For many teens and young adults, alcohol is thought of as a “normal” part of the high school and/or college experience - and many people subsequently lose sight of the very real dangers associated with underage drinking. In addition, the drinking games, competitions and bets that can be associated with alcohol use in the high school and college years significantly raise the rates of a very dangerous form of alcohol use – binge drinking. While moderate alcohol use certainly has its own risks, binge drinking brings on its own special set of problems – and is something that teens and young adults need to be well informed about so they can make healthier choices when it comes to drinking.
WHAT IS BINGE DRINKING?
While there is no set consensus on an exact definition for binge drinking, it is generally referred to as heavy drinking over an evening or a similar time period. People who binge drink often do so with the intention of becoming intoxicated, and most binge drinking for teens and young adults occurs within peer groups. For men, binge drinking generally means consuming five drinks in a row, and four for women. However, keep in mind that these figures are only averages, as some people will be affected by alcohol more quickly than others – what four drinks do to one woman, two or three drinks may do to another.
THE BAC AND BINGE DRINKING
When binge drinking occurs, the body cannot adequately process the amount of alcohol that has been consumed – this is basically because it is just too much too fast. A person who is binge drinking can easily end up with a dangerously high blood alcohol content (BAC), which refers to the concentration of alcohol in the blood. BAC is generally measured and reported as grams of alcohol per 1000 milliliters of blood. For example, a BAC of .20% means 0.2 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. A person’s BAC can be determined (within a limited time following alcohol consumption) through blood tests, urine tests, and most commonly with the use of a breathalyzer.
The following are physical and behavioral reactions that can occur depending on a person’s BAC. Keep in mind, however, that these are just estimates – different amounts of alcohol will have different effects on various people. Also important to remember is that because the amount of alcohol consumed is so uncontrolled with binge drinking, a person’s BAC can easily jump from 0.03% (a state closer to mild intoxication) to a 0.50% BAC level in no time.
BAC of 0.18 to 0.30%
- Significant confusion is present, with a person in this state often unsure of where he/she is and what he/she is doing.
- Staggering and dizziness occurs.
- A heightened emotional state is present, with the person being overly aggressive, withdrawn, or affectionate.
- Vision, speech, and awareness are impaired.
- A person in this state will display poor coordination and a poor response to pain.
- Nausea and vomiting often occur.
BAC of 0.25 to 0.40%
- Movement is severely impaired.
- There are lapses in and out of consciousness.
- A person can slip into a coma and become completely unaware of surroundings, the passage of time, and actions.
- The risk of death is very high due to alcohol poisoning and/or pulmonary aspiration of vomit while unconscious.
BAC of 0.35 to 0.50%
- Unconsciousness occurs.
- Reflexes are depressed.
- Breathing is slower and shallower and the heart rate drops.
- Death usually occurs at levels in this range.
BAC of more than 0.50%
- Alcohol can cause central nervous system to fail, resulting in death.
CONSEQUENCES OF UNDERAGE DRINKING
Since binge drinking can occur with teens and young adults in high school and college, it is also important to be aware of the risks that come with underage drinking. It is both illegal and unsafe, and can bring on a whole set of problems on top of those specifically connected with binge drinking.
- Underage drinkers risk losing their license, going to jail, having their car impounded, and losing their college financial aid.
- Underage drinking is more likely to kill young people than all illegal drugs combined.
- The younger a person starts drinking, the more likely he or she is to have drinking problems later on.
HOW TO AVOID BINGE DRINKING AND OTHER DRINKING SITUATIONS
So now that you have a better understanding of what binge drinking is and how it can negatively impact you in a physical, behavioral, emotional, and legal sense, what can you do to play it safe?
1. When it comes to alcohol use, it is important to keep yourself and the people around you safe.
- While there are still risks involved with moderate alcohol use, if you do make the choice to drink, NEVER drink in excess – meaning no more than two drinks for men per day, and one drink for women per day.
- NEVER drink and drive.
- Do NOT let your friends drink and drive, and NEVER get into the car with an intoxicated driver.
- NEVER mix alcohol with illegal drugs or certain prescription medication (if you are on any type of medication, check with your doctor about any side effects that can occur from interactions between your medication and alcohol).
- When you go out, ALWAYS stay with your group of friends so you do not end up alone and in any unsafe situations.
- Make sure you have the number of someone you can call if you need to be picked up immediately from a problematic or dangerous situation. Whether it is a parent or any other trusted adult – plan ahead about who is available and who you can depend on to come get you if needed.
2. While some people think that “everyone” in high school and college drinks, this is simply not the case. There are plenty of teens and young adults who are not interested in drinking. If you know that drinking is not for you, or you are worried being around people who drink will be too much a temptation for you, make an effort to be friends with and hang out with people whose leisure activities do not focus around alcohol.
3. Plan ahead. If there is an event coming up, like graduation or the prom, where there is a higher potential to be around drinking, make plans for you and your friends for a fun night where liquor will not play a part.
- Talk to your parents about having a post-event party at your house where you will have a certain amount of adult supervision and where alcohol will not be allowed.
- Go somewhere – like a comedy club – where you can have a fun time and be with all your friends, but where alcohol will not be an option.
- To avoid after-party situations altogether, suggest that you and your friends do not stay out too late, but get home a decent time so that you can get up early the next morning for a fun day trip, like going to the beach or an amusement park.
- Go in with friends to rent a limo for your prom. You can have your parents ensure that the driver will not let any drinking go on in the limousine, and that the driver will remove all the alcohol from the limo before anyone is picked up. Your parents can even have the limo driver call them at any stops you make to let them know how and what you are doing.
4. If you think you will be around any drinking, come up ahead of time with some things you can say to get out of drinking. Be causal about it, maybe make a joke, and then find a way to change the subject – but stay strong about your position of not wanting to drink.
- Be honest: “No thanks – drinking isn’t my thing.”
- Put the blame on your parents: “I actually have to call my parents a couple of times while I’m out, plus they’ll see me when I get home – so it’s probably better I don’t drink and get in trouble with them. They’re a little overprotective – what can I do?!”
- Use a creative excuse: “I’m on antibiotics right now, and my doctor said they won’t work if I drink anything. And there is not way I want to get sick again or have to start with these antibiotics all over again.”
- Use another creative excuse: “I actually have a really big day tomorrow, and I need to be feeling good. So drinking isn’t probably the best idea right now. What I could use is something to eat – let’s go get some food!”
IF YOU ARE WORRIED YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH DRINKING
If you are worried that you may have a problem with drinking, talk with your parents, primary care physician, school counselor, or any other trusted adult – and they can help you to get the treatment you need. You may have a problem with drinking if:
- You depend on drinking to get through certain situations (i.e., you cannot be in social situations without a drink)
- Drinking interferes with any aspects of your life (i.e., relationships, school, work, etc.)
- You have tried unsuccessfully to cut down on your alcohol consumption
- People have approached you with concerns about your drinking.
- You find that you have a tendency to binge drink – once you get started it is hard to stop, and you often end up getting drunk when you do drink.
- You experience various kinds of problems while you are drinking: getting into fights with other people, blacking out and not being able to remember where you were with or what you were doing, trying to or actually driving while drunk, waking up in unfamiliar places, engaging in any self-harming behaviors (like self-cutting), or having unprotected sex or being in other kinds of unsafe sexual situations.
The following are resources if you are worried that alcohol may be a problem for you:
- National Institute on Drug Abuse & Alcoholism, 1-888-644-6432
- If you live in northern New Jersey and need help finding a therapist you can call the Access Center from Atlantic Behavioral Health at 888-247-1400. Outside of this area you can log onto the US Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website for referrals in your area.