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Alcohol and binge drinking

Some people think that a heavy-drinking session occasionally or once a week is no problem if they don’t drink every day. But ‘saving up’ your drinks and then having them all at once – what’s known as ‘binge drinking’ – can be harmful even if you don’t drink alcohol very often.

How can binge drinking affect my health?

Binge drinking is defined as episodic excessive drinking. In Australia, this type of drinking behaviour is particularly prevalent among young adults (aged 18–24). How many drinks make up a ‘binge’ session has not really been established. What is known though is that excessive drinking in a short space of time has both immediate and long-term effects on your health.

Short-term health problems

Binge drinking can lead to immediate symptoms like headaches, dizziness or dehydration. It can also make you feel sick or vomit, or you could pass out. You may feel ‘hungover’ the next morning. You may even experience memory loss about some of the time you were out drinking.

Because alcohol slows down your coordination, judgement and response time, it can increase your chances of harming yourself or others through injury or violence. It also reduces your inhibition, which can make you behave recklessly. This may lead to sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancy from unsafe sex. There’s also the risk of injuries and even death to yourself and others from drink-driving.

It’s also possible to overdose on alcohol just like any other drug. ‘Alcohol poisoning’ – when you overdose on alcohol – is a dangerous and potentially fatal consequence of binge drinking. It happens when your blood alcohol level rises to a dangerous point.

Signs of alcohol overdose include nausea, vomiting, very slurred speech, confusion, lack of coordination, a low body temperature that can give the skin a blue tinge, and irregular or slow breathing. If someone you know develops these symptoms while you are out drinking or shortly after, get medical help. If the overdose is severe, it can lead to coma, brain damage or death.

Long-term health problems

Regularly drinking alcohol over time increases your risk of the following:

  • cancer, heart disease, diabetes or becoming overweight
  • mental health problems such as anxiety and depression
  • alcohol-related brain injury (ARBI) if you develop a drinking problem. This can be mild, moderate or severe and the type of brain damage experienced depends on how alcohol has caused the damage. People with ARBI often have problems with their memory and thinking processes
  • deficiency in important vitamins such as folate, vitamin A, and thiamine (vitamin B1)
  • liver damage
  • brain damage
  • some cancers, particularly of the mouth, throat or oesophagus
  • sexual impotence, especially if you’re a man.

You may also develop a physical and/or psychological dependency on alcohol. This is when you become so tolerant of alcohol that it becomes necessary for you to continue to function. If you try to stop drinking or cut down the amount you drink, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, anxiety, vomiting, sweating and insomnia.

More information on problem drinking

What other problems can binge drinking cause?

Having a heavy drinking session can also affect other aspects of your life in addition to your health.

While drinking Longer term
You may lose valuable items such as wallets and mobile phones Problems with relationships at school, work or in the home
You could lose your licence if you’re caught drink-driving You may get yourself into financial difficulty due to reckless spending buying alcohol or while under the influence of alcohol; or if you often take time off work to recover from your drinking
Makes you vulnerable to unsafe or unwanted sexual advances or assault  

What is a safe amount to drink?

Because everyone is affected differently by alcohol, there is no definitive amount of alcohol that is considered safe for everyone. However, the evidence from big population studies suggests that adults:

  • Drink no more than two standard drinks a day to prevent adverse effects to health
  • Limit consumption to no more than four standard drinks in one sitting to reduce the chances of injury or doing things you’ll later regret.

Tips for staying out of trouble with alcohol

  • Have a non-alcoholic drink first to take the edge off your thirst and help slow down drinking
  • Drink water between alcoholic drinks.
  • Try a non-alcohol drink, and alternate with alcohol drinks to help you cut down on how much you drink overall.
  • Drink slowly - sip, don’t gulp.
  • Drink from a small glass - some wine glasses can hold two or more standard drinks.
  • Know what you’re drinking - some cocktails and ‘alcopop’ drinks are high in alcohol even if they don’t taste like it.
  • Eat before and while drinking - this will slow the rate at which your body absorbs alcohol, but go easy on salty snacks - they’ll make you thirsty.
  • Avoid getting into ‘rounds’ or ‘shouts’ - they can make you drink faster and drink more than usual.
  • Set limits for yourself and stick to them. Don’t let other people talk you into drinking more than you want.
  • Do something other than drink while you’re out. Dancing, playing music or games can take the focus away from drinking.
  • Think ahead. If you’re out drinking with friends and driving, decide which one of you will stay sober and be the designated driver.

What help is available?

Whether it’s you or someone else who has a drinking problem, there are services that can help. Some of these services are listed below in the Further Information section.

Further information

Alchol and Drug Foundation
www.adf.org.au/

Australian Drug Information Network 
www.adin.com.au/help-support-services

Smart Recovery 
www.smartrecoveryaustralia.com.au

The Right Mix 
www.therightmix.gov.au

Sources

Australian Drug Foundation. The facts about binge drinking. [online] [Last reviewed Jun 2009; accessed 20 May 2014] Available from: www.druginfo.adf.org.au

Charles J Valenti L Miller G. Binge drinking. Aust Fam Physician. 2011; 40: 569.

Demirkol A Haber P Conigrave K. Problem drinking. Management in general practice. Aust Fam Physician. 2011; 40: 576–582.

Headspace. Factsheet 3: Alcohol and binge drinking. [online] [Accessed 20 May 2014] Available from: www.headspace.org.au

National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2009.

National Health Service (UK). NHS Choices. Alcohol poisoning – symptoms. [online] [Last reviewed Jun 2012; accessed 20 May 2014] Available from: www.nhs.uk

Synapse. Alcohol-related brain injury [online] 2014. [Accessed 20 May 2014] Available from: www.synapse.org.au

Last updated: 21 July 2014

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.