Binge Drinking

College Drinking and Binge Drinking Facts

When you think of an alcoholic, images of a homeless, scruffy-looking man with a beard drinking a bottle hidden inside a brown paper bag may come to mind. Maybe your image is more informed, as most people now understand that alcoholism can happen to anyone—from high powered, successful business people to stressed out stay-at-home parents. However, most people think problem drinking equates to daily drinking. This is not always the case, especially for college students.

It is widely believed that college and drinking go hand in hand. This is a dangerous belief that has perpetuated risky drinking behaviors, including binge drinking, among the college-age population – the majority of which is not even of legal age to drink at all.

Frequent, heavy drinking is defined as binge drinking

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as, “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) 0.08g/dL,” which occurs after approximately four to five drinks, depending on gender, body weight, tolerance, and other factors.

It is also important to keep in mind that “a drink” is not a universal term for size. One drink refers to one serving of a particular type of alcoholic beverage. The following would be considered one drink:

  • 12 fluid ounces of beer
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine
  • 5 fluid ounces of hard liquor (vodka, tequila, rum, etc.)

Frequently, drinks are not prepared in a standard serving, especially mixed drinks, which are popular among college students. Even a common drink like a Long Island Iced Tea from a reputable bar or restaurant can contain as many as 4-5 standard alcohol servings. Thus, one of these beverages can bring BAC to levels considered binge drinking. This is an extreme example, but the idea that the amount of alcohol consumed was contained in one serving vessel does not equate to having only had “one drink.”

Why do college students drink?

Drinking, even to excess, has historically been accepted as a normal part of the college experience. In fact, when choosing what school to attend, some students look for colleges with a reputation for being a “party school,” over other considerations, like academic rigor, financial aid opportunities, or even sports. Alcohol and Greek Life are so intertwined, overdrinking is sometimes a mandatory part of the recruitment process.

Underage students tend to have much easier access to alcohol while at school than while under the supervision of their parents. Though they aren’t allowed to drink in their dorms, going out to a party where alcohol is available without identification and coming back to the dorm room drunk are common occurrences in college that likely would not go without consequence at home. Further, opportunities to mingle with and befriend upperclassmen who are able to purchase alcohol legally creates even easier access for some underage students to obtain alcohol.

There is an attitude, unspoken or otherwise, among most Americans, that overdrinking in college is acceptable and that most people “grow out of it” by the time they graduate. However, many do not stop overdrinking after college, and many students do not complete their college education because their drinking becomes so problematic.

College drinking statistics

It is widely reported that 80% of college students drink alcohol. Surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that nearly 60% of 18- to 22-year-old college students reported alcohol consumption in the month prior to the survey. Of those, two-thirds admitted to at least one episode of binge drinking in the same time frame.

While most colleges ban the possession and consumption of alcohol by students under 21, the extent to which these policies are monitored is inconsistent from one college to the next. Furthermore, Stanford Daily reports that while colleges who are stricter on their ban of alcohol have 21% fewer students who are considered “heavy drinkers,” these colleges experience alcohol-related problems like accidents, assaults, and deaths, at the same rates as more lax colleges.

Alcohol awareness facts for college students

NIAAA reports the following troubling statistics about alcohol consumption among 18 to 24-year-olds on colleges campuses which students should be aware of:

  • More than 1,800 students in this age range are estimated to die annually in alcohol-related accidents
  • Nearly 700,000 students are assaulted by someone under the influence of alcohol every year
  • Each year, approximately 97,000 students report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault
  • 25% of college students experience academic consequences related to drinking, including absences and poor grades
  • 20% of college students meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD)

College students should be aware of these and other grave risks associated with alcohol use. Some of these consequences can occur from just one-time alcohol use.

What does alcohol do to your body?

Alcohol use has both short- and long-term consequences on the body of the drinker. In the short term, while under the influence, alcohol can have the following physical consequences:

  • Impaired sensory processing (blurred vision, altered hearing)
  • Dizziness and staggering
  • Impotence
  • Incontinence
  • Fatigue
  • Slowed breathing
  • Lowered body temperature

Over time, alcohol can cause lasting damage to various parts of the body, including:

  • Malnutrition
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver damage
  • Infertility
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Birth defects
  • Heart damage
  • Lung infections
  • Brain shrinkage
  • Cancer
  • Osteoporosis

These are just a few of a host of severe physical effects related to long-term alcohol use. Individuals who are physically dependent on alcohol, and/or those who have a high tolerance may experience blackouts, or gaps in memory and consciousness while drunk, and withdrawal, including delirium tremens (DTs), or shaking of the hands and body, upon waking or in the absence of alcohol.

How alcohol affects the brain

Like other substances of abuse, alcohol affects the brain by altering levels of neurotransmitters.

In particular, the following areas are most affected by alcohol:

  • The cerebellum – Responsible for balance, alcohol induced impairment to the cerebellum causes individuals who are drunk to have difficulties walking and remaining upright.
  • The cerebral cortex – Responsible for thinking and sensory processing, impairment to the cerebral cortex due to alcohol use is what reduces inhibitions and distorts thinking.
  • The medulla – Responsible for involuntary, life-dependent activities like breathing and temperature regulation, alcohol-induced medulla impairment causes tiredness at best, and can be life-threatening at worst.

Alcohol also acts on the dopamine system. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that “rewards” humans for engaging in activities that promote personal or species survival, such as eating and having sex, with a small burst of “feel-good” chemicals. Like other drugs, alcohol causes exponentially heightened levels of dopamine in the brain, resulting in feelings of euphoria. Over time, the brain comes to expect the higher levels of dopamine, and it simultaneously begins to produce less of the substance naturally because it is able to obtain it from external sources. This is how drinkers can develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Consequences of harmful and underage college drinking

What makes underage and college drinking so dangerous, in particular, is that the brain does not fully develop until the late 20s, and the parts of the brain that make it easier to stop a harmful activity, such as the prefrontal cortex, are not fully formed or performing fast enough during the college years. This is why college students are at such high risk for binge drinking—it is much harder for them to know when to stop, and they often don’t until they have passed out. Furthermore, the use of alcohol actually impairs the development of those same parts of the brain, further heightening the likelihood of a later AUD.

In addition to AUDs, a host of alcohol-related consequences are associated, in particular, with underage and binge drinking on college campuses. Operating a vehicle under the influence can result in death or injury to the driver, passengers, and people in surrounding vehicles. This also creates a risk for legal consequences, including a driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) charge. Individuals under the influence of alcohol are more likely to be perpetrators and/or victims of violence and sexual abuse. Additionally, alcohol misuse can result in poor academic performance, and even failing or dropping out of school.

Alcohol poisoning is another inherent risk of binge drinking that is especially common among college students.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Low body temperature and/or blueish skin
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting

If it is suspected that someone may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 9-1-1 right away. Remain with the person and ensure that, if they are vomiting, they are in a position in which they will not be at risk of choking on their vomit. Be prepared to provide emergency personnel with as much information as possible about what the person drank.

21 states and the District of Columbia have what are known as Good Samaritan Laws for underage drinking which protect victims of alcohol-related emergencies and their friends who are underage from legal ramifications if they call 9-1-1 for help. Frequently, campuses have similar policies or non-legal consequences for alcohol-related incidents. More information about Good Samaritan Laws can be found here.

How to stop binge drinking

For some college students, education about the dangers of binge drinking and education about appropriate serving sizes is sufficient to help in cutting back alcohol use to less risky quantities. However, some drinkers will require inpatient or outpatient treatment services in order to stop binge drinking.

These may include any or all of the following:

  • Because of the way alcohol interacts with the brain and body, individuals who are alcohol dependent are at risk of seizure and other potentially fatal health risks when withdrawing from alcohol. For this reason, alcohol-depending individuals should usually be under the supervision of a medical professional and have their vital signs monitored in the first week or so of ceasing alcohol use.
  • Residential treatment –  Residential programs can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months in duration. They are usually designed to address the psychological components of alcohol use disorders, including managing cravings, stress management and coping, family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other strategies.
  • Outpatient treatment – Outpatient programs address many of the same psychological concerns that residential programs do, except that outpatient clients are able to return to their homes and, in many cases, can maintain school or work while receiving treatment. This level of care may not be sufficient for individuals who have trouble sustaining sobriety outside of a structured environment.

Almost all AUD programs now address trauma and co-occurring mental health conditions as well. Community based self-help and recovery support are additional resources often recommended during and after formal treatment services.

Alcohol counseling for students and parents

Students who are uncertain whether their drinking is problematic can look to their campus counseling center for resources and information. Additionally, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are available in the community and may be a helpful first step in learning about alcohol use disorders firsthand from individuals who have experienced them and found recovery. Sometimes the counseling centers will provide on-campus AUD and binge drinking education and support groups where students can meet like minded peers who are also looking to stop or cut back their drinking.

Parents, too, can look to the campus counseling center if they have concerns about their child’s behavior while away at college. The Recover also compiles the most relevant and current resources around college binge drinking and underage alcohol use.

Alcohol use disorders can be treated effectively

Don’t fall prey to the false belief that all college drinking is “normal.” If you have experienced adverse health or social consequences related to your drinking and are ready to make a change, treatment is available that can help you to get control of your life back. There is so much more to the college experience than partying. Find out everything your campus has to offer—and remember every moment of it—without alcohol guiding the way. Call The Recover today at (888) 510-3898 or visit our US rehab center map to locate a local rehab center with the inpatient or outpatient programs.