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What is binge drinking and its effects?

6 minute read
A man holding his head with one hand and a glass of water with the other

It’s no secret Aussies love a drink or two. Or three. Or four… Alcohol is at the centre of many of our social activities – and heavy drinking seems to be par for the course. But what many may not realise is that this excessive alcohol consumption – or binge drinking – has a huge impact on not only our physical health but also our mental wellbeing.

What is binge drinking?

While there’s no scientific definition, binge drinking is generally accepted to mean drinking heavily on a single occasion or continuously over several days or weeks, with the express purpose of becoming intoxicated. Likewise, there’s no official consensus as to how many drinks is binge drinking; however Australian guidelines recommend that adults drink no more than four standard drinks in a single sitting, so anything more than that is what is considered binge drinking.

Worryingly, these harmful binge drinking habits are being formed early, with at least one in four Australians aged over 14 admitting to drinking a risky amount of alcohol at least once a month. And with young people more likely to engage in this style of alcohol consumption, it’s important for people of all ages to be aware of a few startling binge drinking facts.

Why is binge drinking dangerous?

Binge drinking may seem innocuous enough, especially when you’re out having a good time with mates. But there are several risks associated with risky drinking – both short and long-term.

“There’s a bit of a culture in Australia around binge drinking,” says Dr Hamish Black, nib group medical advisor. “There’s a social aspect to it – there are very few social activities that don’t involve alcohol in Australia, and there’s this sort of general misconception that it’s not doing any harm to drink on just one occasion a week. But that’s completely incorrect when you’re drinking to excess.”

Some – particularly young people – may also binge drink to fit in or ease feelings of awkwardness in social situations. They may also feel peer pressure to drink to excess – or may simply not know their own limits.

Compared with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, Australia is above average for amount of alcohol consumed by people aged 15 and over, consuming 9.5 litres per capita compared to 8.8 litres in New Zealand, but below the UK (9.8 litres) and France (11.6 litres).

Related: Wine and coffee: Why this combo is affecting your sleep

A group of friends raising glasses of wine for a toast

Short-term effects of binge drinking

Potential short-term effects of binge drinking include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches, hangovers and shakiness
  • Increased risk of physical injury while drunk
  • Memory loss
  • Alcohol poisoning.

As alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgement, binge drinking may also lead you to engage in risky behaviours that you wouldn’t normally practise if sober. From losing valuable personal belongings or embarrassing yourself to not practising safe sex, which increases the risk of STIs or unplanned pregnancy, getting into dangerous situations (such as drink driving or swimming while intoxicated), getting into physical fights, taking (and potentially overdosing on) illicit drugs, self-harm… the list goes on.

Long-term effects of binge drinking

The potential long-term effects of binge drinking range from the physical to the emotional, and include:

  • An increased risk of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
  • Impaired brain development in people under 25
  • Brain and liver damage
  • Increased risk of certain cancers
  • Issues with concentration and memory
  • Heart problems
  • Diabetes
  • Weight gain
  • A physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.

In serious instances, binge drinking can even be fatal.

“A lot of deaths of young people are related to unhealthy drinking,” says Hamish. “That could be due to overdose if they’re mixing it with other drugs, or it could be traffic accidents – and not just drink driving. It could be walking out onto the road without looking and being hit by a vehicle.”

Related: Is it time we rethink the amount of alcohol we drink?

How many standard drinks are in your usual?

Standard drink infographic

Social effects of binge drinking

The potential social effects of binge drinking can also be devastating and can include:

  • Problems at work or school
  • Difficulties in relationships
  • Being humiliated, bullied or ostracised for something that was done while under the influence
  • Poor work performance and workplace accidents as a result of hangovers.

Getting help – for you, or someone you love

If you’re worried about your own binge drinking or think a loved one may be drinking too much, help is available, and your GP or local community health service is always a good place to start. There are also several fantastic support services available:

If you’re concerned about a friend, “the first thing is not to ignore the problem,” advises Hamish. “Don’t miss an opportunity to maintain your relationship because you may lose that person if they continue to drink in an unhealthy way.”

His advice? Broach the topic when they’re not drinking.

“Be honest and tell them how it makes you feel to see them drinking that way, that you’re worried for their health, and that it upsets you to see them in that vulnerable state. But do make sure they know you’re not judging them.”

If they’re open to it, you can then offer to help them find resources to assist them in dialling down their drinking or stopping altogether.

Looking for other ways to cut back on your alcohol intake? Check out our article Is it time to rethink the amount of alcohol we drink? for more expert tips and advice.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.

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