Dangers of Binge Drinking

Someone who often spends weekend evenings chasing beers with vodka or tequila shots won’t be surprised by the next morning’s hangover. What they might not realize, however, is that a hangover may be the least of their worries.

Even a single round of binge drinking can have serious effects on pretty much every part of the body, including the brain. And a long-term binge drinking habit may cause even more damaging health problems.

Table of Contents

What Is Binge Drinking?

Binge drinking is a pattern of consuming large quantities of alcohol over a short period of time.1

It’s when someone drinks enough alcohol within a two-hour period to bring their blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% (the BAC that makes it illegal to drive) and does this at least once a month.

For men, this means about five alcoholic drinks within a two-hour period. And for women, it means four drinks within two hours. What counts as a drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.2

The exact number of drinks required to bring the BAC to 0.08 % will vary from person to person. And it’s generally less for youth: around three drinks for girls, and 3-5 drinks for boys, depending on their age and weight. 3

Subjective Experience of Intoxication

The subjective experience of intoxication—of “being drunk”—differs from one person to the next. One person may feel intoxicated after a single drink. Someone else might start to feel a buzz only after five or six drinks.

There are several possible reasons for these differences, including:

  • Differences in alcohol metabolism—of how the body processes alcohol.
  • Differences in alcohol tolerance—related to how much a person habitually drinks.
  • The presence of other substances (e.g., prescription or illegal drugs) in the body—which can compound the effects of alcohol
How Prevalent Is Binge Drinking?

In a 2019 survey, around 24% of the people in the United States ages 12 and older—66 million people total—reported binge drinking during the past month.1

And around one in six adults in the U.S. binge drink four times a month.

Binge drinking can affect people of any age, race, gender, or socioeconomic group. That said, researchers have also learned that: 2,3

  • Binge drinking is most common among younger adults aged 18–34, and particularly among college students (40% of whom report engaging in binge drinking).
  • However, more than half of the total binge drinks are consumed by those ages 35 and older.
    Binge drinking is nearly twice as common among men as it is among women.
  • Binge drinking is most common among adults who have annual household incomes of $75,000 or more; those who are non-Hispanic White; or those who live in the Midwest.

Signs of Binge Drinking

How does someone know if they—or a friend or family member—has a problem with binge drinking?

Binge drinking affects people in different ways. But as a rule of thumb, if alcohol use is creating trouble at work, at home, at school, or in social situations, then it’s a problem.


Some other signs that a person may have a problem with binge drinking include:
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol on weekends or at midweek social events.
  • Having four or five drinks in two hours or less.
  • Consistently drinking more than they planned.
  • Consuming so much alcohol that they blackout (have gaps in memory).
  • Not being able to slow down their drinking once they’ve started.
  • Doing dangerous or embarrassing things while drinking that they later regret.
  • Feeling guilty, defensive, or worried about excessive drinking.
  • Needing more alcohol to get the same effect.
  • Feeling hungover after a night of drinking.

Risk Factors for Binge Drinking

Excessive alcohol use—including binge drinking—can be influenced by a variety of factors. A person’s living environment, their genetics, psychological issues, and social situation can all contribute to alcohol abuse.

As mentioned above, binge drinking is very common among college students. And men are twice as likely as women to binge drink. People who are more educated and whose annual income is greater than $75,000 are also more likely to binge drink.

Other social and psychological factors that can contribute to binge drinking include:

  • Suffering from anxiety or depression.
  • Growing up in a family with heavy drinkers.
  • Having easy access to alcohol.
  • Being subjected to peer pressure.
  • Being exposed to a drinking culture, e.g., in college fraternities/sororities.
  • Having low educational goals.
  • Experiencing trauma.
  • Having undeveloped emotional coping skills.
  • Frequently feeling bored.

Types of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking can be divided into different types, which correspond to the various causes and risk factors that contribute to it.

Stress-Related Binge Drinking

Binge drinking can be divided into different types, which correspond to the various causes and risk factors that contribute to it.

Peer-Pressure Binge Drinking

People may binge drink to fit in with their college companions, co-workers, or relatives. The need to be accepted motivates them into doing something they might not do on their own.

Mood-Related Binge Drinking

Sometimes, people who are feeling anxious, angry, or depressed consume large quantities of alcohol in a short time. This is a coping mechanism to try to relieve those uncomfortable feelings. Binge drinking is used as a substitute for the comfort and security they most deeply crave.

Boredom-Induced Binge Drinking

Binge drinking may be used as a strategy to overcome boredom. The intense experience of intoxication at least temporarily relieves the dullness, confusion, or monotony of their life.

Alcohol-Deprivation Cravings

Binge drinking may also be triggered by withdrawal symptoms in someone with an alcohol use disorder. When such a person hasn’t had a drink in a long time, craving intensifies. And the intense pleasure that is experienced with the next drink can escalate into a binge.

College Campus Binge Drinking

Academic stress, peer pressure, and the wide availability of alcohol on college campuses set the stage for wide-spread binge drinking among students. Those who join fraternities or sororities are even more likely to engage in binge drinking via drinking games and hazing incidents.

Academic stress, peer pressure, and the wide availability of alcohol on college campuses set the stage for wide-spread binge drinking among students. Those who join fraternities or sororities are even more likely to engage in binge drinking via drinking games and hazing incidents.

The Dangers of Binge Drinking

Regardless of its type or reasons, binge drinking is dangerous. It can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health in a wide variety of ways. Alcohol consumption (including binge drinking) is linked to more than sixty different medical conditions. And 4% of disease worldwide is attributed directly to alcohol use. 8 The damage of binge drinking can be both short-term and long-term.

Binge Drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder

Binge drinking doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is an alcoholic—i.e., that they suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). In fact, most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder. 2

However, frequent binge drinking can increase a person’s risk of developing AUD at some point in their life.

So, the first long-term danger of binge-drinking is this possibility of developing an alcohol use disorder. The chances of this happening are particularly high for those who drink heavily during their teenage years.

Alcohol Use Disorder in the DSM-5

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is what doctors and psychiatrists use to diagnose mental disorders. Binge drinking is not recognized as a specific disorder in the DSM-5.

However, if the binge drinking becomes chronic, a person may then be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder—which is a disease category (with mild, moderate, and severe levels) listed in the DSM-5.5

Alcohol Use Disorder is associated with symptoms such as:

  • Craving—An extremely strong urge to drink.
  • Loss of Control—Not being able to decrease or stop drinking once it has begun.
  • Dependence—Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, along with negative emotional states such as anxiety, when drinking has ceased.
  • Tolerance—Over time, the need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effect.

Physical Health Effects of Binge Drinking

Almost every system in the human body can be negatively affected by binge drinking. Some of these damaging effects are short-term, and others are long-term.

Short-term Effects

Short-term effects of binge drinking may potentially include: 2, 4

  • Headache
  • Dehydration
  • Sleepiness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slower breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Upset stomach and diarrhea
  • Alcohol poisoning (which can lead to seizures, coma, and death)
  • Loss of coordination and perception
  • Poor motor control and slower reaction times
  • Impaired judgment, which may increase risky behaviors
  • Becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence (e.g., firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence)
  • Accidents/injuries (e.g., car crashes, falls, burns, drowning)
  • Unsafe/unprotected sexual activity
  • Sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth in pregnant women
Long-term Effects

The headache, fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms of a hangover may resolve within a few hours. But there are many longer-term health problems associated with binge drinking, for instance: 1

  • Liver disease.
  • Increased risk of cancer.
  • Neurological damage including dementia.
  • Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
  • High blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Increased difficulty managing diabetes.
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum
  • Disorders in children whose mothers binge drink while pregnant.
How Binge Drinking Affects the Body's Organs

Binge drinking can negatively impact a wide variety of organs and systems in the human body. Here are some of the dysfunctions and diseases linked to the high alcohol intake of binge drinking:

  • Liver. Liver diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis.
  • Kidneys. Alcohol causes the kidneys to produce more urine, which (especially with vomiting) can lead to dehydration. This can result in dangerously low levels of electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium—which are essential for nerve and muscle functioning, and the proper regulation of the heart’s conduction system.
  • Heart. Cardiovascular problems such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart disease, or sudden death from heart failure.
  • Lungs. Alcohol inhibits the gag reflex, so saliva, vomit, or other substances can more easily enter the lungs. In the short-term, this increases the chance of death by asphyxiation. In the long-term it can lead to inflammation or infection in the lungs.
  • Pancreas. Even a single session of binge drinking can create dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
  • Sexual health. Extreme alcohol use can reduce fertility in both women and men, and lead to erectile dysfunction in men. Being intoxicated also increases the chance of having unsafe sex—which may result in an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Long-term heavy alcohol use can also affect entire physiological systems. For instance:

  • Blood and immune system. Binge drinking weakens the immune system. And chronic alcohol use can lead to anemia—causing fatigue, an increased risk of infections, and bruising/bleeding more easily.
  • Bones and muscles. Heavy drinking can interfere with the body’s absorption of calcium and proper bone formation. This may lead to osteoporosis.
  • Brain and nervous system. Heavy alcohol use increases the risk of stroke. It can also impair balance and coordination and increase the risk of dementia.
  • Intestines. Binge drinking can interfere with the absorption of nutrients through the intestinal wall. This may result in malnutrition and digestive problems.
  • Sleep problems. Heavy alcohol use can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep cycles.

Mental Health Effects of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking has negative effects on a person’s mental-emotional as well as their physical health. Many alcohol-related mental health problems are linked to how alcohol affects the brain.

How Binge Drinking Affects the Body's Organs

Binge drinking can cause neurological damage. In other words, it causes visible physical changes to the brain.

The more alcohol that is consumed, the more the prefrontal cortex of the brain is thinned—which negatively impacts cognitive and emotional functioning.8

Mood Disorders & Dementia

Binge drinking increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and psychosis.

It is associated with negative and depressive moods. People who do not engage in binge drinking are more likely to experience positive moods, than those who do engage in binge drinking.12

Binge drinking also affects the ability to form new long-term memories, and increases the risk of developing dementia.

Mood Disorders & Dementia

Binge drinking negatively impacts a person’s ability to:11

  • Pay attention.
  • Make decisions.
  • Plan effectively.
  • Process emotions.
  • Distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.
  • Complete tasks efficiently.
Verbal & Learning Skills
For high school and college students—or anyone devoted to continuing education—binge drinking can negatively impact the ability to learn new things. Beyond the hangovers that prevent attendance to morning classes, binge drinking can create problems with verbal learning skills—the ability to process new information. Cutting back on binge drinking is likely to make learning more effective and enjoyable. 10

Binge Drinking and Violence

The dangers of binge drinking go beyond the risk of physical disease in a person’s body, or mental-emotional damage to their mind. Binge drinking also increases the chance of accidental injury; and of becoming a victim or perpetrator of interpersonal violence.

Becoming a Victim or Perpetrator
Alcohol intoxication greatly increases a person’s risk of injuring themselves or being injured by others. Alcohol plays a role in:
  • 40% of fatal highway crashes, suicides, and falls.
  • 50% of sexual assaults and traumatic injuries.
  • 60% of all fatal fires, drownings, and homicides.
Those who binge drink can become more violent and aggressive. And young binge drinkers are even more likely than long-term, heavy-drinking alcoholics to be injured in a way that requires a trip to the emergency room. 13
Binge Drinking & Accidental Injuries

Binge drinking increases the chance of a person injuring themselves, either inside or outside the home. As mentioned above, alcohol is a factor in 40% of fatal falls, highway crashes, and suicides.

Excessive alcohol consumption is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. It is responsible for one out of every ten deaths among working-age adults. 16

Along with the money spent on alcohol purchases, binge drinking can be financially draining due to:

  • Increased healthcare costs
  • Increased auto or health insurance costs
  • Alcohol-related fines and fees
  • Cost of accident repairs
  • Making bail after arrests
  • Work absences or losing a job
Social & Economic Effects of Binge Drinking

The negative impacts of binge drinking are not limited to individual people. It also has social and economic costs.

In a single year (2010) excessive alcohol use cost the United States around $249 billion. And $191 billion was linked directly to binge drinking. Included in these totals were losses related to healthcare costs, property damage, criminal justice costs, and reduced productivity in the workplace. 15

Tips for Preventing Binge Drinking

Are there ways to reduce the risk of binge drinking? Yes! Here are some excellent strategies for increasing the safety of alcohol consumption.

To lower the risk of binge drinking, a person can:

  • Spread drinks out evenly during the week instead of drinking heavily on one or two nights.
  • Limit how much alcohol they drink at any one time. And average no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men.
  • Have at least a couple alcoholic-free days per week. Drink water, tea, fruit juice, soda, or kombucha instead.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. Eat some food along with the drink.
  • Drink more slowly: sipping and savoring rather than gulping.
  • Set a limit, ahead of time, on how much they plan to drink.
  • Drink with people they trust and have a plan about how they’ll get home safely.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic ones, such as water or tea.
  • Swap drinks: Rather than ordering a large drink, swap it for a small one.
  • Instead of something with a high alcohol content, swap it for drink that contains less alcohol.
  • Ask a friend to serve as an accountability partner.
  • Receive support from loved ones to help them stick to their goals.

Get Help with SoCal Sunrise

If a person is concerned about their binge drinking or how their alcohol intake is negatively impacting their life, they should speak with their doctor or therapist, who can recommend treatment options such as psychotherapy, medications, lifestyle counseling, and other interventions.

References & Resources

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/binge-drinking

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

  3. University of Rochester Medical Center. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1924

  4. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/binge-drinking-definition

  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). Substance-related disorders: Alcohol-related disorders (pp. 490 – 497). American Psychiatric Association Publishing, Washington; DC

  6. Hibell, B., Andersson, B., Ahlström, S., Balakireva, O., Bjarnason, T., Kokkevi, A., et al. (2004). The ESPAD Report 2003: Alcohol and other drug use among students in 35 European countries. Stockholm: The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAN).

  7. Effects of Alcohol on the Microbiome. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590619/

  8. Effect of Alcohol Use on Cognitive and Emotional Processing via Neuro-Imaging. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6711400/

  9. Room R, Babor T, Rehm J. “Alcohol and public health.” The Lancet. 2005;365(9458):519-530. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)17870-2 https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0140673605178702

  10. PLoS One: “Binge drinking during adolescence and young adulthood is associated with deficits in verbal episodic memory.”

  11. Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01111/full

  12. Depressive Symptoms & Drinking Patterns https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/01612840.2011.653036

  13. Alcohol-Related Injuries Among Emergency-Department Patients. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2005.01257.x

  14. Addiction & College Students https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40429-016-0125-8

  15. Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-drinking.html

  16. Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0293.htm