Though the terms ‘binge drinking’ and ‘alcoholism’ (known clinically as ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’) are words you are most likely familiar with, it can be challenging to determine the difference between them. Understanding the two terms and how they coincide with one another can help one from falling victim to possible alcohol addiction or chronic alcohol abuse. Knowing the signs and differences of both disorders can help an individual avoid the severity of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and the possible need for treatment.
Understanding the significant differences between binge drinking and crippling alcoholism, possible outcomes or consequences when falling into one of the categories could be detrimental to one’s health and potentially be lifesaving to someone on the verge of developing Alcohol Use Disorder.
What Is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking, sometimes referred to as “binge drinking disorder,” is when an individual consumes enough alcohol that their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 g/dl or above. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), you are considered a binge drinker if you are a male who consumes more than four alcoholic drinks in one day or a total of 15 or more in one week or a female who consumes more than three alcoholic drinks in one day or a total of eight or more in one week. The average binge drinker consumes eight alcoholic beverages per drinking session, regardless of sex.
Binge drinking often happens at night and in social settings, as we often see in the glamourized way pop culture suggests. However, anytime an individual consumes enough alcohol to reach this level of intoxication, regardless of circumstance, it is still considered binge drinking.
Binge drinking also does not mean one struggles with an alcohol addiction even though they partake in alcohol abuse. We will get to the major differences in the following sections.
Who Binge Drinks?
Binge drinking does not discriminate when it comes to who indulges. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in six adults in the United States participates in binge drinking about four times per month, consuming an average of seven alcoholic beverages per incident. That equates to nearly 500 drinks a year per binge drinker.
Though many adults binge drink, it is primarily found in a younger population, specifically between the ages of 18-34. Over half of American college students admit to binge drinking, but according to the CDC, 70% of binge drinking occurs among adults older than 26. Men are also more likely to binge drink, and the practice is more common in groups of people with more education and a higher salary.
While some people stop drinking heavily once they have gotten a bit older, pop culture has made binge drinking socially acceptable well into your 20s and even early 30s. In movies, television shows, and music videos alike, binge drinking is celebrated, contributing to the continuation of the dangerous practice without concern for how it will affect the health of the population that consumes this type of media.
What Is Chronic Binge Drinking?
There is no specific definition of chronic binge drinking, but it essentially means abusing alcohol persistently, often, or for a long period of time. However, the difference between someone who binge drinks a couple of times a year and does so regularly is usually easy to spot.
Most chronic binge drinkers do not meet the definition for alcoholism, but they are still at risk of Alcohol Use Disorder, and their overall health can suffer. For example, these individuals will most likely develop a very high tolerance to alcohol, needing more and more alcohol to feel intoxicated though they may not yet have an addiction. This leads to them consistently upping their alcohol intake during each binge leading the cycle to continue the more they partake in this behavior, even though they may be able to stop during the week.
However, some chronic binge drinkers have an alcohol addiction and exhibit cravings and withdrawal, two prominent symptoms of AUD, when they have no access to alcohol. These people blend in easily when hanging out with other binge drinkers, but their malaise is palpable when the crowd is taken away. Often, their alcohol abuse or dependency will only be recognized by their close family or friends when they are no longer in a setting where binge drinking is acceptable. Other binge drinkers might just see them as fun and always up for a party, and this is a perfect setup to mask a drinking problem.
Binge Drinking Risks
When engaging in binge drinking, there are risks that most often involve an individual’s safety. As binge drinking means consuming mass amounts of alcohol, individuals can become severely impaired and put themselves at risk for both physical and non-physical injuries.
Being under the influence of alcohol may put someone at risk of falling, drowning, or other physical injuries as balance and coordination are often affected. Emotions can also be affected by high alcohol levels that result in fights, both physical and/or verbal, with other people.
The possibility of alcohol poisoning increases significantly when one binge drinks, which is dangerous to someone’s overall health and can result in an emergency hospital visit.
Binge drinking may lead to alcohol-induced blacking out, where an individual loses all memory and does not know how they are behaving. This could lead to more injury and poor decision-making, resulting in one feeling defeated, embarrassed, or confused the following day. It also may affect your overall memory in the long run.
One’s mental health is at risk with the more alcohol one consumes. Affecting the central nervous system, alcohol affects the brain leading to a higher chance of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
Finally, binge drinking and incessant alcohol use can lead to Alcohol Use Disorder.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism)?
Alcoholism, more appropriately and clinically referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder, is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a pattern of alcohol use” that affects someone’s life drastically due to the incessant need to drink, the inability to stop thinking about alcohol, not being able to control your drinking, arising problems from drinking, the need to consume more each time to achieve the desired effect, and the feeling/symptoms of withdrawal when not consuming alcohol. Where those who binge drink may not have an addiction, those with AUD may often engage in binge drinking, especially as their dependency on alcohol grows.
AUD is a disorder that must be treated like any other chronic illness. There are rehabilitation programs and centers that assist in treatment, recovery groups like Alcohol Anonymous (AA,) and remote alcohol monitoring systems like Soberlink (we will discuss these in detail in the following section). Though binge drinking is dangerous and poses many risks, alcohol addiction treatment and recovery must be handled with a different approach.
Binge Drinking vs. AUD (or Alcoholism) — The Main Differences
Amount of Alcohol Consumption
One difference between binge drinking and AUD is the frequency one drinks to excess. Those who binge drink may do so sparingly and often have gaps between each binge, whereas those with AUD drink more persistently. Those with AUD most often have a consistent routine or ritual that is rarely broken or compromised, in which they consume alcohol.
Dependence on Alcohol and Capacity to Quit Drinking
Many binge drinkers can go through extended periods without alcohol because they do not have a chemical dependency on it, though they enjoy drinking heavily. Those with AUD have an intense craving or need for alcohol because they have become dependent on it; unlike binge drinkers, they cannot go an extended period of time without alcohol consumption and without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Though binge drinking has its own set of risks and is harmful to one’s health, many who engage in the practice have the ability to stop. Those with AUD struggle to stop drinking even if they are aware of their problems and have the desire to quit.
Where and when someone drinks can help identify whether they are a binge drinker or struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder. Those who engage in binge drinking tend to do it publicly in large groups without the desire to hide it, whereas those with AUD often drink alone or in secret. Individuals struggling with AUD often drink throughout the day, whereas binge drinkers usually drink in a socially “acceptable” time frame, like afternoon or evening.
Difference in Treatment
Though binge drinking is a serious issue, it most often does not require the same level of treatment as AUD. Where binge drinking can be solved by brief intervention and short-term treatment, like therapy, AUD requires a long-term approach.
Health Risks of Incessant Alcohol Use
Whether an individual has an alcohol addiction or continuously binge drinks, they are still putting their health at risk. Alcohol is a toxin that negatively affects many different parts of our bodies when consumed in mass amounts for long periods of time. Prolonged alcohol abuse and a lack of continued care may lead to serious health complications and an increased risk for certain cancers.
Some physical health risks of extended alcohol use include:
- Bodily injury like broken bones, bruising, or other major accidents
- High blood pressure
- Heart palpitations, disease, and other heart-related issues
- Liver damage, disease, or failure (cirrhosis)
- Kidney damage, disease, or failure
- Recurring illness like cold or flu due to weak immune system
- Several different cancers, including esophageal, liver, throat, breast, or colon cancer
Your physical health is not the only thing at risk when you choose to abuse alcohol. Other risks include:
- Anxiety, depression, and other mental illness
- Loss of important relationships leading to loneliness and isolation
- Loss of work due to poor performance
- Money loss
- Being arrested or getting into criminal trouble like DUI’s, car accidents, reckless behavior, etc.
Any of these risks could happen to you if you continue abusing alcohol. Both AUD and continuous binge drinking can result in a number of these detrimental experiences. If you fear you may need assistance in managing your drinking, the next section is for you.
Seeking Proper Treatment
Knowing yourself and your habits is essential to determine what kind of treatment is right for you. Depending on the severity of your situation or possible disorder, there are a few ways to engage in treatment.
For those with AUD, their immediate options include inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation centers for 30 or 60 days, which all look different depending on where you look and what option works best for your personal situation. Every rehab has its own pedagogy and approach but is often best for those with severe alcohol addiction, not necessarily those with binge drinking disorder.
For those who aim for sobriety but feel as if clinical rehabilitation is not for you, other resources can help you gain sobriety and recovery from either AUD or chronic binge drinking. The few following resources focus on accountability to stay sober. (This list is not exhaustive:)
- Attending Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings can offer support and camaraderie in a non-judgmental environment. Completely free of cost, AA provides weekly, or evenly daily meetings, depending on your circumstance, as a safe place to discuss your struggles with addiction. AA is beneficial for any type of alcohol abuse.
- An alcohol monitoring tool like Soberlink’s remote breathalyzer can help those with AUD or chronic binge drinking achieve long-standing sobriety when used exclusively or in conjunction with other treatment methods. More than an alcohol testing device, Soberlink’s comprehensive system utilizes wireless connectivity with facial recognition and tamper detection. It allows its users to send real-time results to those in their Recovery Circle, including friends, family, therapists, and treatment professionals. Daily scheduled tests enable individuals to improve accountability while also rebuilding trust with loved ones due to a period of prolonged substance misuse.
Though there are both similarities and differences between binge drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder, it is crucial to understand that they both can be detrimental to one’s health. If you feel like you are struggling with either disorder or any form of alcohol misuse, seek the help necessary to get you the proper treatment and into recovery.