalities each year in the U.S.11
Binge drinking is associated with several short-term and long-term physical and mental health effects from alcohol. Some of the potential short-term health impacts and other negative consequences of binge drinking include:6
- Injuries from car accidents, falls, and burns.
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Domestic violence, homicide, suicide, and sexual assault.
- Unsafe/unprotected sexual activity.
- Sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy.
- Weakened immune system.
- Issues during childbirth, birth defects, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
- Cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure, stroke, cardiomyopathy.
- Liver disease including alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.
- Increased risk of colon, breast, mouth, throat, esophageal, and liver cancer.
Is Occasional Binge Drinking Okay?
Binge drinking can harm a person’s health – even when only done occasionally. No amount of alcohol consumption is safe. Still, one can take some steps to increase the safety of alcohol consumption, including:12
- Limiting the amount of alcohol consumed on any one occasion.
- Spreading drinks out evenly during the week instead of drinking heavily on 1 or 2 nights.
- Having several alcoholic beverage-free days per week.
- Drinking alcohol slowly and alternating alcoholic drinks with water and food.
- Not drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.
How to Stop Binge Drinking
There are various options for those who wish to stop binge drinking as part of an alcohol use disorder. Treatment for binge drinking can vary greatly given different providers and patient needs. Talking with a doctor, mental health professional, or other addiction treatment provider may be a helpful first step in seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder involving binge drinking.
Treatment options for alcohol use disorder include:16
- Medical detoxification.
- FDA-approved medications such as naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate.
- Behavioral therapies (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT).
- Outpatient rehabilitation.
- Inpatient rehabilitation.
- 12-step programs.
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- Lannoy, S., Duka, T., Carbia, C., Billieux, J., Fontesse, S., Dormal, V.,…Sullivan, E. (2021). Emotional processes in binge drinking: A systematic review and perspective. Clinical Psychology Review, 84(1), 1 – 27.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Binge Drinking.
- Student Well-Being McDonald Center. (2021). Blood alcohol concentration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Drinking levels defined.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). Substance-related disorders: Alcohol-related disorders (pp. 490 – 497). American Psychiatric Association Publishing, Washington; DC
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
- Gowin, J., Sloan, M., Stangl, B., Vatsalya, V., & Ramchandani, V. (2017). Vulnerability for Alcohol Use Disorder and Rate of Alcohol Consumption. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 174(11), 1094 – 1011.
- Dir, A., Bell, R., Adams, Z., & Hulvershorn, L. (2017). Gender differences in risk factors for adolescent binge drinking and implications for intervention and prevention. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 8(289), 1 – 17.
- Keatley, D., Ferguson, E., Lonsdale, A., & Hagger, M. (2017). Lay understanding of the causes of binge drinking in the United Kingdom and Australia: a network diagram approach. Health Education Research, 32(1), 33 – 47.
- Vargas-Martinez, A., Trapero-Bertran, M., & Lima-Serrano, M. (2020). Social, economic, and family factors associated with binge drinking in Spanish adolescents. BioMed Central Public Health, 20(1), 1 – 11.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Alcohol facts and statistics.
- La Fauci, V., Squeri, R., Spataro, P., Genovese, C., Laudani, N., & Alessi, V. (2019). Young people, young adults, and binge drinking. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, 60(4), E376 – E385.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Dietary guidelines for alcohol.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Drinking levels defined.
- S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs. (2005). Drinking in America: Myths, realities, and prevention policy.
- Niami, T., Brewer, R., Mokdad, A., Denny, C., Serdula, M., & Marks, J. (2003). Binge drinking among US adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 289(1), 70 – 75.