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It’s a wide spread issue.

If you drink alcohol, you’ve likely woken up with a hangover at some point in your life. Excessive drinking in a short period of time can lead to a host of adverse health effects the morning after. This can include headaches, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, just to name a few. You may even have trouble remembering how you made it home, or found that you’ve left your credit card at the bar again. 

But when does the occasional hangover start to tread into more dangerous territory that results in liver disease or worse? Binge drinking, or consuming too much alcohol, is a common problem in the U.S. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be having one too many one too many times recently, learning more about alcohol misuse can help inform your next step.

In this article, we’ll define how many alcoholic drinks is too much, explore the signs of alcohol abuse to look out for, and discuss addiction treatment and options for those who may need them.

What is binge drinking?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent or higher. 

An individual’s BAC refers to the percentage of alcohol in their blood at a given time. In the U.S., 0.08 is considered legally intoxicated. But what is a “pattern,” and at what point does a preponderance for binge drinks turn into something dangerous?

The definition is different for men and women

It’s important to understand that drinking alcohol impacts everyone differently. Body weight, metabolism and other factors depend on how efficiently we process alcohol. 

For women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in the span of two hours – which is the typical amount of time and alcohol it takes to reach the 0.08 metric. For men, drinking five or more drinks in the same time frame is considered binge drinking. 

It’s essential to understand binge drinkers in the context of drink strength as well. Different alcoholic beverages contain varying amounts of alcohol. In the United States, one drink equates to any beverage that contains 0.6 ounces of alcohol. 

Typical examples can include:

  • 5 oz of wine (12% alcohol content)
  • 8 oz of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
  • 12 oz of beer (5% alcohol content)
  • 1.5 oz of 80-proof liquor (40% alcohol content)

Binge drinking and alcohol use disorder 

When defining binge drinking, it’s also essential to keep in mind what binge drinking does not mean. Alcoholism, known today as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), is defined as a condition in which a person has a physical need or compulsion to drink alcohol despite the negative impact it has on the person’s life. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines AUD as a “problem drinking that becomes severe.” Binge drinking can eventually lead to Alcohol Use Disorder, but this is not always the case. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90% of people who drink in excess do not fall under the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorders.  

Still, regular binge drinking leads to consequences and should be taken seriously. 

How common is binge drinking and alcohol abuse?

Binge drinking is a prevalent problem across the U.S. – but research shows it significantly impacts young adults (more specifically, college students). One national survey on drug use and health found that 33% of full-time college students reported behavior consistent with binge drinking. 

The same survey found that 4% of preteens and teens ages 12-17 reported having engaged in binge drinking behavior as well. Though not as widespread, binge drinking has also seen an increase in adults over 65 –  10% of them reported binge drinking within the month before the survey. One in four women who took part in the recent survey reported binge drinking, with an average of around three to five binge drinking incidences per month. 

Binge drinking effects

There are both short- and long-term effects associated with binge drinking. Consuming an excessive amount of alcohol can lead to symptoms like headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and others. More seriously, it can result in alcohol poisoning. 

This occurs when a person consumes a severely high amount of alcohol in a short period of time, to the point that the person’s blood-alcohol level is so high it becomes poisonous. A person experiencing alcohol poisoning needs to seek medical care immediately, as this can be a life-threatening condition. 

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include vomiting, irregular breathing and/or confusion. The person experiencing alcohol poisoning may become unresponsive, pass out or go into a coma. 

Blackouts

Binge drinking can also result in blackouts. While many popular movies like “The Hangover” make light of alcohol-related blackouts, in reality this can lead to a host of injuries and unsafe behaviors. 

Alcohol-related blackouts occur after excessive alcohol consumption that impairs the part of the brain responsible for making memories. Depending on how much alcohol they consumed, a person may experience a fragmentary blackout – where bits and pieces of the night are missing from their memory, or an “en bloc” blackout – where memories of a span of hours or the entire night are not made and cannot be remembered. 

Even if you haven’t consumed enough alcoholic beverages to blackout, binge drinking impairs your motor and decision-making skills. This means that binge drinking comes with a higher risk of bodily injury and heightens the risk of poor decision-making that can lead to unsafe situations. 

Alcohol consumption impacts almost all tissue in the body. Because of this, repeatedly drinking to excess can cause damage to the liver and pancreas and increases your risk of liver, breast, colorectal and other types of cancers. 

Binge drinking can even lead to death in some cases. 

Signs you’re binge drinking

Determining whether or not you are a binge drinker may not be as easy as counting up the number of alcoholic beverages you’ve consumed. Here are a few signs you may be a binge drinker.

You don’t drink in moderation

You don’t drink alcohol frequently, but it’s in excess when you do. If you find yourself justifying the amount of alcohol you consume with the point that you don’t often go out, this could be a sign that binge drinking is an issue for you.

You consistently wake up feeling hungover or ill after a night of drinking

how to stop binge drinking
(Tim Kitchen / Getty)

If every time you drink alcohol, you feel hungover the next day, this could be due to the amount of alcohol you’re consuming. Having a drink or two over the span of a night shouldn’t lead to you feeling ill, vomiting or irritable the next day. If you constantly find yourself hungover after a night of drinking, it could be a sign of binge drinking – and time to pay more attention to the amount of alcohol you’re drinking.

You drink all weekend

Weekends can be a time to let loose and have some fun. But if keeping your alcohol consumption to the weekends means you constantly overdo it, it likely means you’re binge drinking. 

You have trouble remembering the night

You wake up the following day after a night of drinking and can’t remember where you put your keys – only to find them still in your front door. This might seem like a slight misstep or even make for a funny story. But if not remembering details from a night out becomes a pattern, you may be binge drinking. 

You have trouble setting limits

If you constantly find yourself going out for “just one drink” after work or with friends – and it always ends up being far more than just one – this could be a sign of a bad habit. Trying and failing to set limits to how much you’re drinking may mean that the habit has gotten out of hand, and you may want to consider seeking help. 

How to stop binge drinking

Not sure where to start? Here are a few steps to take to help get your binging under control. 

Identify your binge drinking triggers

The first step to stop binge drinking is identifying the motivators behind this behavior. Take stock of who you binge drink with, where you binge drink and when you binge drink. If there’s a particular group of friends or atmosphere where you find yourself most tempted to binge drink, it may be necessary to take some space in order to get your habit under control.

Find healthy coping mechanisms

If you notice a pattern in your binge drinking, explore what feelings are triggering this behavior. If you’re binge drinking in response to a stressful workday, consider methods that may help you unwind. Consider incorporating a run into your post-workday routine. If you find yourself missing the social interaction of being out at a bar, joining a sports league or gym with a friend can be a fun way to connect over a healthier activity. 

Get support from family and friends

Make it known to others in your life that binge drinking is a behavior you’re struggling with and ask for their support to help you change. Having a support system in place is key to shifting a bad habit like this one.

Celebrate small wins

Stopping yourself from binge drinking can be incredibly difficult – especially if it’s a habit you’ve done for a while. It’s easy to focus on failures rather than successes. Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins in your journey to stop binge drinking. 

Setting smaller goals to work toward – like two whole weeks or a month of not binge drinking – can make the overall goal feel less stressful to accomplish. Treat yourself to something fun and rewarding when you reach small milestones. 

Stop drinking alcohol completely

If being around alcohol or setting limits on how many drinks you consume isn’t working for you, cutting alcohol out altogether may actually be a more manageable approach. Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous can help you along in your journey and allow you to hear from others who have managed to quit drinking as well. 

Summary

Binge drinking is a widespread issue that impacts many people in the United States. Regular binge drinking can lead to dangerous and potentially life-threatening issues like alcohol poisoning and can develop into an addiction like Alcohol Use Disorder. 

If binge drinking is an issue for you, there are resources that can help you stop drinking. Sites like Rethinking Drinking or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism are great places to start learning more about binge drinking and to find the help you need. 

And if you’re not quite ready to take that step but value your mental health, perhaps take a gander at some of these mental health quotes to inspire you to prioritize the health of both your body and your mind.