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Alcohol Abuse in College Students

College alcoholism is a serious issue in the United States and many other places in the world. Roughly 80 percent of college students ingest alcohol to some degree while in college. An estimated 50 percent of these students end up engaging in binge drinking, which is defined as reaching a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 g/dl or above by consuming more than four drinks over a two hour period. 

While most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent, there are still serious risks involved, with an increased chance of developing alcohol dependence and other drinking problems.

There are a variety of problems on U.S. college campuses that stem from alcohol consumption. Underage drinking, date rape, alcohol-related sexual assault, mental health issues, drug use, academic problems, drunk driving, alcohol-related unintentional injuries, vandalism and other risky behavior have been linked to the influence of alcohol.

Causes of College Alcohol Abuse

Drinking is viewed as an integral part of the “college experience” by many students across North America. Many students drink to fit in because they think alcohol will help them make new friends.

Alcohol abuse is most common when young adults drink alcohol to get drunk rather than socialize. heavy drinking (several days per week) also leads to alcohol tolerance, making it more difficult to reach the desired state of intoxication. This can potentially lead to alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Fraternities and sororities are often focal points for college binge drinking and substance abuse. Excessive drinking can have short term academic consequences such as missing class and lower grades, however it can have much more serious effects.

A 2018 study conducted at the University of Michigan, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health reported that 45 percent of residential fraternity members report alcohol use disorder symptoms reflecting mild to severe AUDs by the age of 35.

This goes to show that when students develop drinking problems in college, the potential effects can last long past their college years. It is unlikely that we can prevent students from drinking alcohol, but educating them on the potential dangers of unhealthy patterns of drinking, and other prevention efforts may help save our students seeking higher education.

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Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

There are both long-term and short-term symptoms of alcohol abuse. College students may not be aware of the immediate risks or the severity of what may develop over time. However, problematic use can lead to more serious health problems such as:

  • Addiction (physical or psychological dependence)
  • Brain damage (dementia, difficulties with coordination, and motor control)
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of suicide
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Liver damage
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Blood vessel disorders
  • Impotency in men
  • Menstrual irregularities in women
  • Death
The Health Effects of Alcohol

Negative Effects of Alcohol in College Students

Drinking may be part of the “college experience” but it often comes with unwanted effects. These can include short-term and long-term effects on college students from all socio-economic, ethnic, and academic backgrounds.

Possible short-term effects of student alcohol use:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Memory loss
  • Higher risk of being involved in criminal acts, including sexual assault
  • A decline in academic performance
  • Academic reprimand
  • Weight gain

Possible long-term effects of student alcohol use:

  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD) - a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using
  • Impaired liver function
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Lasting physical or emotional damage

About 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year due to accidental, alcohol-related injuries.

NIAAA study
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Risk Factors of College Drinking

College is a socially difficult time for many students. It is not surprising that most of the risk factors associated with college drinking revolve around social situations. 

Some of these factors include:

  • Drinking events (such as tailgating and birthday parties)
  • Peer pressure
  • Ease of access to alcohol
  • Social anxiety
  • Social acceptance and normative behavior
  • Experimentation (especially if students are away from home)

Treatment Options for Addiction

There are several treatment options available for alcohol addiction in college students, regardless of severity.

  • The first step (and main component) of recovery is detox, which allows the substance to leave an addicted person’s system. This includes a self-imposed detox for mild cases or a medical detox for more severe cases, where they can administer medication to help with withdrawal symptoms. Mild cases involve experiencing more than two but less than five of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria outlined by the NIAAA. Severe cases involve experiencing more than eight of the twelve possible criteria outlined in the DSM.
  • Counseling can help treat underlying issues involved in creating an addiction to alcohol. Treatment providers help college students cope with the pressures and stresses associated with college that often lead to alcohol abuse and addiction.
  • Treating co-occurring issues, such as eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder will also help resolve the underlying issues that lead to many cases of alcohol use disorder (previously called alcohol addiction or alcoholism).
  • Outpatient treatment is an option for college students with milder addictions. These outpatient centers provide withdrawal medication and counseling without interfering with the student’s day-to-day schedule.
  • Inpatient treatment is an option for students with more severe cases of alcohol addiction. Off-campus treatment centers help these students recover away from their college environment. 

Alcohol addiction develops over an extended period of time, especially in comparison to other drugs. If you are concerned about your drinking habits or those of somebody you know, find treatment today.

Related posts:

Resources

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LaBrie, Joseph W et al. “Reasons for drinking in the college student context: the differential role and risk of the social motivator.” Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs vol. 68,3 (2007): 393-8. doi:10.15288/jsad.2007.68.393, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214145/

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Binge Drinking” CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm#:~:text=Binge%20drinking%20is%20defined%20as,drink%20are%20not%20alcohol%20dependent.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics” NIAAA, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

Health Canada. “Problematic Alcohol Use.” GCHS, https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-alcohol-use.html

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