Binge drinking is a serious health problem that can lead to the development of addiction and dependence. It can also be life-threatening. Yet, it is also a preventable problem. A good understanding of what binge drinking is, why it occurs, and how to prevent it can make a big difference in the lives of many people, especially college students. Binge drinking in college is not normal, expected, or safe behavior. It often comes with long-term consequences.
Binge drinking is considered the most costly and common form of excessive alcohol use in the country, and it is the deadliest, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While many college students drink, and they have the right to do so, binge drinking is not okay as it puts your future on the line.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking occurs when a person drinks a large number of alcoholic beverages within a short amount of time. For men, that’s 5 or more drinks on a single occasion or 4 or more drinks for women. When this is done within 2 or so hours, it creates a high concentration of alcohol in the body.
When a person drinks alcohol at a fast rate like this, their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will rise quickly, reaching 0.08% or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter or more.
Imagine sitting down to watch a game with friends. Consuming more than 5 drinks for men or 4 drinks for women within that span of a game is considered binge drinking. The same applies to going to a bar to hang out with friends.
Binge drinking is harmful behavior that is often associated with serious injuries as well as the onset of various diseases. Most people who binge drink do not have an alcohol use disorder (though it can form over time if a person continues to engage in it.) Yet, there are other consequences.
Do you think it’s uncommon? Consider a few statistics from the CDC.
- Each year, adults consume 17 billion binge drinks, which is about 467 drinks for each person that engages in this type of drinking. 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. who engage in binge drinking consume at least 8 drinks during that sitting – far above the minimum.
- Men are far more likely to binge drink, with 4 out of 5 binge drinks being consumed by men.
- Those who are 21 or younger and report binge drinking tend to report consuming large amounts of alcohol in one sitting.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides some insight into who binge drinks. Of those who are between the ages of 18 and 22, 27.7% of them not enrolled in college full-time report binge drinking. However, 33% of college students in that age group report they’ve engaged in binge drinking in the previous month.
Why Do Students Participate in Binge Drinking in College?
Binge drinking in college is not uncommon. In some situations, alcohol consumption could be considered a component of the college experience – something that many people state they engage in. Even considering that, though, you may be wondering why younger people engage in binge drinking, consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time.
Some students come to college with some experience with alcohol consumption, even if they are under 21 years of age. However, many students in a college setting are set up for a better opportunity to drink, and that’s often one of the core reasons many engage in it. Consider a few common reasons:
- Unstructured time: College students often have more time when they are left to do things they want to do or with nothing to do. Unstructured time, such as after classes are over for the day, can create the prime factor in alcohol consumption – boredom. For some students, this is enough to lead to the onset of binge drinking.
- Alcohol availability: College students typically have good access to alcohol. Many have a friend over the age of 21 that can purchase alcohol. While many college campuses work to limit the amount of alcohol on the property, not all campuses are considered “dry,” meaning alcohol isn’t allowed on the property. Because alcohol is readily available, it’s easier to find yourself facing the desire to drink. It’s there and easy to get.
- Drinking laws aren’t always enforced: While it is illegal to sell alcohol to minors in most areas, that doesn’t mean those laws are followed consistently, and when they are not, that makes it easier for younger students to drink.
- Peer pressure: There’s also the desire to keep up with their peers. Some people drink alcohol because their friends are doing so or they are being razed by other college students to drink. This can often lead to a high tolerance level, allowing them to physically drink more each time.
- Less parental oversight: College students are away from home, and often for the first time, they have the freedom to explore the world on their own. With less parental oversight, it may be possible to engage in activities they would otherwise not be able to do.
- Presence of Green systems: Prominent athletic programs and Greek systems may increase the risk of alcohol exposure, according to NIAAA data. Schools with large programs in these areas tend to have the highest rate of student drinkers.
- Living arrangements: Students who commute to school and live with family typically have a low rate of alcohol consumption. By contrast, students living in fraternities and sororities have the highest rate of heavy alcohol consumption.
The NIAAA reports that the first six weeks of a college student’s freshman year are perhaps the highest period of vulnerability, where they have the highest risk of engaging in heavy drinking. This is also when students are most likely to suffer alcohol-related consequences, as many do not know what this type of drinking can mean for them physically.
Why do some students not drink? It could be because parents shared with students the risks associated with binge drinking and provided information on alcohol safety. That doesn’t mean the student never drinks, but they may recognize the risks associated with heavy college drinking and the consequences that often come with it.
The Dangers of Binge Drinking in College
What can go wrong when students engage in binge drinking like this? There are plenty of concerns that can happen. College drinking impacts the student as well as the community itself and their families. Here are some examples of what can occur from NIAAA.
An estimated 1,519 college students die from alcohol-related incidents each year. These are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. They die from motor vehicle accidents as well as other types of conditions, including alcohol poisoning.
Those who are engaged in heavy drinking on college campuses are also at a higher risk of suffering injuries from an assault. Data shows that 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer an assault each year as a result of another student who was drinking. Assaults may occur from physical fights, and some may involve the use of weapons.
Academic problems are more common in students who engage in binge drinking. 1 in 4 college students who engage in this behavior report having academic challenges. This could occur because they are behind in their schoolwork or they are missing a class because they are ill. These students are at a higher risk of performing poorly on tests and projects.
Another high risk for those who binge drink is the higher risk of suffering sexual assault. Alcohol-related sexual assault is very challenging. It is believed that the number of such incidents is underreported on college campuses. However, research indicates that, even with the data that is available, 1 in 5 women on college campuses experience sexual assault during their time at school. The majority of these incidents involve the use of drugs or alcohol. Those who engage in binge drinking may be victims or perpetrators of these sexual assaults.
Those who binge drink are at a higher risk for engaging in risky behaviors due to the way alcohol impacts a person’s inhibitions. This could make a person more likely to get behind the wheel, engage in sex with multiple partners, and have unprotected sex. This can also lead to a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases as well as a higher risk of unintended pregnancy.
The short-term health risks associated with binge drinking, according to CDC data, include the following:
- Violence from aggression
- Alcohol poisoning
- Miscarriage and still birth
There are also long-term health risks associated with the use of alcohol in high doses, especially if it occurs over several years. Those include:
- High blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Liver disease
- Learning and memory problems, often leading to early-onset dementia and poor school performance
- Cancers of the breast, voice box, colon, rectum, liver, throat, and esophagus
- A poor immune system making it more likely that a person will get sick
- Social problems, including difficulty maintaining relationships and employment
- Onset of depression and anxiety
Alcohol use disorder
The development of alcohol use disorder (formally called alcohol addiction) is another key risk factor for many people struggling with binge drinking. The NIAAA reports that 9% of college students that engage in binge drinking develop this disorder. Alcohol use disorder carries its own risks, including a shortened lifespan, the onset of medical complications, and difficulties with quality of life.
Signs of Alcohol Poisoning
Can a person overdose from alcohol? Yes, they can. This is called alcohol poisoning. It occurs when the body has so much alcohol within the bloodstream that the central nervous system (the brain included) cannot function properly. When this happens, it can lead to failures of organs, creating a medical emergency. The heart rate slows down, the body’s temperature falls, and the person stops breathing. If this continues, the lack of oxygen to the brain can lead to a coma, the heart stopping, and death.
Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening condition that many people do not recover from. Time matters. Call 911 if you suspect it may be happening to a friend or anyone else.
The following are some of the most common symptoms of alcohol poisoning, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Slowed breathing (especially less than eight breaths each minute)
- Blue coloring on the skin or lips or very pale skin
- Irregular breathing, sometimes experiencing gaps longer than 10 seconds in breathing rates)
- Passing out, often unable to be woken up
- Drop in body temperature, feeling cold to the touch
- Slowed heart rate
- Loss of responsiveness
In situations where these symptoms are present, a person is likely to be unable to get help for themselves. Like any other drug overdose, it is critical that a person receives immediate medical care. This may include life-saving measures by EMT crews.
Why Is Alcohol Safety Important?
It is never a good idea for those who are under 21 to drink, as that carries legal risks with it as well. However, for those over the legal drinking age, incorporating alcohol safety is critical. That doesn’t mean never having a few drinks with friends or enjoying a beer during a game. It does mean putting more focus on limiting how much you are drinking in a short period of time.
When a person drinks alcohol to the point where they are severely intoxicated, several things can occur:
- Blackouts are more common – a person doesn’t know what happens during these periods
- Other people can take advantage of a binge drinker sexually, physically, financially, and emotionally
- Binge drinking puts a person at a higher risk of getting into an accident that could be fatal
- Cognitive impairment may lead to permanent brain damage, impacting a person’s ability to enjoy a higher quality of life
- Chronic disease development is a concern
- It could result in death from an overdose
With alcohol safety in mind, it may be possible to learn how to drink responsibly, reducing the risk of these negative consequences from occurring.
9 Tips for How to Drink Responsibly
College drinking may not go away, but it is possible for a person to learn how to drink responsibly to minimize the risks of health complications. Here are some tips to do so.
- Know the risks: Educate about the risks of binge drinking on college campuses and among college-aged students. Knowing the risks, many are less likely to engage.
- Limit the amount of alcohol available to any one person: Try to reduce the amount of alcohol that is accessible to prevent people from drinking too much without the intention of doing so.
- Set a limit: Individuals need to practice good self-control, too. That means setting a limit to how much they will drink each hour, such as no more than one or two drinks an hour.
- Skip games: Games that involve taking shots to increase the risk of binge drinking and the consequences that they involve, especially when they are sugar-based or other easy-to-go-down products.
- Encourage and respect not drinking: When a student does not want to engage in alcohol consumption, make sure that’s treated with respect and that the person isn’t going to feel pressure to drink.
- Have a buddy system: Take turns not drinking at events and hold each other accountable for minimizing the risks. Be sure that at least one person is not drinking heavily to minimize the consequences to the other.
- Eat before drinking: This is an important step in protecting the body’s ability to absorb alcohol. Drinking on an empty stomach will increase the speed of intoxication, often requiring less alcohol to reach a high-risk point.
- Drink water between alcoholic drinks: To keep the kidneys functioning, consume a higher amount of water between alcoholic drinks. This may also help to reduce the number of drinks a person is able to take in within a short amount of time. Plan to stay hydrated.
- Just slow down: Why rush through a 12-pack and have the evening ended too soon? Slow down how fast everyone at the event is drinking to reduce the risk of binge drinking occurring.
The most important thing to remember is that binge drinking does not often lead to anything positive. It is expensive, too. Reaching a level of intoxication this quickly often does not feel good, either, and most people pay for it the next day.
For those that have cravings or feel the need to have a drink often, that could be a sign of alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder. Be sure to reach out to a medical professional or on campus substance abuse professionals who can often offer guidance and help to you. Binge drinking can change the path of your life in negative ways for just a few hours of intoxication.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Binge Drinking
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Alcohol Use and Your Health
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – Understanding Binge Drinking
NIH Medline Plus Magazine – How much is too much? 5 things you need to know about binge drinking
College Drinking Changing the Culture – Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose
American Psychological Association – New insights on college drinking
Mayo Clinic – Alcohol poisoning
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – College Drinking