Quitting Binge Drinking
Learn more about binge drinking, including:
- The definition of binge drinking.
- Signs and symptoms of binge drinking.
- Effects and dangers of binge drinking.
- How to get help for binge drinking.
- How to find an alcohol abuse recovery program.
What Is Binge Drinking?
There is disagreement on how much alcohol constitutes binge drinking. For men, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as consuming 5 or more drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days. For women, binge drinking is defined as drinking 4 or more drinks within the same timeframe. 11
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) identifies binge drinking to be when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches .08, which is roughly 5 drinks for men and 4 drinks for women in a 2-hour span of time. 2
This more specific definition accounts for the fact that men and women often metabolize alcohol at different rates because of their different body types.
Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism
Binge drinking differs from an alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction. A diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder is based on the problems that alcohol causes in a user’s life.
Symptoms of an alcohol use disorder may include at least 2 of the following: 3
- Drinking more than intended
- Failed efforts to cut down
- Spending a long time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol
- Failure to uphold responsibilities at home, work, or school because of alcohol
- Cravings for alcohol
- Continuing to drink despite health problems caused or made worse by alcohol
- Continuing to drink despite alcohol having a negative impact on relationships
- Drinking in dangerous situations
- Giving up important activities because of drinking
- Needing larger amounts to get the same effect or experiencing a diminished effect when drinking the same amount
- Withdrawal symptoms upon stopping or drinking to alleviate withdrawal symptoms
People who binge drink may or may not have an alcohol use disorder, depending on the level of impairment and distress alcohol causes in a user’s life. In some cases, long-term binge drinking may lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder. Studies have found that adolescents who binge drink are 3 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder as adults. 1
Binge Drinking Signs and Symptoms
Signs include drinking more than intended and feeling unable to stop drinking.
The signs and symptoms of binge drinking may vary from person to person. Unlike other patterns of alcohol abuse, binge drinking may not be frequent or consistent. However, consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short span of time can still have negative short-and long-term effects on health and functioning.
Common signs of binge drinking may include:
- Drinking 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for men or 4 or more drinks in 2 hours for women. 2
- Drinking more than intended.
- Feeling unable to stop drinking or slow down.
- Blacking out or having gaps in memory while drinking.
- Displaying violent or dangerous behaviors while under the influence (i.e., driving while intoxicated, getting into bar fights, and having unprotected sex).
Effects and Dangers
Episodes of binge drinking can be as detrimental to a person’s health and well-being as consistent, heavy alcohol use. Binge drinking can lead to a number of social and economic consequences as well.
Binge drinking can have serious, negative effects on the brain and body, including: 4, 5
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Heart attack.
- Liver disease.
- Fetal alcohol effects.
- Neurological damage.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Diabetes-related issues.
Binge drinking can also significantly impair a person’s judgment, putting him or her at higher risk of the following problems: 1, 4, 5
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Legal problems, including charges for driving under the influence
- Engaging in risky sexual behaviors
- Contracting sexually transmitted diseases
- Unintended pregnancy
- Being the perpetrator or victim of sexual assault
- Being the perpetrator or victim of physical violence
- Using tobacco and/or other drugs
Long-term use of alcohol can have severe consequences on the brain and body, including: 6
- Weakened heart muscle.
- Irregular heartbeat.
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Liver cancer.
- Chronic pancreatitis.
- Weakened immune system.
- Memory and learning impairments.
- Mood changes.
- Increased risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, and breasts.
How to Help Yourself Stop Drinking
People binge drink for various reasons. Different strategies will work for different people when it comes to beating alcoholism or binge drinking.
If you or someone you care about wants to quit drinking, you might consider one or more the following approaches:
- Change your environment. Think about where, when, and with whom you spend most of your time binge drinking. It can be difficult to cut down on drinking when you are constantly reminded of it. You may find it helpful to avoid certain bars or restaurants, and limit your time socializing with others who also engage in binge drinking.
- Weigh the pros and cons. Any time you try to change a bad habit, your motivation level is likely to vary over time. Keeping a list close by of the reasons why you want to stop binge drinking can keep you motivated to quit.
- Reward your accomplishments. Use positive reinforcement to reach your goal, such as doing something for yourself when you get through a period of time or special event without binge drinking. This reward will help keep you going and set new goals for yourself.
- Enlist family and friends. Support from your family and friends can help you to quit or cut down on your alcohol use. They can also provide praise and other rewards when you do well.
- Consider abstinence. Some people find that quitting alcohol altogether is more manageable than drinking occasionally. Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery help members abstain. Alcohol rehab programs, such as residential/inpatient and outpatient, can also help you reach your abstinence goals.
- Set limits. If abstaining completely from alcohol does not feel right to you, try setting a limit on how much you drink. You might consider reducing the amount you drink, only drinking on certain days or during certain hours, or avoiding particular types of alcohol. Also consider asking family or friends to help you monitor your alcohol intake.
- Finding alternative, healthier ways of coping. Many binge drinkers find that alcohol allows them to cope with negative feelings, such as stress, depression, anxiety, and boredom. Replace alcohol with healthier options, such as exercise, self-care, sports, hobbies, and connecting with others.
- Attend a detox program. When a person who is physically dependent on alcohol attempts to quit, he or she may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. 7 In cases of heavy and frequent drinking, withdrawal can be dangerous and may lead to delirium tremens, which can include seizures, visual hallucinations, confusion, and possibly death. Detoxing under the supervision of a detox program allows for withdrawal symptoms to be closely monitored and managed through medications, if necessary.
- Consider medication. In some cases, doctors may prescribe medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and manage cravings. Medications such as acamprosate, naltrexone, and disulfiram may be prescribed.8 Disulfiram, also known by the brand name Antabuse, causes an unpleasant reaction when users drink alcohol, which can reduce the appeal of alcohol and serve as a motivator to stay sober. You can speak with your doctor to determine if medication is a good treatment for you.
Why Is It So Hard to Stop Drinking?
There are a number of factors that make it hard for people to stop drinking.
- Availability. Alcohol is legal and widely available, especially to people over the age of 21. People who have a problem with alcohol can find it hard to stop because the substance is easy to get, unlike street drugs such as cocaine or heroin.
- Drinking culture. Because alcohol is legal, it is accepted in many different social settings, including parties, networking events, business meetings, social outings, and more. People are exposed to alcohol in these settings, and drinking is seen as a way to help people loosen up and socialize. Peer pressure can be strong, and it can be hard to say no when someone offers you a drink.
- Self-medicating. Many people use alcohol to deal with unresolved mental or emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, and trauma. They begin to rely on alcohol to numb the symptoms of these conditions and have a hard time giving it up as a result.
- Addictiveness. People who drink alcohol on a regular basis can become addicted to it. Drinking becomes compulsive and hard to control, and people may continue to drink to stave off withdrawal symptoms.
Binge Drinking Facts
- In 2015, 66.7 million Americans reported binge drinking in the past month. 11
- That same year, approximately 5.1 million people aged 12 to 20 reported binge drinking in the past month. 11
- Men and women reported closer rates of binge alcohol use than in years before. In 2015, 29.6% of men and 20.5% women over the age of 12 had engaged in binge drinking in the past month. 12
- In 2014, almost 60% of college students ages 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol, and 2 out of 3 college drinkers admitted to binge drinking in the past month. 10 Harmful college drinking has been linked to academic problems, sexual assault, physical violence, involvement with police, and even death.
- The highest rate of binge drinking is among adults ages 18 to 25. 1 The likelihood of binge drinking decreases with age and is lowest among adults over age 65. 5, 9
- Binge drinking can have negative effects on society by affecting work performance, increasing health care expenses, and increasing rates of child abuse and neglect. 4 In 2010, binge drinking cost Americans approximately $191 billion in costs related to loss of productivity, health care services, and crime. 5
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Binge Drinking: Terminology and Patterns of Use.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.) Drinking levels defined.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
. Naimi, T. S., Brewer, R. D., Mokdad, A., Denny, C., Serdula, M. K., & Marks, J. S. (2003). Binge drinking among US adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 289(1), 70-75.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Binge drinking.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Beyond hangovers: Understanding alcohol’s impact on your health. NIH Publication No. 15-7604. Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office.
. McKeon, A., Frye, M. A., & Delanty, N. (2008). The alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 79(8), 854-862.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Medication for the treatment of alcohol use disorder: A brief guide. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4907. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015.
. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). College drinking.
. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016).Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51).
. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016).Result from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables Table 2.46A (HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51).
You are never too old to improve your health and quality of life!