The holidays are a festive time. But binge drinking alcohol can place you and others in harm’s way. What is binge drinking:
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08%—or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter—or more. This typically happens if a woman has four or more drinks, or a man has five or more drinks, within about 2 hours. Research shows that fewer drinks in the same time frame result in the same BAC in youth: only three drinks for girls and three to five drinks for boys, depending on their age and size.
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According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 60 million, or 21.5%, of people in the United States ages 12 and older reported binge drinking during the past month.2,3 Although binge drinking is a concern among all age groups, there are important trends in the following groups.
- Preteens and Teens: Rates of binge drinking among young people have been steadily decreasing in the last decade. Still, according to 2022 data from the Monitoring the Future survey, 2.2% of 8th graders, 5.9% of 10th graders, and 12.6% of 12th graders reported binge drinking in the past 2 weeks.
- Young Adults: Rates of binge drinking among people ages 18 to 22 have been decreasing in the past decade, but remain high. According to the 2021 NSDUH, 49.3% of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and about 27.4% of students engaged in binge drinking during that same time frame.
- Older Adults: Binge drinking is on the rise among older adults—more than 11.4% of adults ages 65 and older reported binge drinking in the past month, and the prevalence is increasing. The increase in this group is of particular concern because many older adults use medications that can interact with alcohol, have health conditions that can be exacerbated by alcohol, and may be more susceptible to alcohol-related falls and other accidental injuries.
- Women: Studies show that among U.S. women who drink, approximately 1 in 4 have engaged in binge drinking in the last month, averaging about three binge episodes per month and five drinks per binge episode. These trends are concerning because women are at increased risk for health problems related to alcohol misuse.
Although drinking any amount of alcohol can carry certain risks, crossing the binge threshold increases the risk of acute harm, such as blackouts and overdoses. Binge drinking also increases the likelihood of unsafe sexual behavior and the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintentional pregnancy. These risks are greater at higher peak levels of consumption. Because of the impairments it produces, binge drinking also increases the likelihood of a host of potentially deadly consequences, including falls, burns, drownings, and car crashes.
Alcohol affects virtually all tissues in the body. Data suggest that even one episode of binge drinking can compromise function of the immune system and lead to acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) in individuals with underlying pancreatic damage. Over time, alcohol misuse, including repeated episodes of binge drinking, contributes to liver and other chronic diseases as well as increases the risk of several types of cancer, including head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancers.
Binge drinking can be deadly. Approximately 140,000 deaths resulted from alcohol misuse annually in the United States between 2015 and 2019, and almost half of those were associated with binge drinking. Binge drinking is also costly. Researchers estimated that binge drinking accounted for 77% of the $249 billion (i.e., $191.1 billion) economic cost of alcohol misuse in 2010.