Can a glass of bourbon or wine with friends set off a dangerous trend? At what point do we go from having a good time to endangering the lives of people around us? With alcohol, the lines between social and binge drinking are sometimes blurry. For many people, having a drink a few times per week can be a way to unwind with friends. However, drinking to excess or being unable to control the amount of alcohol you consume could lead to serious health consequences or problems at work, school, and in personal relationships.
What’s the Difference between Social Drinking and Binge Drinking?
Social drinking can be thought of simply as having a drink with friends. Often, social drinking revolves around the idea of relaxing and enjoying another person’s company, or having a glass of wine at dinner. Many people who drink socially do so only on occasion, and if they do it frequently, they have the ability to limit themselves or stop themselves from becoming drunk. In other words, they are in control of their alcohol consumption.
In contrast, people who binge drink have the ability to control their consumption, but they choose not to. Binge drinking is drinking for the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated by consuming large quantities quickly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks (four for women) in a two-hour time period, so that a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeds 0.08 percent. (CDC, 2010)
Often, people binge drink in social settings—bars, parties, celebrations, or events. But do not mistake binge drinking as the favored pastime of only college co-eds and men watching football games. People binge on alcohol any time they make the decision to drink until they are drunk.
Being a binge drinker does not make a person an alcoholic. However, binge drinking is still alcohol abuse, and may also set up a pattern in which a person can quickly develop a dependence on alcohol.
A 2006 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that young adults ages 18 to 25 are the most likely to have problems with alcohol. The same study says that young adults are more likely to engage in binge drinking. (NIAAA, 2006)
Approximately 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by Americans under the age of 21 is in the form of binge drinking. The story isn’t much different with adults, either: about 75 percent of the alcohol consumed by adults in the United States is done through binge drinking. (CDC, 2010)
What Are the Risks of Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking can cause a battery of serious health problems, both in the short term (after one episode of binge drinking) and in the long-term (if you have prolonged episodes of binge drinking). Alcohol interferes with the brain’s normal functioning, which can lead to impaired judgment and coordination as well as mood changes. Heavy drinking can also cause health complications in the liver, heart, pancreas, and overall immune system.
Some of the long- and short-term effects of binge drinking include:
- accidental injury or death
- blackout, or forgetting events that occurred while you were drinking
- cancer, including breast cancer and cancer of the mouth, esophagus, and liver
- heart muscle damage, which may lead to heart failure
- high blood pressure
- liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
- pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- sudden death as a result of cardiovascular disease
- mood swings
Is There a Safe Amount to Drink?
When it comes to drinking, moderation is important. Of course, abstaining from alcohol completely will also prevent potential problems or complications.
For most adults, moderate alcohol consumption is no more than two drinks a day for men, or one drink for women and people over 65. A “drink” is considered:
- 1.5 ounces of liquor
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
Research has shown that moderate consumption of alcohol may actually have positive health benefits, including lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. However, research has also demonstrated that more is not better. In fact, people who drink too much often increase their risk for health problems, including cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and cancer. (NIAAA)
An important note: Don’t start drinking as a way to prevent future health problems. Research suggests that people who do not drink but decide to start drinking for the health benefits do not actually receive those benefits. In other words, if you don’t drink now, don’t start.