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Binge Drinking in College (Risks and How to Say No)

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What is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking occurs when someone consumes excessive alcohol within a short time. For men, this means drinking five or more alcoholic beverages within two hours. For women, it’s consuming four or more drinks within the same timeframe.

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How Common is College Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is very common on college campuses. College students drink, and many are guilty of excessive alcohol consumption.

According to a national survey, more than half of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Approximately 33 percent engaged in binge drinking during that same time frame.1, 2 

Some students responding to the survey reported drinking far more than the number of drinks that qualifies as a binge.

Why Do College Students Binge Drink?

There are many reasons why college students may choose to binge drink. For some, it may be a way to cope with the stress of college life. Others may drink to fit in with their peers or feel pressured. Some students may also view drinking as relaxing and having fun.

There are certain groups of people who are more likely to engage in binge drinking while in college.

This includes young adults:

  • Already struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction
  • With a family history of alcoholism
  • Who are under a great deal of stress
  • Dealing with social pressure and around other young adults who drink often

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), students are most at risk of engaging in binge drinking during the first six weeks of their freshman year. This is because of student expectations and social pressures they face at the beginning of the academic year.2

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Risks and Consequences of Binge Drinking in College

Binge drinking puts young adults at risk of various issues, including:

Alcohol Intoxication

Drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period can lead to alcohol overdose or intoxication. This is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. 

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include vomiting, seizures, slow breathing, and low body temperature.

Health Complications

Binge drinking puts someone at risk for both short and long-term health complications.

The short-term risks of binge drinking include:

Impaired Judgment and Decision-making

When intoxicated, you're more likely to make poor decisions. This includes engaging in risky behaviors like driving under the influence or having unprotected sex.

Blackouts

Drinking too much alcohol can cause you to lose consciousness or have memory gaps (blackouts). You may not remember what you did while drinking, which can put you at risk for accidents or injury.

Dehydration

Alcohol is a diuretic. It causes your body to lose fluids. This can lead to dehydration, which causes headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.

Gastrointestinal Problems

Drinking can irritate your stomach and lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Weakened Immunity

Alcohol can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.

Increased Stress

Many consider alcohol relaxing, but it increases your stress levels. This can exacerbate anxiety and depression.

Trouble Sleeping

Drinking can interfere with your sleep, leading to insomnia or poor-quality sleep.

Weight Gain

Alcohol contains empty calories that can contribute to weight gain.

Safety Risks and Legal Problems

People who binge have a higher risk of involvement in car crashes, drunk-driving arrests, sexual assault, and injuries.

Fatalities

According to recent data from the NIAAA, more than 1500 college students ages 18 to 24 died from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.2

The long-term risks of binge drinking include:

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to control one’s drinking, persistent unhealthy drinking behaviors, and severe alcohol-related problems.

People with AUD often have a strong urge to drink alcohol and find it difficult to stop or control their drinking. They may also continue to drink alcohol even when it causes problems in their life. 

Drinking early and often, especially in excess, increases someone’s risk of AUD.

Liver Damage

Alcohol is metabolized in the liver and can cause cell death and inflammation. In addition, binge drinking can lead to fatty liver disease, further damaging the liver.

Heart Disease

This is because it can cause high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. Binge drinking can also damage the heart muscle, increasing the risk of heart failure.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can be acute or chronic. Acute means it comes on suddenly and lasts for a short period. Chronic develops over time and can last for months or even years.

Binge drinking is a major risk factor for developing pancreatitis. Heavy alcohol use is the most common cause of pancreatitis. Drinking large amounts of alcohol over a short time can overwhelm the pancreas and cause it to become inflamed.

Certain Cancers

Alcohol is a known carcinogen. That means that it can directly damage cells and DNA, which can lead to the development of cancer.

Binge drinking also leads to inflammation and oxidative stress, which can also damage cells and DNA.

Additionally, binge drinking increases the levels of certain hormones in the body, which can promote the growth of cancer cells.

Brain Damage

There are many reasons why binge drinking can damage the brain. First, alcohol is a toxic substance that kills brain cells.

Second, drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short time causes oxygen deprivation, which can damage brain cells.

Finally, binge drinking leads to dehydration, which can cause the brain to swell and puts pressure on delicate blood vessels.

Social Problems

Job loss, financial problems, and relationship issues are all common for people who overindulge in alcohol.

Poor School Performance

Binge drinking takes a toll on most students' academic performance. For some, drinking becomes more important than attending class or studying.

Someone’s dedication to schoolwork significantly affects whether or not they pass a class. Failing means having to retake the class – something that can cost thousands of dollars more than the original cost of tuition. Failing also delays graduation.

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How to Say No to Binge Drinking

There are a few things you can do to try to avoid binge drinking. For example:

  • Before, during, and after a night out, stay hydrated and avoid trigger foods that make you want to drink
  • Set a limit for how many drinks you’ll have in an evening
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic beverages
  • Ask a trusted friend to monitor your drinking

Remember that it's okay to say no to alcohol, even if everyone else around you is drinking. Your health is more important than fitting in.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, reducing binge drinking on college campuses is best achieved through changes in lifestyle and environment. These interventions work together to maximize positive effects.2 

Summary

Binge drinking describes the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol within a short time (four to five drinks within two hours, depending on gender). College students are especially susceptible to binge drinking due to social pressure and other factors.

Binging puts young adults at risk for a wide variety of short and long-term negative consequences. Understanding these risks and having a plan helps people at risk of binging to avoid doing so.

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Updated on October 31, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, SAMHSA, CBHSQ.” samhsa.gov, 2019.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “College Drinking.” nih.gov, 2021.
  3. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Binge Drinking Tied to Conditions in the College Environment.” hsph.harvard.edu, 2008.
  4. Balodis, Iris M., et al. “Binge Drinking in Undergraduates: Relationships with Sex, Drinking Behaviors, Impulsivity, and the Perceived Effects of Alcohol.” Behavioural Pharmacology, 2009.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC - Fact Sheets-Binge Drinking - Alcohol.” cdc.gov, 2019.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Binge Drinking.” nih.gov, 2020.

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