At the time of the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there were almost 140 million current drinkers of alcohol, and more than 40 percent were classified as binge drinkers. This means that they drank at least five drinks in a sitting at least once in the month prior to the survey being conducted. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) classifies a “drink” in the following manner:
- One beer: 12 ounces of a beer with 5 percent, or less, alcohol content
- One glass of table wine: 5 ounces of a wine containing 12 percent alcohol or less
- One malt liquor drink: an 8- or 9-ounce glass of malt liquor that is 7 percent alcohol or less
- One shot of distilled spirits: 1.5 ounces of an 80-proof, or 40 percent alcohol, spirit
Men and women metabolize alcohol differently, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as bringing a person’s blood alcohol concentration, called BAC, to above 0.08 g/dL, which typically means five or more drinks for a man ,and four or more for a woman, within a two-hour period. Hormones and differences in levels of water and body fat between women and men may play a role in why alcohol is absorbed and metabolized differently.
Body mass and how much food a person ate prior to drinking can also influence the rate of alcohol metabolism and therefore the potential negative effects of binge drinking, as can a person’s genetic makeup and any medical or mental health conditions that may be present. Alcohol may stay in a woman’s body longer and have a more damaging effect on the body’s organs even though men are more likely to drink in larger quantities than women, the CDC reports.
Additionally, one out of every two women between the ages of 18 and 44 (considered the age for childbearing) drink alcohol, 15 percent binge drink, and over 7.5 percent drank while pregnant, the CDC states. Alcohol passes directly through the body to the placenta and can cause a variety of problems for an unborn baby, including birth defects like fetal alcohol syndrome, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or cause a miscarriage. Binge drinking causes alcohol intoxication, which can have a range of potential consequences and side effects.
Who Binge Drinks
According to the CDC, the most common form of extreme alcohol use in the United States is binge drinking. Those between the ages of 18 and 34 most commonly engage in binge drinking, although individuals over the age of 65 appear to binge drink more regularly.
When it comes to binge drinking, college students may often come to mind; however, the CDC reports that around 70 percent of binge drinking is actually done by those over the age of 25. Young people are binge drinking as well though. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey published in 2014 found that 20 percent of high school seniors reported binge drinking in the past month. Men are more than twice as likely to be the culprits of binge drinking than women, and the CDC states that 63 percent of American adult men report a binge drinking episode in the month before being surveyed.
Binge drinking can raise a person’s aggression level and increase episodes of self-harm through suicide as well as assault and violence directed at others, especially in men. Binge drinking can be a particularly harmful method of alcohol consumption, increasing both physical and emotional health risks.
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Potential Side Effects After Binge Drinking
Alcohol is a socially acceptable, and legal for those over the age of 21, mind-altering substance that may be safely used in moderation. It is a central nervous system depressant that reduces the body’s stress response by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which acts as a natural tranquilizer and lowers anxiety levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. Dopamine levels, which are pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters, are also raised with the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream. When people drink, they likely feel happy and relaxed.
As levels of alcohol increase and more alcohol is consumed, alcohol can begin to impair a person’s ability to think clearly and make good decisions, as well as motor coordination and reflexes. Inhibitions are lowered, making a person more likely to engage in behaviors that they normally wouldn’t engage in. Risk-taking behaviors may increase, leading to hazardous sexual encounters, potentially resulting in unwanted pregnancy or the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis.
Accidents and injuries are also common side effects of alcohol intoxication or impairment. In 2013, more than 10,000 Americans were killed as a result of an alcohol-impaired motor vehicle crash, the CDC reports. Crime rates and violent behaviors also increase with alcohol consumption, as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD) reports that alcohol is a contributing factor in 40 percent of all violent crimes.
Binge drinking accounts for more than three-quarters of the almost $250 billion dollar price tag attached to excessive drinking in the United States. This total consists of the costs associated with lost work production, health care, and criminal justice and legal expenses in 2010, the CDC publishes.
Binge drinking regularly can lead to heavy drinking which is eight or more drinks a week for a woman, and 15 or more drinks in a week for a man, the CDCreports. Chronic episodes of heavy drinking may lead to a dependence on alcohol. Alcohol dependence impacts a person in both physical and psychological ways. Someone who is dependent on alcohol will likely suffer difficult withdrawal symptoms when alcohol isn’t present in the bloodstream.
Alcohol dependence often morphs into addiction when the compulsion for alcohol takes over, and an individual no longer controls the amount or frequency of drinking. Alcohol addiction not only negatively impacts a person’s family life, personal relationships, grades at school, production or attendance at work, and emotional wellbeing; it can also increase the risks for developing certain kinds of cancers, like esophageal, throat, mouth, larynx, breast, or liver cancer. Kidney and liver failure and disease are common side effects of alcohol addiction as are cardiovascular problems, issues controlling blood sugar and pancreatitis, increased risk for stroke, stomach ulcers, potential brain damage, high blood pressure, heart attack, and a weakened immune system. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 17 million American adults battle an alcohol use disorder, and close to 90,000 people die each year due to excessive alcohol abuse.
Signs of an alcohol overdose include:
- Trouble breathing
- Bluish tinge to skin or lips
- Cold to the touch
- Extreme confusion
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulties staying awake
- Weak pulse and slow heart rate
One of the most dangerous short-term side effects of binge drinking is the potential for an overdose on alcohol. This is caused by alcohol poisoning when ethanol, the active chemical in alcohol, is no longer able to be safely broken down by the body. The CDCreports that there are, on average, about six alcohol poisoning fatalities each day in the United States.
The risk for a fatal alcohol overdose increase when alcohol is mixed with other drugs, especially central nervous system depressants like opioids and benzodiazepines. Mental health or medical conditions can also increase the potential hazards of overdose.
Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency, and immediate medical attention is needed. Prompt medical care may be able to reverse some of the damage done by binge drinking.
If you, or someone you loved, engage in regular binge drinking, professional help may be needed to stop.
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