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Binge Drinking vs Alcoholism: Is There a Difference?

What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is when someone drinks a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time. Their blood alcohol concentration rises faster than the body can process it. 

Binge drinking is identified chemically when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.08%. This is equivalent to consuming five or more drinks within 2 hours for men, or four or more drinks for women.1, 2, 3

In the U.S., a standard drink contains 0.6 ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol which can be found in:4

  • 5 ounces of wine 
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (like rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey)

Binge drinking is just one pattern of alcohol consumption. Others include light, occasional, moderate, and heavy drinking.

Moderate drinking is limiting alcohol intake to two drinks or fewer per day for men, or one drink for women.3

Heavy drinking is defined as:3  

  • Consuming over four drinks per day or over 14 drinks per week for men
  • Consuming over three drinks per day or over seven drinks per week for women
  • Binge drinking for 5 days or more in the past month

While binge drinking is just one of the drinking patterns, it accounts for nearly all excessive drinking. It isn’t uncommon for heavy drinkers to have more than 4 drinks on most nights when they drink. This meets the definition of binge drinking. 

Many adolescents and young adults binge drink on special occasions, a couple of times per month or less, but rarely drink alcohol the rest of the time. This is also considered binge drinking.

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The Relationship Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

Binge drinking may just occur in a single session with lots of drinks, while alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a progressive condition. 

Binge drinking does not always equate to AUD, particularly in younger people without established drinking patterns. But binge drinking can increase the risk of AUD.1, 3

People are diagnosed with AUD if they meet at least 2 of 11 criteria set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5):5

  1. Drinking alcohol in large amounts or for more extended periods than intended
  2. Inability to stop drinking once started 
  3. Intense cravings and urges to drink alcohol 
  4. Spending lots of time getting, consuming, or recovering from drinking
  5. Drinking interferes with work, home, or school obligations
  6. Continue drinking even though it causes relationship problems
  7. Continue drinking even though it causes or aggravates physical or physical problems 
  8. Continue drinking even though it leads to dangerous situations
  9. Giving up important activities to drink
  10. Developing alcohol tolerance (drinking more alcohol to achieve the same effects) 
  11. Developing withdrawal symptoms 

Based on the met criteria, the person’s AUD is classified as mild (two to three), moderate (four to five), or severe (six or more). 

Who Binge Drinks?

Adults are the predominant binge drinkers:1

  • One in six adults in the U.S. binge drinks, with 25% doing so at least weekly
  • Binge drinking is most common among adults who earn at least $75,000 a year, are non-Hispanic White, or live in the Midwest 
  • Binge drinking is roughly twice as common in men than in women

One in four women binge drink roughly three times a month with five drinks per session. Women also have a high risk of alcohol-related health problems.2

Over 10% of senior adults (aged 65 and above) binge drank in the past month. They typically also take medications that may interact with alcohol, have health conditions, and are prone to falls and other injuries.2

Younger people usually drink less often. But if they do, they tend to drink more.

  • People with 12 to 20 years of age account for 4% of alcohol consumed in the U.S. More than 90% of alcohol consumed by young people is through binge drinking.6
  • Around 33% of full-time college students (with ages between 18 and 22 years old) binge drank in the past month. By comparison, roughly 28% of those not enrolled in college binge drank in the past month.2
  • Binge drinking among 12- to 17-year-olds has declined in the last decade. Still, around 5% of teens and preteens engaged in binge drinking in the past month.2
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When is Binge Drinking Considered a Problem?

Consuming any amount of alcohol is risky. But crossing the binge drinking limit further increases the risks. 

Binge drinking becomes problematic when it leads to:1, 2, 3, 7

  • Alcohol poisoning: Confusion, unconsciousness, vomiting, seizures, and pale or clammy are a few signs of alcohol poisoning. It can ultimately lead to brain damage or even death. The person must seek immediate medical attention.
  • Unsafe behavior: Binge drinking may lower inhibition, encouraging people to engage in unsafe behavior. This can lead to accidents (like car crashes) and injuries (like falls). Binge drinking may also promote unsafe sex, increasing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unintended pregnancy.
  • Health problems: Binge drinking is associated with multiple diseases like pancreatitis, liver damage, cancers, and cardiovascular (heart) disease. 
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD): People who binge drink are not automatically alcoholics. However, binge drinking can increase the risk of developing AUD. 
  • Arrested brain development: Binge drinking can alter brain development during the teen and early adult years. It can create adverse and lasting impacts on memory, judgment, control, attention, and other cognitive functions.

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Short- and Long-Term Effects of Binge Drinking

Short-term effects of binge drinking include:1, 4

  • Poor motor control
  • Slower reaction times
  • Shorter attention span
  • Dehydration
  • Sleepiness
  • Depression
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slower breathing
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Accidental injuries (like car crashes, falls, or burns)
  • Violent behavior (which may lead to suicide, homicide, or drug-facilitated sexual assault)
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (caused by engaging in unsafe sex)

Binge drinking may also lead to long-term effects like:1, 4

  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Mental health problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Stroke and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Cancer (like breast, throat, pharynx, esophagus, and colon cancers)
  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in babies
  • Memory and learning problems
  • Social problems (like family and job-related problems)
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD)

Treatment Options for Alcoholism

There are several treatments for alcohol use disorder, including:8, 9  

  • Inpatient rehab: People live in the treatment facility to receive 24/7 care and supervision. This is ideal for people with severe AUD or co-occurring disorders.
  • Outpatient treatment: Less expensive and intensive than inpatient rehab. It allows people to go home and maintain everyday routines during treatment.
  • Medications: Three FDA-approved drugs for AUD treatment are naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate. These drugs can help curb cravings, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse.
  • Behavioral treatments: Therapists offer various types of counseling or “talk therapy” to build motivation, develop coping skills, and prevent relapse. Examples include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and family therapy.
  • 12-Step programs: Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon provide guidance and peer support. These groups conduct meetings for free or at low cost, at convenient times and locations.

People respond differently to treatments. One approach may or may not work for certain people. Consult a health professional to determine the most suitable treatment for your needs.

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Updated on June 16, 2022
9 sources cited
  1. Binge Drinking.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 6, 2022. 
  2. Understanding Binge Drinking.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. December 2021. 
  3. Drinking Levels Defined.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed March 28, 2022.
  4. Alcohol Use and Health.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 29, 2021.
  5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).American Psychiatric Association. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
  6. Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). May 2021.
  7. Watson, L Renee, Marianne Fraser, and Paul Ballas. “College Students and the Dangers of Binge Drinking.University of Rochester Medical Center. Accessed March 28, 2022.
  8. Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). January 2018.
  9. Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). August 2021.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.

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