Binge drinking refers to consuming several drinks in a short period of time. Alcoholism, now known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), describes a dependence on alcohol that may be difficult to manage.

Both binge drinking and AUD are two patterns of alcohol use that are causes for concern. While binge drinking refers to more sporadic heavy alcohol usage, AUD is a dependence that can disrupt people’s lives. AUD involves alcohol cravings that may make it difficult to stop drinking. In the United States, 10.6% of people ages 12 and over had AUD in the past year.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says binge drinking is consuming a certain amount of alcohol in around 2 hours, making a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) 0.08% or higher. BAC is the percentage of alcohol in the blood, and a BAC of 0.08% means the person is legally intoxicated. For males, this is five or more alcoholic drinks, and four or more for females.

This article reviews the differences between binge drinking and AUD, their effects, and how people can get professional help and support.

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Binge drinking involves consuming a great quantity of alcoholic beverages in a short period. This can cause a significant increase in BAC, which can be dangerous and, in the most severe cases, may be life threatening.

Binge drinking can cause symptoms such as:

AUD is a medical condition referring to a person’s desire or physical need to consume alcohol. Individuals with AUD may find it difficult to manage how much alcohol they ingest and may even experience alcohol cravings when they try to avoid consuming it.

AUD can have serious complications in the body’s regular functioning and can cause severe damage to the organs. AUD can disrupt daily activities and lives in general.

Learn more about AUD and binge drinking.

Binge drinking can cause various effects on the body, including physical and psychological illnesses. A 2020 study found that young adults who binge drink have a higher risk of alcohol-related consequences than typical drinking.

When compared with people who did not engage in binge drinking, young adults who did engage in binge drinking in the past month reported the following consequences:

  • 60% had behaviors they later regretted
  • 40% experienced conflict and other concerns in their relationships
  • 15% engaged in unsafe driving
  • 13% experienced depression, anxiety, or felt ashamed
  • 11% experienced issues with physical health

Drinking a significant amount of alcohol can raise a person’s BAC and potentially cause an alcohol overdose. This can result in serious illness and, in some cases, brain damage and death. Signs and symptoms of alcohol overdose may include:

If a person shows symptoms of alcohol overdose, they require immediate medical attention to reduce the risk of death or sustaining brain damage.

Learn more about alcohol overdose.

AUD is a condition in which people have an impaired ability to stop drinking alcohol or control their alcohol use. AUD is an addiction, and a person can still feel the need to drink alcohol even if they have adverse social and occupational consequences or health complications.

People with AUD typically present at least two of the following habits:

  • trying or wanting to cut down or stop drinking more than once but could not do it
  • having drunk more or longer than intended multiple times
  • spending a lot of time drinking or being sick from drinking
  • wanting a drink so much they are not being able to think about anything else
  • drinking or being sick from drinking, causing family or job problems
  • keeping drinking regardless of it is causing issues with loved ones
  • giving up activities found once important or interesting to spend more time drinking
  • finding themselves in harmful situations multiple times after drinking
  • keeping drinking even when it causes anxiety or depression
  • having had an alcohol-related blackout
  • having withdrawal symptoms after alcohol effects wear off, such as seizures and malaise

The severity of AUD depends on how many of these habits a person meets. The severity levels of AUD include:

  • mild: 2–3
  • moderate: 4–5
  • severe: six or more

AUD consists of a problematic, consistent pattern of alcohol consumption. People with AUD may not have the ability to control the amount of alcohol they drink or to stop drinking.

AUD can cause serious health complications, including:

AUD can also have psychological effects, contributing to the following:

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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If a person has concerns about their drinking habits or if they have signs of AUD or partake in binge drinking, they may consider contacting a doctor.

Doctors can help people overcome their drinking concerns in several ways, including prescribing medications or referring a person with alcohol-related issues to a therapist.

Medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating AUD can help people quit drinking by reducing cravings and the effects of alcohol on the body. These include:

  • naltrexone (Vivitrol)
  • acamprosate (Campral)
  • disulfiram (Antabuse)

Therapy also plays an important role in supporting recovery and addressing the causes of alcohol use. Therapy options for AUD may include:

  • community reinforcement approach, which involves making changes in the individual’s lifestyle and social environment
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • behavioral couple therapy (BCT, which may help repair strained relationships as a result of AUD

Doctors can recommend the most appropriate treatment for overcoming AUD and other alcohol-related concerns.

Learn more about medications for AUD.

People can attend support groups during recovery and beyond. AUD support groups include individuals who have current or previous experience with alcohol issues and who offer each other support.

Some well-known nonprofit associations include:

Binge drinking involves consuming several drinks in a short period. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition where a person physically or mentally depends on consuming alcohol. Both drinking habits can cause serious health concerns and significantly worsen a person’s overall quality of life and well-being.

The treatment for AUD and other drinking patterns typically has more benefits when a person starts recovery in the earlier stages of their habits. However, people can reach out for help at any point.

Recovery from AUD and binge drinking may include therapy, medications, and joining support groups where other people with the same concerns or those who have overcome their addiction offer support to each other.