The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as, “a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks, and when women consume four or more drinks, in about two hours.”
Though binge drinkers consume in great quantity, they are typically not alcohol-dependent. While many rely on alcohol to relieve stress or to get over their social anxiety, this does not constitute alcohol dependence.
What Is Alcohol Dependence?
“Alcohol dependent” is a more objective label than “alcoholic,” in that a person is or is not physiologically dependent on alcohol. Statistically, the majority of binge drinkers are not physically dependent upon alcohol. They may be showing signs of psychological dependence and some could be categorized as alcoholics, but generally their bodies can function without alcohol in the bloodstream, and some go months between binges.
More noteworthy is binge drinkers’ patterns of overdrinking when they do drink. They may be able to avoid alcohol for significant periods of time, but when they do drink, they often cannot stop.
Binge drinking and alcoholism are not unrelated, but alcoholism is hard to define. Alcoholism may involve binge drinking, but not all binge drinkers are alcoholics. Many who are not physically dependent upon alcohol are clearly emotionally dependent, and thus may self-identify as alcoholic. It is a subjective category.
This is not to detract from the danger of binge drinking or the unhealthiness of the pattern. It is indeed a disturbing and concerning trend across all age groups and life situations—not just college kids on spring break. While the behavior in and of itself may not immediately suggest alcoholism, it represents an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and an inability or unwillingness to moderate one’s consumption, which can lead to later problems of addiction and psychological dependence, if not physical dependence.
Why Is Binge Drinking A Problem?
While many non-alcoholics will experience episodes of drinking too much too fast (i.e., binge drinking), it need not necessarily be a harbinger of future physical-dependency alcoholism.
Most important is to look at how often the binge drinking is happening and the effect it is having on the drinker’s life. Do binge drinking episodes lead to crime, risk to self and others and other unhealthy behaviors such as casual, unprotected sex, drunken driving or drug use? Are the individual’s drinking patterns jeopardizing his or her personal relationships or professional performance? Are others expressing concern or annoyance at the drinking behaviors?
While binge drinking and alcoholism are not necessarily synonymous, it does not mean that binging is not worrisome. It is not a less harmful alternative to alcoholism nor should the differences between alcoholism and binge drinking be used as a justification for excessive drinking. Binge drinking carries significant dangers, risks and costs, both to drinkers and to the people around them.
Health Problems From Binge Drinking
According to the CDC fact sheet on binge drinking, binge drinking is associated with many of the following health problems.
- Unintentional injuries (e.g., car crashes, falls, burns, drowning)
- Intentional injuries (e.g., firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence)
- Alcohol poisoning
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Unintended pregnancy
- Children born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
- High blood pressure, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases
- Liver disease
- Neurological damage
- Sexual dysfunction
- Poor control of diabetes
People who drink excessively tend to progress in those patterns, gradually drinking more. Levels of alcohol consumption may increase without intentional action. Thus, while binge drinking is not an immediate precursor to alcoholism, binge episodes could increase until alcohol is desired or required daily.
If you suspect that your binge drinking patterns are reaching a disturbing point, you may wish to seek treatment. It is not necessary to progress to alcoholism in order to receive medical intervention.