Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism

Edited by Paul Alexander

Last updated February 17, 2020

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. Binge drinking is defined as drinking enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 grams percent or above on a regular basis. This roughly equates to five or more alcoholic drinks for men and four or more for women over the span of two hours. Although excessive drinking in this way is indicative of alcohol abuse, it’s not immediately classified in the same way as alcoholism. 

Alcoholism is when a person becomes physically dependent on alcohol. Binge drinking is one way to increase the risk of this occurring. There are enough similarities between the two that it’s important to be cautious of both. When it comes to binge drinking vs. alcoholism, binge drinking is thought of as a stage that can be prevented, while alcoholism requires intensive treatment in order to stabilize a person’s health and well-being.

In short, a person who binge drinks often may be well on the road to developing an addiction to alcohol. On the other hand, a person who is suffering from alcoholism may not binge drink at all. It’s important to understand the link between binge drinking and alcoholism, the side effects, and how to seek treatment for each. 

Identifying The Link Between Binge Drinking and Alcoholism

In many situations, binge drinking is a form of alcoholism due to the inherent need to feel intoxicated without concern for its harmful effects. People who binge drink often are looking to feel intoxicated much quicker. The more a person drinks, especially over a shorter amount of time, the more it affects the brain. It begins to increase the brain’s tolerance to alcohol as it adapts. In order to feel intoxicated, it takes consuming a greater amount than before. 

Every person experiences the feeling slightly differently, but in general, the higher the BAC level, the greater the number of effects that occur. For example, when the body reaches a BAC of .02%, it’s typical to feel warm and relaxed. Your mood may change and you may lose some sense of judgment. 

As it increases to .05%, you experience lower inhibition, exaggerated actions, but still with euphoric feelings. Once it reaches .08% and beyond, reactions change into loss of self-control, judgment, and muscle coordination. This is reflected by poor balance, slurred speech, blurry vision, and other physical side effects. 

Reaching this level of intoxication can occur in under two hours when binge drinking is involved. The time span and amount of alcohol consumed doesn’t give your body enough time to metabolize it properly. It surpasses the feel-good effects and goes straight to the physical and mental side effects that occur. 

Additionally, binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related driving accidents, and other risky situations. Consistent binge drinking leads to long-term effects like alcoholism, but even binge drinking once can prove extremely harmful and in some cases, fatal. 

Common Signs of Binge Drinking

Age can play a part in the likelihood of binge drinking. Binge drinking is highly reported among people ages 18-22. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly two out of three college students engaged in excessive alcohol consumption in the past month. 

Researchers also estimate approximately 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries every year. Even though the prevalence of binge drinking is high among this demographic, anyone is susceptible and can experience the following as a result:

  • Vomiting
  • Lack of self-control
  • Self-destructiveness
  • Blackouts
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness

These are all signs of binge drinking. Any time you drink alcohol faster than your body can process it, you may experience any or all of these symptoms and side effects. It can cause damage to your kidneys, liver, and heart. 

It slowly begins to change how you think, act, and feel. Additionally, you begin drinking to mask your thoughts or feelings. It’s not unusual for a co-disorder, such as depression, to be diagnosed with substance abuse and addiction. 

Common Signs of Alcoholism

Drinking alcohol is often seen as a way to relax and de-stress like during happy hour or with a glass or two of wine at home. However, it’s unhealthy to constantly rely on the effects of alcohol to improve your mood or as a way to relieve tension. What may start out as moderate drinking may slowly morph into an alcohol dependency and addiction. 

If you’re wondering, what is the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism, there’s not much. The drinking behavior and signs are similar. Both demonstrate compulsive actions and each may be indicative of chronic stress or other mental health conditions a person is suffering from. 

Once the brain becomes addicted, through binge drinking or constant drinking of any kind, it depends on alcohol to function. Without it, withdrawal symptoms will occur. These may include one or more of the following:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Chronic headaches
  • Shaking
  • Increased anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

These physical symptoms vary in intensity depending on your addiction level and general health and well-being. There are also everyday warning signs that indicate you may have a problem with substance abuse. 

If you’ve had additional pressures and problems at school and work or with friendships and relationships, each of these areas are telling of how much alcohol may be taking over your life. Have you begun to skip out on responsibilities or change socially due to your alcohol dependence? Do you find yourself making excuses about why you’ve been isolated or lying about your drinking habits?

Many misidentify social drinking with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, especially among young adults. However, you find yourself constantly drinking more than those you are with, feel the need to hide how much you drink, or lie about how much you consume, these are all signs you may have already developed alcohol addiction. 

Does Self-Monitoring Work to Treat Binge Drinking?

Treatment for binge drinking normally requires an acknowledgment of its dangers and making immediate changes. This may involve setting drinking limits, avoiding certain social environments, or abstaining from drinking altogether. If you are prone to drinking to excess versus in moderation, identifying destructive drinking patterns and taking action to reverse or eliminate them may help to prevent alcoholism. Although, you don’t have to reach addiction in order to receive help from others. 

Surround yourself with positive influences and communicate with your friends and family about the changes you’d like to make regarding your drinking habits. Implement alternative ways to engage with others and/or de-stress that doesn’t involve alcohol. By setting goals and self-monitoring how much and how often you drink, this can prevent problems from worsening. 

Once you’re no longer able to control your alcohol consumption, that’s when a greater level of treatment is necessary. 

Why Seeking Professional Treatment For Alcoholism Is Important

Self-monitoring may work for many to limit binge drinking or course-correct any potentially dangerous behaviors. However, if you’ve already reached a point of alcohol addiction, seeking help from an alcohol addiction treatment facility is crucial. 

At this point, trying to quit on your own is less successful. The pain and discomfort of the withdrawal symptoms, plus the temptation and influences that allow you to continue to drink are too strong. Participating in a medically managed detox program provides a safe and secure environment to heal. There are psychiatrists, therapists, tools, and resources in place to help you around-the-clock, as needed. 

Once you’ve completed detox, you’ll enter a second phase of care: residential rehab. This allows you to explore your addiction and learn about its root causes. This is achieved through different forms of therapy and education. By learning what triggers your drinking, rehab provides alternative ways to cope in the future. Residential rehab is recommended for a period of three months and it focuses on your physical, mental, and psychological health.

After residential rehab, there is a four-month period of intensive outpatient treatment. This is a continuation of the therapy you’ve already received, in addition to learning techniques and strategies as you prepare for your future of sober living. This does not require a continued stay at a treatment facility. You can design your program based on your schedule. It’s an important step to maintain sobriety and plan for how you want to correct or improve your life after treatment. 

To round out a full continuum of care, you’ll also have access to addiction support services. These groups and specialized programs are designed to help you meet your individual goals. This may involve seeking guidance for school enrollment or job placement, reconnecting with family, or a combination of different mentoring and counseling. The route of care is determined by you with the help of your care team. 

Binge drinking and any other kind of excessive drinking is a slippery slope toward addiction. What may affect one person may not have the same effect on the other. If you are unable to control your drinking, you have resources and people readily available to you. They are in place to safeguard your health and help you build a stronger, happier path than what addiction can promise.

Sources:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/pdf/bac-a.pdf
  3. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/collegefactsheet/Collegefactsheet.pdf

Article Reviewed by Paul Alexander

Paul AlexanderPaul Alexander is the founder and CEO of Northbound Treatment. He received his Certified Addiction Treatment Specialist training at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA, and was awarded Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 2002. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Law and Society, Summa Cum Laude, from University of California, Irvine, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. He believes wholeheartedly in transformational leadership, organizational health and effective, fully integrated substance use disorder treatment.

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