There are a lot of terms associated with the consumption of alcohol, but not all of them equate to alcoholism.
Binge drinking, in fact, is considered a “serious but preventable public health problem,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the popular association of alcoholism with alcohol over-indulgence, “most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent,” according to the CDC.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem, and it doesn’t mean they don’t need help. Binge drinking is inherently risky in that it’s a leading cause of alcohol poisoning, “a serious — and sometimes deadly — consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
So what are the signs of binge drinking? To recognize them, we need to first understand what binge drinking entails.
Binge drinking and BAC
The CDC defines binge drinking as “when men consume five or more drinks or women consume four or more drinks in about two hours.” In laymen’s terms, “binge drinking is the practice of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a single session,” according to the nonprofit organization Foundation for a Drug-Free World.
By CDC standards, binge drinking is a patter that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, to .08 grams percent or above. What does this mean, exactly? The Office of Alcohol Policy and Education at Stanford University describes it this way: “Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) refers to the percent of alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) in a person's blood stream. A BAC of .10% means that an individual's blood supply contains one part alcohol for every 1000 parts blood.”
In most states, an individual is considered legally intoxicated if he or she has a BAC of .08 percent or higher. A number of factors will determine each person’s BAC, including a person’s weight, sex, food consumption, medication intake and, for the purposes of binge drinking, the number of drinks and the amount of time in which they’re consumed.
So what defines a standard ‘drink?’
For scientific purposes, a “standard drink” is defined as:
- A 12-ounce beer
- 7 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces (about a shot) of hard liquor
Each of those drinks contains varying amounts of alcohol; a beer, for example, is typically 4.5 percent alcohol, while “hard liquor” is defined as anything with 40 percent alcohol or higher. Of course, in a culture of super-sized everything, many establishments serve much larger drinks, so it’s worth keeping in mind:
- A 16-ounce beer is the equivalent of 1.4 standard drinks
- A 40-ounce beer has the same amount of alcohol as 3.6 standard drinks
- A 12-ounce glass of wine is the same as 2.9 standard drinks
- A 12-ounce margarita can have as much alcohol as 4 standard drinks, depending on the ingredients
What are the effects of an increased BAC?
In a paper for the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions, Dr. William Miller outlined the various BAC levels and their effects:
- .02-.06: Mild relaxation and light-headedness, intensified moods, lowered inhibitions, exaggerated behavior
- .06: “Judgment, perception and information processing are becoming impaired.”
- .08: The legal level of intoxication in all states, this level can be misleading because “you believe you are functioning better than you actually are,” Miller writes. In addition to possible slurred speech, impaired motor skills and balance issues, “it’s difficult for you to decide whether or not to continue drinking,” Miller adds.
- .10-.12: Euphoria persists, but coordination and balance are severely impacted, as are motor skills, judgment and memory
- .14-.17: Euphoria may give way to unpleasantness, and you’ll “have difficulty talking, walking or even standing,” according to Miller. While judgment and perception are severely impaired, aggressiveness is exacerbated, and this is the point where many individuals begin to black out.
- .20: At this level, “you need help to stand up or walk,” and “if you hurt yourself … you probably won’t realize it because you won’t feel pain.” This is the level that nausea sets in, although it’s not uncommon for some people to feel nausea at lower levels of impairment.
- .20-.25: “All mental, physical, and sensory functions are severely impaired. You're emotionally numb. There's an increased risk of asphyxiation from choking on vomit and of seriously injuring yourself by falling or other accidents,” according to Miller’s paper.
- .30: If you haven’t passed out by now, you’re probably about to. At this level, “you're in a stupor,” according to Miller. “You have little comprehension of where you are.”
- .30-.35: Miller notes that “this blood alcohol level also happens to be the level of surgical anesthesia. You may stop breathing at this point.”
- .40: “You are probably in a coma,” Miller warns. “The nerve centers controlling your heartbeat and respiration are slowing down.”
NOTE: While Cornerstone of Recovery has nursing staff on campus 24 hours a day for patients in our Medical Detox program, our general rule of thumb is that anyone presenting with a BAC of .35 or higher is referred to the nearest emergency room. Many of our patients show up drunk and or/high; we are, after all, a drug and alcohol treatment center, and while we don’t encourage it, we certainly understand the nature of addiction and alcoholism. That being said, the safety of our patients, potential and otherwise, is paramount, and those individuals with a greatly elevated BAC require acute and immediate care best provided in a hospital setting.
So what are the signs of binge drinking?
It’s worth a reminder that binge drinking is not the same as alcoholism … but no less problematic. It’s easy to dismiss it as the exclusive domain of college students and young people, and for good reason; according to the According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 38 percent of college students engaged in binge drinking in the past month, a rate higher than their non-college-attending peers.
However, according to the CDC, more than 38 million adults binge drink an average of four times a month, and just in case you’re under the misconception that alcohol overindulgence is limited to lower classes, “those who make more than $75,000 are more apt to binge drink,” the CDC states. But because it’s not the same as heavy and sustained alcohol use, it’s easier to dismiss.
- Sign No. 1: You go all out on the weekends. “People often don’t recognize binge drinking as problem because it’s not a daily thing,” says Dr. Gregory Smith, a prescription addiction specialist at the Comprehensive Pain Relief Group in Los Angeles, in an article in Men’s Journal. “They think, ‘I’m able to function at work and at home, and I don’t need to have a drink every day so I’m fine,’ but then they finish a bottle or two of wine over the weekend.” In other words, you may not drink at all during the week, but come Friday night, it’s party time … and you do a lot of partying.
- Sign No. 2: You’re tired and/or irritable after a night out. You don’t have a pounding headache and you’re not vomiting the next morning, so you can’t be hungover, right? Not so fast. Even if you slept a solid eight hours, overindulging the night before can have physical and emotional aftereffects the next day: “Alcohol suppresses the REM cycle and results in poor sleep. That’s a big sign you’re drinking too much,” says Peter Hendricks, an associate professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Public Health, in an article for Reader’s Digest: “People who wake up feeling overly tired, anxious, sad or irritable might actually be experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.”
- Sign No. 3: You set limits on how much you drink but consistently fail to meet them. A lot of people who drink reach that BAC where their judgment is impaired and they order “just one more” after they should stop, but if you repeatedly find yourself paying a large bar tab at the end of a night out and berate yourself for drinking so much, you might have a problem. A good rule of thumb is one drink an hour, but alcohol is an insidious influence, and it’s all too easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re not as drunk as you really are.
- Sign No. 4: You black out frequently. Even if you’re limiting yourself to drinking one night a week, if you still wake up the next morning with large chunks of the previous night a total mystery, that’s a problem.
- Sign No. 5: Your lessened inhibitions bring about embarrassing behaviors. Did you start a fight while you were drunk? Did you sleep with someone you wouldn’t have done so while sober? Did you rip off your shirt, climb on a table and start singing your favorite sports team’s fight song? Alcohol can contribute to many cringe-worthy moments when you recall them during the light of day, but if it’s a pattern every time you go out, you might have a problem.
- Sign No. 6: You spend an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty for or worrying about drinking so much. Another good rule of thumb: Those who don’t have a problem, don’t sit around wondering if they do. If your gut tells you that you need to cut down, you might want to listen to it.
- Sign No. 7: You’re experiencing health problems from your drinking. Shaking hands, esophageal bleeding, ulcers and other maladies aren’t the exclusive domain of hardcore alcoholics. “Moreover, binge drinking raises blood pressure, boosts your risk of cancer, and interferes with certain medications,” according to that Men’s Journal piece.
- Sign No. 8: You always binge drink. Even if you only go out once a week — or even less! — but you find that you never seem to drink in moderation, that’s a warning sign. Some research has shown that there are actually health benefits associated with moderate alcohol consumption, but “abstaining all week only to guzzle seven pints on a Friday night negates any of alcohol’s potential health benefits,” according to Men’s Journal.
- Sign No. 9: Friends, family members or co-workers are worried about your drinking. If there always seems to be someone remarking about how much you drink or suggesting that you need to slow down, that’s one of the warning signs of binge drinking. Sure, you think you’re fine, but if you get called out repeatedly, you should probably trust that those who are interested in your well-being recognize something that you don’t.
- Sign No. 10: You experience professional or legal problems because of your drinking. Let’s face it: Those who drink in moderation don’t get arrested for DUI. Those who drink in moderation don’t get fired from their jobs. However infrequently you may drink, if you do so to excess every single time and face these sorts of consequences, you have a problem.
So what should you do?
A drug and alcohol treatment center isn’t just for low-bottom alcoholics or homeless junkies, despite what popular culture might lead you to believe. At Cornerstone of Recovery, we treat individuals from across the socio-economic spectrum, including a number of individuals in our Professionals, Aviation and Railroad programs that you might not associate with addiction and alcoholism.
That’s because those conditions are legitimate medical diseases that don’t discriminate. If you recognize yourself or someone you love in these signs of binge drinking, then we have the tools to help. Whether that involves residential inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment or a simple assessment by our trained Admissions counselors to determine the scope of your problem, we’re here to help.
Don’t sit around wondering what to do about a potential binge drinking problem — get on top of it before it gets any worse. Call us today and let us help you.