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On the surface, it’s easy to tell the difference between binge drinking and an alcohol dependency. Binge drinking, simply put, is five drinks for men and four drinks for women in a period of two to three hours. Alternatively, alcohol dependence is fewer drinks in a short time but more drinks at regular intervals, and meeting three of the seven “criteria for dependence” articulated by the Centers for Disease Control.
The danger about underestimating the risks of binge drinking is that when left unchecked, binge drinking can lead to serious problems and an increased likelihood for alcohol dependency and alcohol use disorders. Even though not all binge drinkers become alcohol dependent, there are similarities in experience and adverse effects, as well as an increase in likelihood for the development of dependency with continued excess drinking.
Both binge drinking and alcohol dependency can result in negative consequences to physical, emotional and social health. Warning signs and issues to watch for, according to the seven dependence criteria, include “tolerance, withdrawal, impaired control, unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop drinking, continued use despite problems, neglect of activities, and time spent in alcohol-related activity.”
Excessive drinking can lead to the body building a tolerance to alcohol in which brain functions actually begin to adapt to the effect of alcohol on the mind and the body. Tolerance is notable when after enough drinks to ordinarily elevate blood alcohol levels to intoxication, there are no obviously altered behavioral symptoms of intoxication. Commonly, with increased tolerance comes increased consumption, which can in turn lead to more serious health risks including alcohol dependence.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can appear as little as six hours after stopping drinking and can continue to appear up to three days later. Withdrawal symptoms can range from minor to major complications, depending on the amount you have been drinking and for how long. Alcohol dependence is exhibited by withdrawal symptoms that can be eased by the consumption of alcohol.
Minor symptoms of withdrawal can include:
- Stomach ache
- Heart palpitations
Major symptoms of withdrawal can include:
- Visual, auditory or tactile hallucinations
- Heart racing
- Delirium tremens
Continued Use Despite Problems
People with an alcohol problem, and in some cases also binge drinkers, share a common symptom, which is continued use of alcohol despite consequences. Consequences can range in severity, and the persistence of drinking despite more severe consequences points to a greater problem with alcohol dependency. Some of these problems include injuries to self or others, property damage, high-risk sexual behavior, missing school or work, and an overall inability to follow through on obligations. Other problems include physical concerns like liver damage and malnutrition. Legal consequences like DUIs and jail time as a result of reckless driving and other behavior are also common. Additionally, professional and personal relationships often suffer as a result of a person’s alcohol problem.
Health problems can include immediate effects experienced during or shortly after intoxication, such as alcohol poisoning, or bruising caused from slumping over a toilet seat, vomiting, or banging into things without knowing. The next morning after intoxication can bring terrible hangovers accompanied by severe headaches, sensitivity to light, vomiting to the point of emptying only bile, and dry heaving. The longer term physical effects of excessive drinking can include more severe, permanent or even fatal consequences. Injuries incurred from physical fights, for example, can lead to broken bones and internal bleeding. Drunk driving that leads to a car accident can result in a concussion, paralysis, permanent disfigurement and even death.
In summary, health problems from binge drinking or alcohol dependence can include:
- Unintentional injuries (e.g., car crashes, falls, burns, drowning)
- Intentional injuries (e.g., firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence)
- Alcohol poisoning
- STDs and sexual dysfunction
- Unintended pregnancy
- High blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases
- Liver disease
- Neurological damage
An alcohol problem creates social problems in all spheres of life for the alcohol dependent person. Work performance and school attendance suffer during intoxication as well as during the interims between drinking when one is trying to recover. Alienation of family members, coworkers and friends as a result of drinking and behavior while under the influence is common. Increased isolation comes as a result of strained relationships and is compounded by neglect of other interests. Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities such as sports leagues, playing with one’s kids, going out to dinner with friends, and time spent in creative pursuits often diminish. Social problems related to alcohol abuse can include:
- Loss of or strain on friendships and relationships with family, colleagues and romantic partners
- Slowed cognitive response during intoxication or withdrawal
- Behavioral outbursts during intoxication or withdrawal
- Lateness to work
- Increased sick or personal days
- Slowed response time and comprehension
- Lack of follow through, responsibility and accountability
- Impaired motor skills that prevent successful or efficient completion of even mundane tasks
- Loss of car or license due to legal consequences, crashes, DUI’s, or other drunk driving accidents
Emotional problems experienced as a result of excessive drinking impact the person drinking as well as their immediate environment. Internally, emotional problems such as persistent anxiety and depressive symptoms can lead to further alcohol abuse and a feeling that it is impossible to get out of the cycle of problem drinking. More severe short-term and long-term psychological effects can develop as a result of an inability to take prescribed medication or as a result of impairment and damage to the brain or nervous system. Externally, a person with an alcohol problem can lash out with unpredictable and inappropriate behavior, creating disharmony with the people in their environment.
Emotional problems resulting from an alcohol problem thus include:
- Uncontrollable moods
- Increased social anxiety
- Inability to deal with conflict
- Incapacity to communicate clearly
- Bad memory
- Cognitive impairment
- Inability to regulate responses and reactions
- Increased irritability and outbursts
If you think you or someone close to you may have a drinking problem, take our “Could I be an Alcoholic” questionnaire, today. If you think your teenager or another loved one is suffering from a drinking problem check out our other help articles, Is my teen addicted to alcohol? and 5 signs your loved one is masking a drinking problem.