Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance in the United States. It's widely available, and the culture around drinking encourages people to consume alcohol at parties, events, celebrations and other social gatherings. Peer pressure and other social influences also encourage people to start drinking, which can develop into a more serious condition. Exposure to alcohol at a young age can increase the risk of developing alcohol dependence.
One form of alcohol misuse is known as binge drinking. Learn more about binge drinking below and how it can affect your health and quality of life.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking is the pattern of drinking enough alcohol to raise your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. A person's BAC can be tested through a breath, blood or urine test. Different factors will influence a person's BAC, including age, sex, weight, medications, the number of drinks and how quickly these drinks were consumed.
In the United States, 24% of people over 12 years old participated in binge drinking within the last month. Binge drinking is also rising among older adults and women, creating the potential for alcohol use disorders (AUDs) and severe short-term and long-term effects.
Binge drinking is not the same as an AUD, but it's still just as much of a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 adults binge drink, with 25% of those individuals binge drinking at least once a week.
Signs of Binge Drinking
It's crucial not to dismiss drinking, as the risk of severe physical, mental and emotional problems can increase with time. Familiarizing yourself with the signs can help you identify them in yourself or a loved one so you can prevent further damage and seek help. Some of the signs of binge drinking include:
Going out every weekend and drinking a lot while out
Setting limits on drinking but failing to stay within them, or constantly saying “just one more” despite going past the limit
Blacking out frequently or each time you drink
Exhibiting uncharacteristic behaviors you wouldn't exhibit while sober due to lowered inhibition
Feeling guilty or worried about how much alcohol you're drinking
Developing health problems or complications due to drinking
Consistently binge drinking and being unable to drink in moderation, even if you only drink once or twice a week
Friends and family members expressing worry about your drinking, remarking or suggesting that you should slow down
Experiencing professional or legal ramifications due to drinking
If you're noticing any of these signs in yourself or a loved one, it might be an indication that professional help is necessary. There are plenty of resources available to help you find treatment, reduce the risk of complications and improve your well-being.
Who Is at Risk?
With 66 million people over 12 years old in the United States affected by binge drinking, it's become a notable concern in many communities. Various groups have a higher risk of binge drinking than others. The groups that are at the highest risk include:
Adolescents: Binge drinking in young people between the ages of 12 and 17 has decreased, but 4.9% of preteens and teenagers report binge drinking within the last month. Adolescents are in a crucial stage of their development, and binge drinking can seriously affect their growth and brain development. This age group is also more likely to be susceptible to peer pressure and start drinking due to influence from their friend group.
College students: The majority of college students are between 18 and 22 years old, the age group with the highest binge drinking rate. College students binge drink at a higher rate — 33% — than young people of the same age who don't attend college — 27.7%. When young adults go off to college, they're no longer around their parents and are more likely to participate in risk-taking behaviors. Colleges also have a drinking culture, especially in fraternities, sororities and schools with high-profile sports programs.
Older adults: Ten percent of older adults over the age of 65 have participated in binge drinking within the last month, and the number is on the rise. The increased risk factor for this age group is particularly concerning since many older adults take medications that have dangerous interactions with alcohol. Binge drinking can also make certain conditions worse and make older adults more susceptible to falls or other alcohol-related injuries.
Women:Alcohol misuse among women is rising, including binge drinking. Women who participate in binge drinking have an average of three episodes per month, consuming five drinks during each episode. Women also have a higher risk of developing health problems due to alcohol misuse. This is because of various biological factors, such as weighing less than men, having less water in the body and requiring less alcohol to reach a BAC of 0.08%.
It's important to note that men are twice as likely to binge drink than women, but women's rate of binge drinking is increasing, putting them at a significant risk for developing alcohol dependence and other health conditions.
The Short-Term Effects
When you finish your first drink, you'll start to feel the effects within five to 10 minutes. The liver breaks down the majority of alcohol, but the remainder is expelled through the kidneys, lungs and sweat. An average-sized person can only break down one drink per hour. If a person drinks more than the body can process within this hour, their BAC will increase, and they'll start to feel more of the effects of alcohol. The speed at which you drink will also affect your BAC, as well as the food content in your stomach, your body type, sex and age.
One of the most dangerous short-term effects of binge drinking is lowered inhibition, which causes people to engage in risk-taking behaviors. These behaviors include driving while intoxicated, sexual risks or violence, and physical violence. Binge drinking can also suppress the gag reflex, causing choking or suffocation. Alcohol poisoning also becomes a possibility.
Acute inflammation: Various organs can become inflamed and irritated, even from a single night of heavy drinking. These organs include the pancreas, stomach and liver. When these organs are inflamed or irritated, their function is impacted, and it might become more challenging for the body to filter alcohol from the system.
Weakened immune system:Alcohol hinders immune cells responsible for healing in many parts of the body. Even drinking excess alcohol once can suppress your immune system and make you susceptible to illness or infection.
Dehydration:Alcohol is a diuretic that forces your kidneys to produce more urine and flush more water from your system than necessary. This can cause you to become dehydrated, which impacts your kidneys. You might experience low sodium, potassium and other nutrient levels, which can be potentially dangerous.
Unsafe sex: Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, making it more likely for you to engage in reckless behavior. When you binge drink, you might participate in unprotected sex, making you vulnerable to diseases spread through sex. These diseases and infections can be uncomfortable to dangerous, and certain conditions can compromise your immune system.
Pancreas effects: One of the short-term effects of binge drinking is dangerously low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. This condition can cause various symptoms, including heart palpitations, confusion, nausea, anxiety and tremors.
Heart effects: Drinking can have various effects on the heart, including an increased or irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and even heart failure.
Many of these short-term effects can go away once the alcohol has left the system and you've recovered, but some effects can last for a lifetime.
The Long-Term Effects
The more you binge drink, the longer the effects will last, which can develop into severe long-term effects. The long-term effects of alcohol misuse are well documented, and binge drinking can make the effects appear sooner than for someone who drinks in moderation daily.
Some of the long-term effects of binge drinking include:
Increased risk for various cancers: Binge drinking can put you at a higher risk for certain cancers, including liver, throat, esophageal and colorectal cancer. Women who binge drink are also at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Even drinking in moderation can increase the risk of breast cancer in many women, especially if they have a family history.
Increased risk for alcohol-related diseases: Apart from cancer, binge drinking is responsible for other alcohol-related conditions. Alcoholic liver disease can leave the liver inflamed, impairing its ability to filter alcohol from the system. It can also cause alcoholic cirrhosis, which leaves scar tissue on the liver and, in many cases, permanently impairs its function.
Suppressed immune system: Just one night of heavy binge drinking can weaken the immune system for up to 24 hours. Long-term binge drinking can suppress the immune system further, increasing the risk of disease and infection. Chronic binge drinking can also lead to anemia — a low number of red blood cells — which can cause weakness, fatigue and even fainting.
Cardiovascular impairment: Heavy alcohol consumption affects the heart in many ways. Heart cells can become permanently damaged, causing high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and other abnormalities. Chronic binge drinking can also increase the risk of heart failure, heart attack and stroke.
Impaired balance and coordination: Chronic binge drinking can have a lasting effect on a person's balance and coordination. This increases the likelihood of dangerous falls or other accidents. Alcohol consumption also affects the bones and muscles, impacting the body's ability to absorb calcium. This hinders bone formation and can cause osteoporosis.
Mental health problems: Binge drinking can seriously impact a person's mental health. Long-term effects include a high risk for depression, anxiety and psychosis. Continuing to drink can further develop these conditions and make stressful situations more challenging to deal with.
Fertility complications and lowered sex drive: Heavy drinking can affect fertility, making it more difficult to conceive. Men who binge drink regularly may also experience a decreased sex drive or performance difficulties, impacting their confidence and self-esteem.
The short- and long-term effects of binge drinking can affect a person's physical, mental and emotional well-being. However, these aren't the only potential effects of binge drinking. There are a host of other risks associated with binge drinking, such as:
Suicide: People who are heavy drinkers are five times more likely to commit suicide than those who only drink socially. Part of the reason for this is that heavy alcohol consumption can trigger feelings of depression — or occur as a result of depression — and lower inhibitions, making a person more likely to act out on irrational thoughts.
Legal trouble: Heavy drinking can cause people to commit various crimes, such as driving under the influence. Law enforcement will get involved, and in many cases, the offense will go on a person's permanent record. This can create trouble when looking for a job or finding housing.
AUD: Binge drinking can lead to the development of an AUD, which can cause additional challenges in a person's life. They'll likely continue to drink heavily but on a more frequent basis, increasing the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol consumption.
Professional and social relationships: Binge drinking can affect a person's ability to perform at work and cause tension with friends and family. They may fall behind on their responsibilities and continue to drink, despite the consequences.
Brain development: The brain doesn't stop developing until 21 to 25 years old. Adolescents or young adults who drink alcohol can hinder their brain development, causing impaired memory and attention problems.
Learn More About How Diamond House Detox Can Help With Binge Drinking
Binge drinking can severely affect your physical, mental and emotional well-being. If you or a loved one are experiencing any signs or health effects of binge drinking, it's time to seek treatment. At Diamond House Detox, we can help you overcome alcohol dependence and improve your quality of life. We offer incidental medical services, including medically assisted detox, to help you recover in a comfortable and sober environment. Our in-house medical providers can adjust your medications as needed.
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.