Is Binge Drinking That Bad?

By Peg Rosen

Binge drinking is so common—especially on college campuses—that it can sometimes seem like that’s just what drinking looks like. With everything you’re juggling in high school or college—sports, school, a job, friends, and more—it may seem like no big deal if every once in a while you leave it all behind by drinking a lot on a night out with friends. 

And it’s likely a lot of your peers are doing it. The majority of people under the age of 21 who drink, binge drink. If it’s not something you do regularly, you may feel like you have more control over your drinking than you actually do. But does occasional binge drinking mean you’re an alcoholic?

Here’s what you need to know.

Alcoholism, Alcohol Use Disorder, and Binge Drinking

First things first: “Alcoholic” is a pretty stigmatizing and extreme term, and substance use experts now use the term “alcohol use disorder” (AUD) to describe when people have trouble controlling their drinking.

 Most people who binge drink—more than a third of college students who consume alcohol—don’t have all the symptoms of AUD and are not physically dependent on alcohol, but binge drinking can put you at higher risk of developing AUD. It is also dangerous on its own, since it dramatically increases your risk of being seriously injured, sexually assaulted, or ending up in an emergency room with alcohol poisoning.

What Qualifies As Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is defined as drinking a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time, bringing the concentration of alcohol in your blood to 0.08 percent. That’s the legal limit for drunk driving in most states. 

How much it takes to reach 0.08 depends on a bunch of factors, such as your gender and weight, whether you are drinking on an empty stomach, and how quickly you drink. It can be hard to know what that amount of alcohol looks like, but this chart from the University of Toledo may help you get a sense of it. 

A drinking binge typically means four or more drinks for an adult female or five or more drinks for a male over a two-hour period. It takes less for younger people—about three to five drinks for boys and three drinks for girls, depending on their size and age.

A drink is considered:

  • One 12-ounce beer
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of liquor (which can be in a mixed drink)

When to Worry About Binge Drinking

You should always be wary of drinking a lot of alcohol, even if it’s only occasionally.  

When you get very drunk, you lose control and judgment. You risk blacking out, serious injury, overdosing, and even death. High-intensity drinking—which brings you to twice the threshold of binge drinking—presents even greater dangers and is particularly common among college students. 

If you’re willing to accept those risks but you still wonder when binge drinking may be part of a bigger alcohol use issue, look out for the following signs:

  • You binge on a regular basis. It’s no longer an occasional  misjudgment but something that happens monthly or even weekly. 
  • Binge drinking has become almost synonymous with socializing. The idea of drinking lightly or not at all just doesn’t seem fun.
  • You start thinking ahead about when you’ll get to binge. You plan for it, and you may even crave it.
  • You’re building tolerance. It takes more than it used to for the buzz you want.
  • You’re blacking out. You wake up not knowing how much you drank, what you did, or how you got home. People tell you about things you did while you were drunk, and you don’t know what they’re talking about.
  • You drink more than you intended. You tell yourself it’ll be a light night or swear you won’t have more than a certain number of drinks, but you sail right past that limit. 
  • You feel physically lousy when you don’t drink. That may be a sign of physical dependence and the withdrawal that comes when you don’t have alcohol in your system. Depending on how heavily you drink, the symptoms can be mild or life-threatening and can include stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, headaches, anxiety, irritability, sweating, and shakiness.
  • You end up in risky situations. You wake up with unexplained bruises or visit the emergency room after drinking too much. Maybe you drive drunk or hook up with people you barely know. Alcohol skews your judgment. Even if nothing terrible has happened yet, consider this behavior a warning sign that it could.

The next time you question your drinking, pause and try to understand the moment. It may happen when you’re heading out to drink or when you wake up wondering what the heck happened the night before. Is there something you wished was different? Do you regret drinking so much? Why do you think you want or need to get wasted? Being aware of your feelings and motivations may encourage you to make some changes. 

Gaining more control doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. There are strategies that can help you cut back and lots of places to get help. You don’t have to be alcohol dependent or officially diagnosed with AUD. As long as you are concerned about your drinking and want to do something about it, there’s support available that’s right for you.

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