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What is Binge Drinking?

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A common misconception is that individuals who struggle with their alcohol use tend to drink every day. While daily alcohol consumption is very problematic, there are other forms of binge drinking and alcoholism that are sometimes more difficult to identify. Drinking to excess is one such problem. While it may be socially acceptable for individuals in certain demographics, particularly college-aged students, to drink excessively in a single session, this form of drinking presents unique risks and challenges. If you have heard the term “binge drinking” and are curious about what exactly it is, you aren’t alone. Binge drinking is a serious public health issue. At the same time, binge drinking is preventable, and through a full understanding of what binge drinking is you can more readily identify when binge drinking is occurring and what steps can be taken to address this behavior. Fortunately, there are a variety of outpatient alcohol rehab options available for binge drinking. Binge drinking isn’t simply dangerous for the individual that is consuming alcohol. Other people are also impacted by binge drinking. Binge drinking is directly linked to car crashes and driving under the influence, as well as violent crimes such as assault and sexual assault. These activities not only impact the life of the person that has consumed too much alcohol but can also have a devastating effect on the lives of others. As such, it is important that everyone is aware of the warning signs when binge drinking occurs, and understands what resources are available to individuals to help them address their problematic alcohol consumption.

How is Binge Drinking Defined?

If you have ever asked yourself, “what is binge drinking?”, a good place to start is the official definition. Binge drinking can be a confusing concept. One might think that any type of excessive drinking can be considered binge drinking, but this isn’t the case. In order to understand what sets binge drinking apart from other forms of alcohol consumption, let’s take a look at a binge drinking definition. Binge drinking defined consists of drinking to the point where an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is raised to 0.08 g/dL or more. For the average person, this translates to a fairly substantial amount of alcohol within a short period of time.  The average adult male would require nearly 5 alcoholic drinks within a 2 hour time period to reach a BAC of 0.08 g/dL. An average adult female would need to consume approximately 4 drinks to reach that same threshold within the same timeframe. The actual definition of binge drinking has been contested since its inception and remains contested today. One area where the definition is contested is in the threshold required to meet the criteria for binge drinking. The reason for this is because BAC levels can vary substantially between individuals. With a defined requirement to raise BAC up to, or over, 0.08 g/dL, some individuals may drink 5 or more drinks and not have their BAC raised over this amount. While this may not technically meet the definition of binge drinking, many of the long-term health consequences associated with binge drinking will remain. A second important factor in the definition of binge drinking is frequency. When discussing binge drinking, the primary focus is on the quantity of alcohol consumed. To be sure, this is an important factor. However, it is as important to look at how frequently the consumption of alcohol at these levels occurs. By looking closely at the frequency with which an individual binge drinks, the pattern of problematic alcohol consumption is more readily apparent.

Who is at Risk for Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking occurs at all age levels and in all demographics, but there are certain demographics that historically have a higher prevalence of binge drinking. Binge drinking is much more common in younger people than older people and is twice as common in men than women.

Binge Drinking in the 18-34 Population

There are two primary demographics of individuals that are disproportionately more likely to binge drink. These are individuals between the ages of 18-24, commonly known as college-age individuals, and people 25-34. Roughly 25% of people in both ages ranges reported binge drinking, an equivalent of roughly 7 million and 10 million individuals respectively.  The age range between 18-34 represents the largest population of binge drinkers in the United States. This trend has remained over the previous three decades, though there are signs that binge drinking in college-age individuals is decreasing over time. While in 1980 roughly 44% of students self-reported binge drinking in the previous 2-weeks, by 2014 that number had dropped to 35%.

Binge Drinking in the 35 and Older Population

The predominant focus for binge drinking has been on individuals 18-34 due to the fact that nearly half of all binge drinking occurs in this population. At the same time, it is important to recognize that binge drinking affects individuals in all age ranges.  Over 50% of all binge drinks are consumed by individuals over the age of 35, upsetting the narrative that binge drinking is a problem confined to college-age individuals. Of individuals over 35, the population with the highest rate of binge drinking is individuals between the ages of 35-44. In the 35-44 age range, almost 20% of individuals reported binge drinking, equal to roughly 7 million people. In the 45-64 age range, roughly 13%, or 10.5 million people, reported binge drinking.

Sex, Education, and Race

Binge drinking isn’t only more frequent in younger populations but is also more common according to sex, education level, and even race. Individuals with a college education are more likely to binge drink than individuals that attain only a high-school level of education, with roughly 19% of individuals with a college education reporting binge drinking, while only 14% of individuals with a high-school education reporting binge drinking. It should be noted that while individuals with a higher education are more likely to binge drinking, individuals with only a high school education are more likely to consume more binge drinks, with a reported total of 94 binge drinks per year for high-school educated individuals versus 56 binge drinks per year for individuals with a college education. One of the largest variations in binge drinking is between men and women. Men are nearly twice as likely than women to binge drink. In 2015, men accounted for over 72% of binge drinking episodes, totaling roughly 1.4 billion binge drinking episodes. Put another way, men were responsible for 14 billion of the 17.5 billion binge drinks consumed during 2015. This staggering number highlights the disproportionate level of binge drinking that occurs in male populations, but particularly in young male populations. Race must also be factored into any discussion of binge drinking. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 73% of all binge drinks consumed in 2015. Roughly 19% of non-Hispanic whites reported binge drinking. The second highest population of binge drinkers in the United States is American Indians / Alaskan Natives, with around 17% of the population reporting binge drinking. American Indians / Alaskan Natives also accounted for the highest number of binge drinks consumed, with over 100 binge drinks per adult consumed in this population.

What are the Dangers of Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is clearly a problem that affects a wide range of individuals in the United States. The social acceptability of binge drinking, particularly among college-age individuals, masks some of the dangers associated with this problematic pattern of alcohol consumption. Because of this, it is important to take a moment to understand the dangers that binge drinking poses. Gaining a better understanding of these dangers can help individuals make a more informed decision about their level of alcohol consumption and the frequency with which they consume alcohol.  The consequences associated with binge drinking are far more wide-reaching than you might initially think. There are physical consequences, legal consequences, cognitive consequences, and a higher prevalence of alcohol-use disorder (AUD) among individuals who binge drink. Here are some of the most common consequences of binge drinking:

  • Greater likelihood of driving under the influence, or riding with a driver who has been drinking alcohol.
  • Binge drinkers are four times as likely to be physically injured.
  • Greater risk of sexual assault.
  • More likely to engage in risky sexual behavior (unplanned sex or unprotected sex).
  • Increased likelihood of violence, including homicide, suicide, and assault.
  • Failure to meet work or school responsibilities.
  • Binge drinkers take more sick days, resulting in a loss of productivity.
  • Lower overall physical and mental health.
  • Higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation.
  • Higher rates of certain cancers.
  • Increased prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Increased likelihood of experiencing a loss of memory (blackouts).
  • Higher rates of sexually-transmitted diseases.
  • Binge drinking may result in damage to the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. 

What emerges from an examination of the consequences associated with binge drinking is a broad pattern of negative long-term effects throughout the life of the individual who is binge drinking. Physically, binge drinkers are more likely to be injured as a result of their drinking. They are more likely to be involved in violence, either as a victim or perpetrator. Sexual assault is a particular risk associated with binge drinking. The social consequences associated with binge drinking are important to highlight as well. Binge drinkers are less productive and less reliable, impacting not only their professional and academic success but also the US economy as a whole. According to a 2010 study, the annual cost of binge drinking to the economy as a whole was roughly $191 billion.  Socially, heavy drinkers are more likely to experience interpersonal conflict and violence than non-drinkers. Binge drinkers also report higher instances of depression and suicidal thoughts than non-drinkers. One study found that increased binge drinking during young adulthood resulted in higher rates of depression nearly 5 years after the binge drinking occurred. Binge drinkers are more likely to fall behind on schoolwork, miss work, or fail at meeting their interpersonal obligations and commitments.  The social acceptability of binge drinking obscures the direct relationship between problematic alcohol consumption like binge drinking and the risk of developing an alcohol-use disorder (AUD). Young binge drinkers have AUD scores over twice as high as individuals who do not meet the criteria of binge drinking. Additionally, heavy drinkers are more likely to consume significantly more alcohol in a single session than non-binge drinkers. It is not uncommon for a small percentage of binge drinkers to consume 10 or more drinks in a single session.  These problematic drinking patterns increase the rates of AUD among binge drinking populations. It is estimated that between 14-24% of college students meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and between 15-29% experience withdrawal symptoms from alcohol. 

Closing Thoughts

Binge drinking is widely thought of as an important public health issue. The economic toll of binge drinking alone, totaling over $190 billion dollars a year, is staggering. The prevalence of binge drinking in the United States is equally shocking. In 2015, over 17 billion binge drinks were consumed. This is an average of roughly 76 binge drinks per adult in the United States annually, or 470 binge drinks per binge drinker each year.  Binge drinking is defined as consuming enough alcohol in a short period of time to raise your BAC to 0.08 g/dL or higher. This takes the average adult male 5 alcoholic beverages within a 2 hour time period, or the average adult female 4 drinks within the same time period. Binge drinking is much more common in males than females, with males consuming over three-quarters of all binge drinks annually.  Although binge drinking is commonly thought of as solely affecting college-age students, over half of all binge drinks consumed in the United States are consumed by individuals over the age of 35. This should not hide the fact that individuals between the ages of 18-34 account for the highest rates of binge drinking, and are the focus of many of the preventative measures taken to reduce binge drinking. Far from being a benign phenomenon, binge drinking has a large number of negative consequences. Binge drinkers are more likely to suffer from physical violence or injury, take more sick days, and are more likely to fail to meet their social and work obligations. Binge drinking is also directly related to significantly higher rates of developing AUD, with nearly a quarter of college-age individuals meeting the criteria for substance abuse. Due to the risk that is associated with binge drinking, it is important to recognize the signs of binge drinking early on. Addressing this problematic drinking behavior early can help individuals avoid some of the most damaging negative consequences associated with frequent binge drinking. Our Apex San Diego Rehab Center has on-site professionals that are specially trained to help address binge drinking. To find out more about what types of binge drinking treatment options are available for binge drinking, please contact Apex Recovery today.


  4. Krieger, Heather, Chelsie M. Young, Amber M. Anthenien, and Clayton Neighbors. “The Epidemiology of Binge Drinking Among College-Age Individuals in the United States.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews 39, no. 1 (January 2018): 23.
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