That Weekend Bender Is More Damaging Than You Thought

Your cocktail consumption could be considered binge drinking, and cancer, STDs and accidents are some of the consequences.

It’s hard to watch a movie or television show without observing some sort of event that involves drinking. But what these movies and television shows don’t show is waking up in a detox center not remembering what you did, how you got there, or where your belongings are, says social worker and addiction counselor Deidra Ward, LCSW, LAC, of Medical Center of Aurora in Colorado.

“As a society, we tend to think it’s cool and funny to binge drink, and it’s a culture that gets passed down to our youth.”

But in reality, binge drinking can lead to some serious consequences, like sexually transmitted infections, car accidents as well as certain cancers. One in seven American adults binge drink about four times a month—drinking an average of eight drinks each time.

Ward is a huge advocate for binge drinking education—she recognizes that it’s a major issue and works with patients of all ages to help them tame their drinking habits. Here’s what she had to say about the consequences of binge drinking, who’s most likely to do it and what to do if you or someone you know binge drinks.

What is binge drinking?

Binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is any type of drinking that causes a person’s blood alcohol concentration to reach 0.08. For women, this happens after about four drinks in two hours, and with men, five drinks within two hours. Other typical signs include:

  • Drinking more than you planned
  • Uncontrollable drinking
  • Blackouts or gaps in memory while drinking
  • Violent behavior such as driving drunk, fighting or sexual abuse

A lot of binge drinkers are unaware that they have a problem since they don’t drink every day. “I hear a lot of patients say, ‘I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t do it every day, I only drink in the morning after a hard night, just to help even myself out.’” But Ward says that right there is the problem. “Responses like that indicate someone’s body is showing signs of dependency, and that they’re possibly going through active withdrawal.”

Many people get hangovers from binge drinking and hangovers mean you’re withdrawing from alcohol and that’s a problem, she adds.

Binge drinking is a major problem with young people

Overall, binge drinking is more common in young adults between the ages of 18 and 34, and when it comes to women and men, men are twice as likely to binge drink.

But Ward is very concerned about the number of young people, especially on college campuses who binge drink on a regular basis. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 37.9 percent of college students between the age of 18 and 22 admitted binge drinking sometime in the last month. These high rates are scary, especially since the younger generation is just not as equipped to handle alcohol—especially in large amounts.

“Most adults moderately drink on social occasions, and most are able to weigh the pros and cons of drinking. Adolescents on the other hand, may not understand what alcohol does to their bodies,” says Ward.

A lot of college kids think they don’t have limitations, says Ward, but regardless of whether your brain thinks you have limits, your body does have a limit. “If you push it over the limit by binge drinking, it will revolt, come back and you’ll have some problems.”

Pregnant women are another concern, says Ward. In a 2015 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC announced that 1 out of 10 pregnant women drink and of those, a third of them engage in binge drinking. 

The serious health effects of binge drinking can last a lifetime

Two out of three adult drinkers report exceeding moderate levels at least once a month, and that’s why it’s important to look at how much you’re drinking when you do drink.

“One bad night or one bad decision, can have damaging, lifelong consequences,” says Ward.

Binge drinking can affect you mentally, physically and emotionally: in some instances, the effects are directly related to drinking, and in other cases, changes in judgement can lead to unintended negative consequences, some that may be a result of years and years of binge drinking:

  • Injuries: car accidents, falls, alcohol poisoning, and even death
  • Types of violence, including rape, domestic violence and suicide
  • Sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea
  • Unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, pre-term labor or stillbirth
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
  • Heart problems such as hypertension, stroke and heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Cancers of the breast, colon, liver, esophagus, liver, throat or mouth 
  • Issues with memory and learning
  • Alcohol addiction

Education is key  

The most important thing we can do, says Ward, is to educate our young people. “There is so much work to be done. Binge drinking is alcohol abuse and it should be treated as such.”

And it starts from the top. “We need teachers and guidance counselors who are trained in substance abuse talking about it—we shouldn’t just tell kids not to do it, we should teach them how.” Ward says teaching them how means explaining to them what their brain will go through when they binge drink. We can talk about the fact that there are other ways to fill their time—there are alternatives to keg parties.

3 main things to remember

One bad night or episode—or even a few—doesn’t mean extensive treatment is needed, so it’s important to be open-minded about treatment options. Here are some of the things Ward recommends you do to help yourself or someone you know:

  • Acknowledge the problem: If your child is binge drinking, it’s best to talk to them about it. “Many parents say they don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything,” says Ward. Let them know you want to have an open dialogue about it, that it’s not okay to do and that there are repercussions. And it’s best to set a good example for your kids, too—if you don’t want them binge drinking, you shouldn’t either.

    If you’re a binge drinker yourself and you’ve recognized that you drink too much when you do drink, you’ll want to get help from a professional or someone you love. And if a friend or family member talks with you about binge drinking, try to listen to them with an open mind.
  • Ask questions: When Ward is meeting with a patient that may or may not have admitted they have a problem, she asks them questions, but tries not to trigger defensiveness.

    “We ask questions to provoke dialogue, open-ended questions like, what do they get out of binge drinking, what is it like for them, why do they consider it fun, where do they socialize, who do they associate with and do these friends ever say their drinking is problematic?” You can ask your child, friend, loved one, or even yourself these questions if you think there is a problem.

    Asking these types of questions will help them think about the reasons they binge drink and how it made them feel afterwards, and in turn, help them realize how serious the situation is.
  • Don’t be afraid of treatment: “There’s a stigma around alcohol dependency and that’s why it’s underreported,” says Ward. In addition to being afraid of the problem, many people think that a professional is going to tell them they have to give up alcohol and they are an alcoholic.  A professional who is trained in substance abuse disorders is going to evaluate all aspects of a patients’ life. Contributing factors, such as exposure to trauma, environmental stress and medical factors play a role in accurately diagnosing a patient, says Ward. “Many people don’t know that total abstinence is not always necessary—you might just need to give it up temporarily and work on mental health issues that could be contributing to a desire to self-medicate.”

Ward says that when you’re looking for a professional counselor, find a specialist, someone who is trained to help those with substance use. Reach out to your primary care physician first, or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357 to find a specialist in your area.

Avoiding treatment can lead to alcohol dependency, which can make the consequences worse. If you or someone you know has a binge drinking problem, the treatment options (whether that be group therapy, a detox program or a 12-step program) work—and can help you get back to living your healthiest life.

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