What is binge drinking? Signs and symptoms to notice

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Alcohol consumption can occur at varying levels—however, binge drinking is one of the riskiest ways people can use alcohol. Learning the possible signs and contributing factors to this pattern of behavior can often be the first step to recovery and healthy alcohol use. Read on to learn more about what binge drinking is, the possible associated risks and supportive strategies that can help break unhealthy behaviors around alcohol.

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Experiencing the effects of binge drinking?

What is binge drinking?

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the act of binge drinking can be defined as a drinking pattern that involves consuming enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 g/dL.

To give some perspective on what the 0.08 g/dL means, this 0.08 g/dl threshold is the legal limit for driving under the influence in many states. This means that if someone is pulled over, given a breathalyzer test, and arrested with a BAC of 0.08 g/dL, that can serve as evidence for a conviction.

To reach this BAC level, a man would need to consume five or more drinks or a woman would need to have consumed four or more drinks within two hours. However, this is a generalization, and it can vary based on a person’s weight, how much food they have consumed, and the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) of each beverage they consume.

It can be important to note that binging and excessive drinking are not necessarily the same behavioral patterns—but they can be quite similar. Binging can generally fall into the excessive drinking category, but not vice versa. 

Excessive drinking can be defined as “the consumption of four or more drinks on any day or eight or more drinks per week for women and five or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks per week for men”.

The two terms are not always synonymous, because someone can be a heavy drinker and have their drinks spread across a day or week. If they don’t do it within two hours or less, it’s not necessarily a case of binge drinking by strict definition. 

Additionally, details suggests that the majority of people who binge drink do not have an alcohol use disorder. However, it can still be a form of alcohol overuse. 

How many people binge drink, and what are the risks?

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about one in six adults in the United States will binge drink, on average, seven drinks about four times per month. 

Those between the ages of 18 to 34 years old are statistically suggested to be the most likely to binge drink —with many possibly doing so under the legal drinking age. 

According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, 90% of the drinks that are consumed by people under 21 years of age are in the form of binge drinks. 

There are many possible risks associated with the habit, which can include: 

  • Chronic disease in the organs, particularly in the heart and liver
  • Unsafe sex and sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unintentional pregnancies, miscarriages, fetal alcohol syndrome and associated conditions or concerns
  • Impotence and menstrual health conditions
  • Various cancers, especially in the mouth and esophagus
  • Poor academic and work performance due to possible cognitive impairments
  • Neurological problems, such as nerve damage or possible dementia later on
  • Heightened risk of injuries and death from alcohol poisoning, automobile accidents or falling
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Possible signs of binge drinking: How can binge drinking appear

There are many different symptoms that can be associated with binge drinking:

Frequent blackouts

Those who binge drink might find themselves using alcohol up to tolerance or past it, which can lead to blackouts. They may seem to be awake but may not remember what they are doing or be fully cognizant of their surroundings.  

This indicator is not necessarily exclusive to those who binge drink however, as someone who drinks heavily over a more sustained period can still blackout after a long night of drinking. If you experience blackouts with or without the presence of heavy drinking, you may consider seeking support from your general practitioner. 

Memory loss and forgetfulness

This symptom can be linked to blackouts, as someone who passes out drunk after binge drinking might not remember the events that occurred before and during their binging. However, even if someone doesn’t blackout, they can still have trouble remembering these events later on. For instance, if someone went to a party and made sexual contact with someone, they may not remember the other person’s name or physical features.

If you’re concerned about memory conditions or related effects, you may consider speaking with your healthcare provider for further support. 

Neglect of responsibilities

People who experience alcohol misuse might have difficulty keeping up with important obligations—either because their drinking prevents them from doing it the next day, such as with an intense hangover, or they might skip them in favor of consuming more alcohol. This can lead to many other negative effects in an individual’s personal life, such as challenges with school, work and in their relationships with others.

If you find yourself in this position, you may consider working with a licensed therapist to address the alcohol use patterns in your life, possibly changing them to be more moderate or healthful for your specific needs. 

Risky behavior

Excessive drinking can lead people to become more prone to various types of behaviors that can be harmful to themselves or others around them. Some common examples can include unsafe sex, fighting, gambling and driving a vehicle while under the influence. 

Risky behaviors can also come about by mixing medications with alcohol—which can be life-threatening either due to the interactions between certain drugs and alcohol, or because some drugs can mask the effects of alcohol. This can possibly lead to alcohol poisoning in some. 

Excessive weekend and holiday drinking

Those who binge drink may use weekends and holidays to drink more than they otherwise would, which can contribute to related symptoms above. 

We do want to note: even if binge drinking occurs on just a single holiday or weekend evening, it can still be harmful. Speaking to a licensed therapist can be a helpful first step in establishing healthier patterns.

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Experiencing the effects of binge drinking?

How to get help for binge drinking through online therapy

Although there isn’t a formal diagnosis for binge drinking disorder at the time of this publication, it can still be possible to get help for this behavioral pattern. 

It is generally recommended that you seek a mental health professional who specializes in addiction or substance use disorder if you find that you are binge drinking frequently. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

A specialist in this area of practice can help you understand the thoughts and stimuli that can contribute to drinking behaviors and provide advice on how to quit.

BetterHelp’s licensed professionals are available online to help you learn what might encourage you to binge drink, supporting you as you master the skills needed to cope and seek alternative options for release.  

We do want to note: Online therapy may seem like a more approachable treatment format for people who might feel discouraged to seek treatment due to the stigma of binge drinking or alcoholism. Additionally, the ability to schedule appointments at a preferred location and time may be more appealing for people who need to attend therapy at a time when they are less likely to be under the influence of alcohol. 

In a recent study, researchers set out to evaluate the effectiveness of an e-therapy program with regard to reducing weekly alcohol consumption and improving the overall health status of its participants. 

In a randomized controlled trial of 156 participants divided evenly into a three-month e-therapy group and waiting list control group, study leaders were able to analyze the outcomes of 102 people who completed the assessment after three months. Members of the e-therapy group were noted to have decreased their average weekly alcohol consumption by 28.8 units, compared to a rate of decrease of only 3.1 units in the control group. 

Takeaway

Quitting or reducing alcohol consumption can feel overwhelming. However, it can be possible. Many find benefit from understanding the impetus behind consumption-related behaviors first. If you recognize the signs and symptoms in yourself or a loved one, you may consider speaking with a licensed online therapist. Online therapy has been suggested to be just as effective as in-person options for addressing the effects of binge drinking and related disorders. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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