Man takes a beer bottle out of the fridge binge drinking

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. with one in six adults binge drinking four times a month. As people try to cope with the exacerbated stress and anxiety, as well as major shifts in social interactions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of binge drinking have risen and alcohol consumption overall has increased by 23%. In Michigan, binge drinking is an alarming issue for youth that often continues into adulthood for men. There are major short-term and long-term effects of binge drinking on personal health.

Binge Drinking Defined

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings someone’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08g/dL or above. The number of drinks needed to bring someone to this point is impacted by multiple factors including metabolic rate, body fat and build, the type of alcohol and food consumption. However, the guidelines are typically defined by gender:

  • Men: Five or more drinks in two hours
  • Women: Four or more drinks in two hours

Effects of Binge Drinking

The short-term effects of binge drinking are significant:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Dangers to the fetus in pregnant women including miscarriage, stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
  • Injuries including vehicle crashes, falls, drownings or burns
  • Risky sexual behavior like unprotected sex that could lead to sexually transmitted infections, HIV or unintended pregnancy
  • Violent or suicidal behaviors

The long-term effects of binge drinking are both physical and social:

  • Alcohol use disorder or alcohol dependence
  • Anxiety
  • Cancers of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Family problems
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease
  • Lowered productivity and workplace issues
  • Memory and learning problems
  • Stroke
  • Weakened immune system

Most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder; however, a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder is based on issues that alcohol causes in an individual’s life. Alcohol use disorder consists of a pattern of drinking that involves the inability to limit consumption, being preoccupied with alcohol and continuing to drink despite associated problems. It’s important to address alcohol use disorder early with treatment.

Impact of COVID-19

Individuals who binge drink have increasingly turned to alcohol as an unhealthy coping behavior during the pandemic, according to a recent survey. Heavy drinking increased the most among women. The same survey found rates of binge drinking were unchanged by the pandemic among groups of non-binge drinkers, indicating that they did not use alcohol as a coping mechanism.

For binge drinkers, the pandemic can pose a threat to their short-term and long-term health – underscoring the importance of adopting healthier stress management techniques:

  • Build good sleep habits
  • Connect with others in the community, even if virtually
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get regular exercise
  • Keep up with friends
  • Make time for hobbies
  • Practice relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, deep breathing or massage

Binge drinkers can initiate changes on their own by setting limits on how many drinks they have, pacing out their alcohol drinks with non-alcoholic beverages and eating a meal before drinking. If these steps are unsuccessful, individuals should seek additional help to curb their drinking habits.

Anyone seeking help for alcohol dependency should start with their primary care provider or a mental health provider. They will provide a professional diagnosis as well as a treatment plan based on individual needs. Depending on the severity of symptoms, providers may recommend a combination of therapy and medication.

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker is an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

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Photo credit: master1305

 

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