What is Binge Drinking?

According to the CDC, binge drinking is a serious but preventable public health problem.

Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. Binge drinking is defined as consuming 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women.

Most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder. However, binge drinking is a harmful risk behavior associated with serious injuries and multiple diseases. It is also associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorder. One in six US adults binge drinks, with 25% doing so at least weekly. Binge drinking is just one pattern of excessive drinking, but it accounts for nearly all excessive drinking. Over 90% of US adults who drink excessively report binge drinking.

Common Signs of Binge Drinking

  • Drinking 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for men or 4 or more drinks in 2 hours for women.
  • 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)

Health Effects of Binge Drinking

While 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. Alcohol misuse, including repeated episodes of binge drinking, over time contributes to liver and other chronic diseases, as well as increases in the risk of several types of cancer, including head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancers.

Binge drinking can be deadly. Roughly 95,000 deaths resulted from alcohol misuse in the United States between 2011 and 2015, and almost half (46 percent) were associated with binge drinking. Binge drinking also is costly. Researchers estimated that binge drinking accounted for 77 percent ($191.1 billion) of the $249 billion economic cost of alcohol misuse in 2010.

How to Stop Binge Drinking

People binge drink for various reasons. Different strategies will work for different people when it comes to quitting binge drinking. If you or someone you care about wants to quit binge drinking, you might consider one or more of the following ways to stop binge drinking :

  • 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 Reframe, Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery help members abstain. Alcohol rehab programs, such as 28-or 30-day, 60-day and 90-day residential/inpatient programs and outpatient programs, 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. 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. 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.