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Binge Drinking and Your Health

Today, many teens and young adults drink to relax and relieve some of the pressures of their fast-paced and highly-scheduled lives. For young people that know the difference between alcohol use and abuse (and are of legal drinking age) enjoying a few drinks can be a healthy, legal and safe way to unwind. Unfortunately, the popular habit known as binge drinking remains a major problem at thousands of college campuses and high schools in the U.S; but it’s also a problem plaguing adults. Take a look at how binge drinking carries on into adulthood.

Percent of Adults 18 Years and Older Who Binge Drink, 2012

Percent of Adults Who Binge Drink

via: Center for Disease Control

Binge drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is having five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in 2 hours for women. For the purposes of this definition, one drink is defined as:

  • 1.25 oz. Liquor or Mix
  • 12 oz. Beer
  • 7 oz. Malt
  • 4-5 oz. Wine
  • 10 oz. Wine Cooler

Binge drinking is more widespread on school campuses than most people imagine, which is probably because it doesn’t exclusively affect students normally associated with a risk for alcohol problems. Most binge drinkers are what many would consider to be normal teens and young adults; they may be successful, smart, and otherwise happy.

If a habit of alcohol abuse develops early in life, a cycle of alcoholic depression and dependence can be extremely difficult to break. According to this teenage drinking study conducted by Harvard Medical School and HelpGuide.org, young people who drink regularly before the age of 21 are more likely to:

  • Be the victims of violent crime
  • Be involved in alcohol-related car accidents
  • Suffer from depression and anxiety
  • Attempt suicide
  • Engage in violent behaviors
  • Have unprotected sex or have multiple partners
  • Develop alcohol problems in later life

At its worst, alcoholism can lead to severe injury or death. In fact,  alcohol abuse contributes to 88,000 deaths every year in the United States, more than two times the number of deaths attributed to illicit and pharmaceutical drug abuse annually.

Drinking is one activity that doesn’t come with a rule book. Young adults have difficulty gauging how much to drink, and how often, which can lead to “overdoing it.” According to the following graphic, college freshman are at an increased risk for binge drinking.

Alcohol Consumption Among College Freshman

Alcohol Consumption Among College Freshman

via: Center for Science in the Public Interest

Economic Impact of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is expensive. In 2006, the estimated economic costs of excessive drinking in the U.S. was calculated at $223.5 billion, or $746 per capita. This figure includes losses of productivity in the workforce, healthcare and criminal justice costs resulting from binge drinking. Here’s a look at the numbers from states reporting the highest total cost of excessive drinking by drink and also by capita:

Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption by State, 2006
State Total Cost Cost per Drink Cost per Capita
via: CDC
California $31,856,400,000 $2.25 $874
Texas $16,524,800,000 $1.89 $703
New York $14,225,900,000 $2.11 $737
Florida $13,341,700,000 $1.53 $738
Illinois $9,335,400,000 $1.82 $728
Pennsylvania $8,398,100,000 $1.81 $675
Michigan $8,218,800,000 $2.16 $814
Ohio $7,654,200,000 $1.92 $667
Georgia $6,345,300,000 $1.94 $678
North Carolina $6,042,700,000 $2.00 $682

How Binge Drinking Affects Your Health

“I’m staying in my dorm and not getting in a car. The worst that can happen is I get sick, right?”

While this is a common rationalization for heavy drinking students, taken straight from the mouth of a young adult under the influence, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Binge drinking is more dangerous than many students can possibly imagine. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol poisoning “occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down.”

Knowing and understanding the signs of alcohol poisoning can save lives. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Mental confusion or stupor – The person can’t speak or doesn’t make sense.
  • Passed out and can’t be roused – The person may already be in a coma.
  • Vomiting – Throwing up is not a normal result of drinking.
  • Seizures – The body shakes or convulses.
  • Slow breathing – Less than eight breaths per minute.
  • Irregular breathing – Taking 10 seconds or more between breaths.
  • Hypothermia – The person is cool to the touch, is pale or has bluish skin color.

Blood alcohol levels can continue to rise even when a person stops drinking or is passed out, so don’t wait for all of the signs to show up before seeking medical help. Call 911 Good Samaritan Policies are policies that exist on many college campuses throughout the U.S., and make it possible to report alcohol or drug abuse without fear of punishment. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) maintains a list of colleges and universities that have some form of the Good Samaritan policy (link opens to a Google document).

In addition to alcohol poisoning, binge drinking can cause a multitude of physical injuries, including:

  • Broken bones
  • Head and neck injuries
  • Lacerations
  • Sprains
  • Bruises
  • Dislocations

Long term and permanent injuries may include:

  • Liver damage
  • Brain damage
  • Respiratory difficulty
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

For the young and “social” binge drinker, the effects of abuse can be more insidious. Before you suffer from these long term hazards of alcoholism,  habitual binge drinking can cause variety of emotional and physical health problems that can make succeeding in school, work or relationships very difficult. Once grades and friendships start slipping, alcohol quickly becomes the fastest and easiest escape.

The Consequences of Binge Drinking: Accountability, Safety, and Insurance

Alcohol lowers inhibitions and clouds judgment; whether or not you sit behind the wheel of a car, there’s a chance you will do something that will result in your being arrested and charged with a crime. Binge drinking crimes range from public intoxication and underage drinking to theft and rape.

Both male and female binge drinkers are at a greater risk of sexual assault. Every year, an estimated 696,000 students between 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. 97,000 students are the victims of alcohol related sexual assault and another 100,000 report being too drunk to know if they consented to having sex.

Before you binge drink, consider the fact that saying “I was drunk” is not an effective defense. An arrest record will impact the rest of your life; here are just some of the opportunities an arrest and conviction can prevent you from:

  • Getting into graduate school
  • Entering some professions such as teaching
  • Being approved for loans or mortgages
  • Passing background checks for some jobs
  • Obtaining a gun license
  • Working with children

In most jurisdictions in the United States, binge drinking can result in misdemeanor or felony charges, particularly for those who are underage. Beyond the costs of hiring an attorney, paying fines, restitution, court costs and rehab, there can be long term implications for all insurance types, including auto, health, renters/homeowners and liability insurance.

Binge drinking is one problem that affects many, if not all aspects of an individual’s life. Because binge drinking is so unhealthy for the human body that health insurance companies maintain some rights regarding whether or not to provide coverage to individuals who have been injured while under the influence. Alcohol exclusion laws allow health insurance companies to deny coverage, or to raise rates for individuals with an alcohol problem. More information about addiction treatment and health insurance coverage can be found  here.

The state of California estimates the cost of a first time DUI for a teen driver is at least $45,435. The bulk of this cost is associated with an increased car insurance rate for up to 13 years (until the driver is 25). The cost goes up quickly if someone is injured, including the driver whose health insurance may not cover all of the expenses. Other costs include attorney fees, DUI classes and car repairs, to name a few. The Governors Highway Safety Association maintains a list of the drunk driving laws across the nation.

Binge Drinking: A Self-Assessment

If you are worried that binge drinking may be a problem for you, consider taking a self-assessment to reflect on your drinking habits. Alcoholics Anonymous has twelve questions that you can answer to see if you may have a problem. Answering yes to more than four of them is cause for concern, and a sign that you may benefit from getting support. Some of the questions are:

  • Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but only lasted a couple of days?
  • Have you switched from one kind of drink to another in the hope that it would keep you from getting drunk?
  • Do you envy people who can drink and not get into trouble?
  • Do you ever try to get extra drinks at a party because you do not get enough?
  • Do you have blackouts?

 Another resource for self-assessment is the Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes.  Questions on this assessment include:

  • When you have trouble or feel under pressure do you drink more heavily than usual?
  • Did you ever wake up in the morning after drinking and not remember part of the night before?
  • Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your drinking?
  • Do you sometimes stay drunk for days at a time?
  • Do you ever get terribly frightened after you have been drinking heavily?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have lost control of your drinking. Fortunately, you are also not alone. There are plenty of places to turn, consider calling a friend and asking for help. Find and reach out to your local Alcoholics Anonymous group. (You’ll find a longer list of support resources at the end of this article.)

Confronting a Friend About Alcohol Abuse

 It’s natural to feel hesitation when planning to speak with a friend about their binge drinking. While many people believe it is their responsibility to talk to a friend when they think they have an alcohol or drug problem, far fewer people feel confident enough to actually do it. Luckily, there are resources to help you. Here are some tips to help ensure that your message is received.

  1. Timing is Everything: Timing your conversation correctly could mean the difference between a successful conversation and a disastrous one. If possible, try to time your conversation close to, or directly after your friend has experienced a problem as the result of binge drinking. Having realized that there are consequences for his or her actions, your friend may be more open to hearing what you have to say.  The least opportune time to talk to someone about their binge drinking is when either party has been drinking. Apart from trying to cut them off, this is not the time for a heart to heart.
  2. Consequences Matter: Talk about how their drinking is already having a negative effect on their life. Focus on how their drinking affects you and others they are close to.
  3. Don’t Lecture: Remember you’re friends; keep your conversation friendly and casual. No-one likes to be lectured, especially by a friend. Avoid sermons and judgments, and making demands or using labels like alcoholic. You might begin your conversation by saying something like “As you know, I care a lot about you and our friendship. It’s because I care so much that I want to talk with you about something that has me concerned…”
  4. Expect the Worst: There is no denying the fact that your friend may get angry at you for bringing up their binge drinking. Don’t take their anger personally; it is part of their denial. Chances are, even if your concerns are rejected, you opened the door to self-reflection for your friend.
  5. Be Ready to Help: When your friend realizes they have a problem, be ready to offer assistance in finding help.

Sometimes in order to be a good friend, you have to say or do things that are difficult or unpleasant; telling a friend they’ve had too much to drink can be one of those times. Because alcohol continues to be absorbed into the bloodstream even after someone stops drinking, telling a friend who’s been drinking a lot in a short period of time to stop can save their life.

Additional Resources

Alcoholism is a disease and it afflicts millions of people worldwide. Luckily, it’s also one of the most treatable health problems a person can have. It won’t be easy, but you can regain control of your life and stop drinking entirely. The trick lies in acknowledging that you or someone you love has a problem and then actively seeking out the help you need to recover.

Here are some additional resources to help with self-assessment or helping a friend with a drinking problem:

General Alcohol and Health Resources  These university, community and government sponsored organizations focus on health and safety initiatives that include the study of alcoholism and its effects on individual and family lives.

Self-Assessment and Understanding – The following sites provide their own step-by-step questionnaires to help you assess whether or not you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol.

Prevention – These sites specialize in spreading awareness of the risks of alcoholism in order to prevent excessive drinking among young people and students.

Teens and Underage Drinking – These sites provide resources for parents, teachers and other adults to help them deal with alcohol issues in teens and young adults.

Support – These groups offer support and guidance for alcoholics as well as the family and friends of people with alcohol and substance abuse problems.

Alcohol abuse and binge drinking by teens and young adults shouldn’t be a part of growing up. Understanding the risks involved is the first step in combating binge drinking, and preventing its devastating consequences.

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