Are Binge Drinkers and Alcoholics the Same?

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People who go on alcohol binges get drunk in just a short amount of time as a result of concentrated heavy drinking. There is some overlap between individuals who fall into this category of alcohol consumers and people who have diagnosable symptoms of alcoholism. However, binge drinking and alcoholism are not the same thing. A brief overview will help explain their differences and underscore the need to receive treatment for binge drinking.

Binge Drinking Essentials

Binge drinking is defined by a specific act: consuming enough alcohol to reach a legally intoxicated state in no more than approximately 120 minutes. Because men and women have differing abilities to process alcohol, they also must consume differing amounts of alcohol to cross the drunkenness threshold (a blood alcohol content of at least 0.08%) when drinking. The average man fully meets the criteria for binge drinking after rapidly consuming a minimum of five standard servings of alcohol. The average women meets these criteria after rapidly consuming a minimum of four standard servings of alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that approximately 17% of U.S. adults take part in alcohol binge drinking about once weekly. The practice is especially common among people whose habitual alcohol intake exceeds the limits for moderate consumption. More than nine in 10 individuals in this category qualify as binge drinkers. Overall, more than 50% of all the alcohol consumed throughout the country is imbibed by people on binges.

Alcoholism Essentials

People affected by alcoholism have long-term changes in their brain function that lead to a physical need to drink alcohol in order to feel “normal.” They also experience a range of other symptoms that commonly include:

  • An inability to limit their alcohol intake
  • Strong alcohol cravings that lead to more drinking
  • The need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to feel an effect
  • Prioritization of drinking over major life responsibilities or obligations
  • Repeated use of alcohol in clearly dangerous situations, and
  • Development of withdrawal symptoms (some of which can be severe or even life-threatening) when drinking stops for even short periods of time

The behavioral symptoms of alcoholism frequently overlap in one way or another with the symptoms of non-addicted alcohol abuse. In fact, the two conditions are intermingled so often that doctors now view all the symptoms of each, not as separate problems, but as indications of one condition — alcohol use disorder.

Areas of Overlap and the Importance of Quitting Binge Drinking

Most people who binge on alcohol do not meet the criteria for alcohol dependence/alcoholism. If this is the case, why should you quit binge drinking? The answer to this question has a couple of major facets. First, if you regularly binge on alcohol, you drastically increase your chances of qualifying as a heavy drinker. In turn, anyone who drinks heavily at least once a month experiences a roughly 20% chance of eventually developing alcoholism or serious, non-addicted alcohol abuse. The odds increase even further if you drink heavily once a week, and reach a full 50% if you drink heavily at least twice weekly. Even if you never qualify for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, you have another important reason to quit binge drinking. People who binge on alcohol even occasionally significantly boost their exposure to a broad range of serious harms. A partial list of these harms includes:

  • Heightened sexual assault risks (whether as a victim or perpetrator)
  • Heightened accidental injury risks
  • Heightened intentional injury risks
  • Heightened risks for unwanted pregnancy, and
  • Heightened chances of experiencing a sexually transmitted illness

People who regularly binge on alcohol also seriously increase their chances of developing alcohol-related kidney, liver, nerve and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems. In addition, women who binge regularly seriously boost their chances of giving birth to children affected by fetal alcohol syndrome.  Resources Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – Rethinking Drinking: How Much Is Too Much?                                                                       

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