The term ‘binge drinking’ is widely misunderstood.
Most of us have heard stories that go something like this: “He (or she) went on a binge and woke up days later in a strange town (or strange hotel, or in jail, or without shoes, or naked and penniless on a park bench, etc. . . .).” You can fill in the most horrible post-binge circumstances you can imagine, and there’s probably a story circulating somewhere that’s close to it.
It’s stories like these that have led people to consider ‘binge drinking’ as tossing down endless amounts of alcohol over the course of several days—the infamous ‘lost weekend’ scenario.
But in recent years, binge drinking has been killing or maiming increasing numbers of young people all over America—and in a single evening of heavy drinking, not a weekend, or a week.
As the incredibly dangerous effects of heavy, concentrated drinking have become better understood, binge drinking has been completely, and officially, redefined—not out of some misguided puritanical attempt to be party-poopers, but in the hopes it will save more young lives.
Binge drinking is now defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as any single episode of alcohol consumption that raises your Blood Alcohol Concentration (or Content), referred to simply as BAC, to 0.08% or above. There’s no time limit—just getting your BAC to 0.08% or above is bingeing.
And here’s the kicker: Getting BAC to over 0.08% in most people happens way more quickly than you realize—for most men, 4 drinks in about two hours, and for most women, 3 drinks in two hours, will do it.
And what many people also don’t realize, or learn the hard way, is that continuing to binge can rapidly lead to severe illness, unconsciousness, coma, brain damage, and death.
WHAT IS BAC, AND WHY SHOULD I CARE?
BAC is the amount of alcohol in your blood. It is expressed as a percentage, determined by calculating the number of milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood.
But watching the number of drinks you consume is a not a reliable way to determine your BAC. Variations in weight, sex, body fat, metabolism and tolerance for alcohol mean that even two people of the same age, gender and weight will have different BAC’s after the same number of drinks.
Unless you have developed a high tolerance for alcohol, a BAC of 0.20% is seriously dangerous. Most low-tolerance drinkers will be unconscious at about 0.15%, and 0.35% to 0.40% is potentially fatal alcohol poisoning—the accepted lethal dose for 50% of all adult humans.
Why care about BAC? Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, just like the narcotics that killed Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, and many others. When alcohol reaches your brain it has a depressant effect.
The more you drink, the lower your pulse rate and blood pressure go, along with increasing loss of sensation, and decreases in vision, hearing, balance and muscle coordination. It only takes a few drinks to raise BAC beyond the legal limit and escalate into the danger zone. A few more after that, and the race to the emergency ward and the fight for your life is on—if you’re lucky enough to have someone nearby to call 911.
Far too many binge drinkers frequently and unexpectedly lose consciousness, slip into a coma, and die, while their friends sit by idly by, thinking the person is sleeping it off.
BINGE DRINKING AND CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER
Even if you don’t binge to above the legal limit, simply bingeing on a regular basis—like so many college students and young adults in the US, the UK and many other countries every Friday or Saturday night—your health can be rapidly compromised.
A recent study in the UK has found regular binge-drinking young adults—some as young as 25 and younger—turning up with alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver.
Cirrhosis is scarring of liver tissue, an often fatal liver disease that until recently was thought to be a risk only for older alcoholics — the disease you can expect after years of constant, daily alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Cirrhosis has other causes, including Hepatitis B and C, but turning up among binge-drinking kids in their 20s has created quite a stir in medical circles, because of its association only with long-term alcoholism.
And other studies are showing that drinking just a few drinks on a daily basis can also lead to serious health problems. Even without getting intoxicated or qualifying as alcoholism, this kind of drinking is now considered a dangerous form of alcohol abuse.
ALCOHOL-RELATED HEALTH ISSUES
Alcohol abuse can cause:
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Cancers of the liver, mouth, brain or throat
- High blood pressure
- Unintentional injuries—traffic accidents, falls, burns and drowning
- Violence—fights, child or spousal abuse, homicides and suicides
- Serious, irreversible harm to a developing fetus if a woman drinks while pregnant, called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS.
BINGE DRINKING COMPLICATIONS
Binge drinkers are most at risk for serious complications because they are usually young, inexperienced, and do not understand some of the complications that can arise from excessive alcohol intake, or mixing alcohol with drugs.
Young binge drinkers also don’t recognize the symptoms of lethal alcohol toxicity, which has led to the unnecessary and tragic deaths of many young people who were left along to ‘sleep it off’ when in fact they were comatose and dying.
Many younger people can also have undiagnosed medical conditions that are worsened by drinking to excess. And all sorts of over-the-counter and prescription medications contribute to and hasten the depression of the central nervous system.
ALCOHOL WITHDRAWAL AND MEDICAL ALCOHOL DETOX
If you have become an alcoholic or dependent on alcohol through regular abuse, medical supervision during withdrawal from the alcohol is essential because the process can be life-threatening.
SYMPTOMS OF ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE
Someone dependent on alcohol experiences the following:
- A strong craving for alcohol
- Continued drinking despite harm or personal injury
- An inability to limit your drinking
- A need to increase the amount of alcohol consumed in order to feel the effects
- Physical illness when you try to stop drinking.
The first step to protect and recover your health is a medically supervised alcohol detox program. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start within 6 to 48 hours after your last drink, and usually include:
- Loss of appetite
Depending on your metabolism, how much you usually drink, and how long you’ve been drinking, withdrawal can also cause a potentially life-threatening condition called delirium tremens (‘the DTs’).
The symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Total confusion
- Panic attacks
- Convulsions and Seizures
One in four people withdrawing from alcohol dependence are at high risk of life-threatening seizures which can only be controlled through medical intervention. That’s the main reason why medically supervised alcohol detox is absolutely necessary as the first step in treatment.
Of course, medical alcohol detox also helps minimize all the discomforts of alcohol withdrawal, to get you through and moving forward into a proven and effective alcohol rehab program to fully recover your life without depending on alcohol to solve life’s problems.