Too many young people are participating in a dangerous practice called binge drinking. It means drinking to intoxication. It's defined as having five or more drinks in a row for men. For women, it's four-plus drinks in a row.
According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 44 percent of U.S. college students are binge drinkers.
"For these students, intoxication is the main goal. And with intoxication may come many other dangers, including dizziness, loss of coordination, diarrhea, vomiting, lack of judgment, or even alcohol poisoning," says Don Timm II, M.D., an emergency medicine physician in Dallas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is linked with unintentional injuries. These include motor vehicle crashes, falls, burns, drowning, and hypothermia. Homicide, suicide, child abuse, domestic violence, hypertension, heart attack, gastritis, pancreatitis, sexually transmitted infections, meningitis, and poor control of diabetes also are the results of binge drinking.
Alcohol poisoning can be a fatal result of binge drinking. Alcohol affects the central nervous system, slowing breathing and heart rate. It also interferes with the gag reflex, which increases the risk of choking on vomit, if the drinker passes out from excess drinking. Blood alcohol levels can continue to rise even if a person passes out. If a person who has been drinking heavily is confused, vomits, has a seizure, has pale skin, or becomes unconscious, it may be a sign of alcohol poisoning.
Other dangers of binge drinking are alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Alcoholism is a disease often marked by these elements:
Craving. The person has a strong need to drink.
Loss of control. The person finds it difficult to stop drinking once he or she starts.
Physical dependence. The person has withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when he or she stops drinking after a period of heavy alcohol use.
Tolerance. The person finds he or she needs to drink more alcohol to get high.
"It's all about an uncontrollable need for alcohol," says Dr. Timm. "Most alcoholics don't have the willpower to stop drinking and need outside assistance to recover from their disease."
Recent research has shown that many people may inherit a vulnerability to alcoholism. Environmental factors, such as peers and the availability of alcohol, also are significant influences.
Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it doesn't include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control, or physical dependence.
Instead, alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that may be accompanied by one or more of the following problems:
Failure to follow through on major work, school, or home responsibilities.
Drinking in situations that are physically dangerous. A person might drink while driving a car or operating machinery.
Recurring alcohol-related legal problems. These include being arrested for driving under the influence or for physically hurting someone while drunk.
Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems caused or worsened by alcohol.
"Many recovering alcoholics will tell you drinking isn't worth it," says Dr. Timm. "The high of binge drinking now can lead to a more dangerous, unhealthy path in the future. It can even be lethal."
© 2014 Main Line Health