You like to enjoy a drink or two to unwind on the weekends with friends; maybe you even have one too many on occasion. But at what point does social or binge drinking cross the line into alcoholism?
As many as one in five Americans binge drink, but not all binge drinkers become alcoholics. However, excessive alcohol use of any kind can be dangerous to your health and well-being. Understanding the difference between binge drinking vs alcoholism, the risks involved, and the treatment options available can help ensure your drinking doesn’t spiral out of control.
How Much Drinking Is Too Much?
So how much drinking is too much drinking? The truth is, there’s no universal definition of excessive alcohol use, but here are some general guidelines:
- Binge drinking: For women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in two hours, compared to five or more drinks for men. Either way, binge drinking is dangerous and can have serious health consequences.
- Heavy drinking: For women, heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week. For men, it’s 15 or more drinks per week. At this level, alcohol is negatively impacting your health and day-to-day life.
- Excessive drinking: Drinking in a way that harms your health, relationships, safety, work, or other areas of your life. Some signs of excessive drinking include not being able to limit how much you drink, continuing to drink even though it causes problems, or needing to drink to feel good or avoid feeling bad.
- Alcohol use disorder: A medical condition where a person has a difficult time controlling their drinking and continues to drink even though it causes problems. To be diagnosed with AUD, you must meet certain criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
The bottom line is that if your drinking is causing problems, harming yourself or others, or if you have trouble controlling how much you drink, you may have an issue with excessive alcohol use or even an AUD.
What is Binge Drinking, and Who Does It?
Binge drinking refers to the consumption of a large amount of alcohol within a short time, typically leading to a rapid and significant increase in blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The precise definition of binge drinking may vary across countries, but it generally involves drinking enough to raise the BAC to 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher. This level is considered above the legal driving limit in many jurisdictions.
Binge drinking is often associated with the intent to become intoxicated or drunk quickly. It typically involves consuming multiple alcoholic drinks (such as beer, wine, or spirits), usually within a few hours. The specific number of drinks required to classify an episode as binge drinking can vary based on factors such as body weight, metabolism, and individual tolerance to alcohol.
Binge drinkers are typically younger, between the ages of 18 to 34. They tend to have higher household incomes and educational levels. Binge drinking is often considered a rite of passage in college, but it frequently continues into adulthood and comes with serious health and safety risks.
While binge drinking and alcoholism are not the same, frequent binge drinking can sometimes lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder. The main differences are that binge drinkers may only drink heavily on occasion, whereas those with an AUD or alcoholism have a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol and struggle to quit or cut back.
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
If you find yourself unable to control your drinking or stop after a few drinks, you may have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This is more commonly known as alcoholism, and it’s a serious medical condition. For some, the line between binge drinking and alcoholism can become blurred.
AUD, or alcoholism, is diagnosed based on specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and the range of severity can range from mild to severe, depending on the number of symptoms present. It is a chronic condition that can have serious health consequences, including liver disease, cardiovascular problems, neurological damage, mental health disorders (such as depression and anxiety), and relationship difficulties.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder typically involves a combination of behavioral therapies, medications, and support groups. Medical detox is the first step in the recovery process. Individuals with AUD need to seek professional help to address their alcohol-related issues and improve their overall well-being.
Binge Drinking vs Alcoholism: The Main Differences
While binge drinking and AUD are distinct, they can sometimes coexist or overlap. Binge drinking can be a precursor to developing AUD, and individuals who engage in binge drinking may be at a higher risk of developing alcohol-related problems in the future. Here are several aspects in which they differ:
Binge drinking and alcoholism differ in their behaviors and habits around alcohol consumption.
- As a binge drinker, you may only drink heavily on weekends or at parties, abstaining during the week. An alcoholic, on the other hand, feels a strong craving for alcohol frequently and has trouble limiting intake.
- Binge drinkers can go days or weeks without alcohol, only drinking to excess sporadically. Alcoholics struggle to stop at just one drink and feel an ongoing compulsion to drink.
- Binge drinkers usually only drink in social situations, often to feel less inhibited or fit in with a crowd. Alcoholics will frequently drink alone or make excuses to drink in isolation.
- Hangovers and blackouts are common for binge drinkers, but they do little to curb future binge episodes. Alcoholics continue excessive drinking even when physical or social problems arise.
The severity of dependence differs between binge drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Binge drinking can have negative consequences, but not all individuals who engage in binge drinking meet the criteria for AUD. AUD represents a more severe form of alcohol dependence characterized by a compulsive need for alcohol, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and impaired control over drinking.
While binge drinking is indeed a serious issue, it typically does not necessitate the same level of treatment as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Binge drinking can often be addressed through brief interventions and short-term treatments, such as educational programs, counseling, and strategies to reduce risky behaviors. The focus is on modifying drinking behaviors and preventing future episodes of binge drinking.
On the other hand, AUD treatment typically calls for a thorough and long-term approach, involving expert counseling, support groups, medication-assisted treatment, and ongoing support to achieve sober living in New Jersey.
Binge drinking can lead to immediate risks such as accidents, injuries, or impaired judgment during an episode of excessive drinking. However, it may not have the same long-term impact on various aspects of life, such as relationships, work, and overall functioning, compared to AUD. AUD often has a more pervasive and chronic effect on multiple areas of life due to the persistent nature of alcohol dependence.
What are the Health Risks of Drinking Too Much Alcohol?
Excessive alcohol use, whether in the form of binge drinking or alcoholism, poses serious health risks. The more you drink, especially in one sitting, the greater the damage to your body and mind.
Physical Health Issues
Drinking too much alcohol regularly can wreak havoc on your physical health. Some of the major risks include:
- Liver disease. Heavy alcohol use is the leading cause of liver disease in the U.S. Cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis can develop, causing permanent liver damage.
- Heart disease. Excessive drinking leads to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and other issues that raise the risk of heart disease over time.
- Increased cancer risk. Alcohol consumption is linked to several types of cancer, including breast, mouth, esophageal, and colon cancers.
- Brain damage. Both binge drinking and long-term alcohol abuse can cause permanent brain damage, impacting memory, cognition, coordination, and mental health.
- Digestive problems. Heavy alcohol use commonly leads to nausea, diarrhea, ulcers, and acid reflux. It can inflame the stomach lining and damage the digestive tract.
- Weakened immune system. Excessive alcohol suppresses your immune system, making you more prone to illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Mental Health Effects
In addition to the physical impacts, excessive alcohol use also takes a major toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Some of the psychological effects of binge drinking and alcoholism include:
- Depression and anxiety. Alcohol abuse is linked to a higher risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
- Impaired judgment. Binge drinking impairs judgment and decision-making, leading to risky behavior, violence, and legal or relationship problems.
- Long-term, excessive alcohol use can lead to alcohol use disorder, a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an inability to stop or control alcohol use.
The health effects of excessive alcohol use are serious, but the good news is that many of them are reversible by quitting or cutting back on drinking. The sooner you make a change, the better your chances of avoiding permanent damage. Reducing alcohol intake, or eliminating it, is one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being.
Seeking Proper Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Seeking proper treatment for alcoholism and binge drinking is crucial for addressing these issues effectively. Here are some considerations for finding appropriate treatment:
Start by seeking a professional assessment to determine the severity of your alcohol-related problems and identify any underlying factors contributing to your drinking behaviors. This assessment can help guide you toward the most suitable treatment options.
Treatment programs for alcohol-related problems vary depending on the severity of the issues. For individuals struggling with binge drinking, therapy or counseling sessions can be effective interventions. However, for those dealing with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), a more comprehensive and long-term treatment approach is typically recommended. This can include inpatient rehabilitation programs, outpatient programs, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and medication-assisted treatment when appropriate.
It’s essential to address any co-occurring mental health issues alongside alcohol-related problems. If you have underlying anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders, seek integrated treatment at a dual diagnosis rehab that addresses both the alcohol-related concerns and your mental well-being.
Get Help at Discovery Institute
When struggling with alcohol addiction, it is essential to seek proper treatment to embark on the path to recovery. Get the best help you need at the Discovery Institute! We provide comprehensive and personalized treatment programs designed to address the unique needs of individuals with alcohol addiction. Remember, reaching out for assistance is a brave and empowering move on your path toward regaining control of your life. Contact us now!
Dr. Joseph Ranieri D.O. earned his BS in Pharmacy at Temple University School of Pharmacy in 1981 and His Doctorate Degree in Osteopathic Medicine at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1991. He is Board Certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and a Diplomate of the American Board of Preventive Medicine Addiction Certification. Dr. Ranieri has lectured extensively to physicians, nurses, counselors and laypeople about the Disease of Addiction throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania since 2012.