What Every Parent Should Know About College Binge Drinking
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What Every Parent Should Know About College Binge Drinking

Binge drinking can lead to alcohol overdose (poisoning), drunk driving, accidents, poor school performance, risky sexual activity, property damage, illicit drug use, and even death. Binge drinking is one of the most serious problems on college campuses today. And parents should be talking to their teens about it long before they send them off to college.

What Is Binge Drinking?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, binge drinking, or heavy episodic drinking, is defined as:

  • Five or more drinks per sitting for males
  • Four or more drinks per sitting for females
Frequent binge drinking is three or more occurrences of this type of drinking per two weeks.

It should be noted, however, that the terms above are general. The size of the drink, body weight of the drinker, and length of time during the drinking experience are not taken into consideration in this definition. The assumption here is that drinking occurs within a short period of time (a few hours or less) and leads to alcohol intoxication.

Some Facts About Binge Drinking

  • Binge drinking often begins around the age of 13. It tends to increase during adolescence, peak in young adulthood (ages 18-22) and then gradually decrease. (Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
  • 44% of college students were classified as binge drinkers in 2001. (Source: Harvard School of Public Health, College Alcohol Study)
  • One in three college students drinks primarily to get drunk. (Source: American Academy of Pediatrics)
  • Students who live in a fraternity or sorority house are the heaviest drinkers. Eighty-six percent of fraternity residents and 80% of sorority residents report binge drinking. (Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
  • Nearly 30,000 college students are treated for alcohol overdose each year. (Source: American College of Emergency Physicians)

Consequences of Binge Drinking

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning—a severe and potentially fatal physical reaction to an alcohol overdose—is the most serious consequence of binge drinking. When a person drinks excessive amounts of alcohol within a short period of time, the brain is deprived of oxygen. In response to the overdose of alcohol and the lack of oxygen, the brain eventually shuts down the functions that regulate heart rate and breathing.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Cold, clammy, pale, or bluish skin
  • Slow or irregular breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or 10 or more seconds between breaths)

If You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning

If you suspect alcohol poisoning, don’t worry that the person may be offended or embarrassed when he or she sobers up. Your decision to help may save the person’s life.

  • Call 911 immediately. If you are near a hospital, take the person to the emergency room right away.
  • Turn the person on his or her side to prevent choking in case of vomiting.
  • Do not leave the person alone.
  • Pay close attention to the person’s breathing. If it stops, administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Other Health and Social Consequences

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, excessive drinking among college students has led to:

  • About 1400 deaths each year due to alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes
  • About 500,000 injuries each year
  • More than 600,000 physical assaults each year
  • More than 70,000 sexual assaults or date rapes each year
  • More than 400,000 incidences of unprotected sex each year (with approximately 100,000 students reporting that they had been too intoxicated to know if they had consented to having sex)
  • Missing class, falling behind in schoolwork, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall, in 25% of students
  • 2.1 million incidences of drunken driving each year

Furthermore, studies suggest that heavy drinking in adolescence is strongly associated with heavy drinking in young adult life as well. Rather than “growing out” of binge drinking behavior, many young persons “grow into” a pattern of alcohol dependence or abuse.

What Can a Parent Do?

Be Aware of Risk Factors

According to the American Medical Association, binge drinking is influenced by a number of social factors and marketing forces in the college community. Parents should be aware of these factors, which include:

  • A large number of bars in the area
  • Bars that promote drink specials, thereby encouraging binge drinking
  • Lack of enforcement of underage serving laws
  • Lack of college policy to control high-risk drinking
  • Alcohol-sponsored programs on campus
  • Lack of on-campus education about the dangers of high-risk drinking
  • Lack of alcohol-free residence halls and activities
  • Easy access to cheap alcohol

Establish Open Communication With Your Child

Ideally, you should begin talking to your children about the dangers of alcohol at a young age. The following tips from the American College of Emergency Physicians can help you establish more open communication:

  • Don’t give a one-time speech. Find frequent opportunities to talk to your kids about alcohol (such as when you see an alcohol ad).
  • Encourage your children to express their concerns openly.
  • Focus on the facts surrounding alcohol use and binge drinking.
  • Explain why you should never drink and drive, or get in the car with someone who has been drinking alcohol.
  • Set a good example by not drinking excessively or frequently in front of your children, or driving when drunk.
  • Teach your teen how to recognize alcohol abuse and deal with emergency drinking situations.
  • If your child is in college, encourage him or her to live in an alcohol-free residence hall.
  • Encourage your child’s participation in non-alcohol activities.


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration


Alberta Alcohol and Dryg Abuse Commission

Health Canada


American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.aap.org/.

American College of Emergency Physicians website. Available at: http://www.acep.org/webportal.

Harvard School of Public Health website. Available at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/.

McCarty CA, Ebel BE, Garrison MM, DiGiuseppe DL, Christakis DA, Rivara FP. Continuity of binge and harmful drinking from late adolescence to early adulthood. Pediatrics. 2004 Sep;114(3):714-9.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. Available at: http://www.samhsa.gov.

Last reviewed July 2008 by Kari Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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