More than 38 million US adults engage in binge drinking at least four times a month. And according to the 2011 Texas High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than 23 percent of teens polled had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row within a couple of hours on at least one day.
With so many teens engaging in risky alcoholic behavior, how can you keep your teenager safe from the consequences of binge drinking?
Scott & White adolescent medicine expert, Meera Beharry, MD, explains how to identify binge drinking and what to do to protect your child from drinking excessively.
What is binge drinking?
“The definition [of binge drinking] in the medical literature is, for men, having five or more drinks in one session and for young women, having four or more drinks in one session,” Dr. Beharry said.
The doctor uses the term young men and young women to refer to the adolescent range—ages 12 to 25. And the definition of “a drink” is one shot of whiskey or other hard liquor, one bottle of beer or one glass of wine.
What are the effects of binge drinking on the body?
“The biggest problem, from a medical perspective, is the effect on the brain,” Dr. Beharry said. “Kids aren’t able to control their actions and their responses to actions [by others].”
This is especially concerning for teens who are alcohol naïve—don’t have a lot of experience drinking.
“When they have a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, they actually bypass some of the body’s safety mechanisms to keep them from getting severely or lethally drunk.”
If someone is taking their time drinking alcohol, their body has a chance to break it down. But when teens have a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, their bodies don’t have a chance to process the alcohol properly. They can get in the lethal range of alcohol poisoning very quickly.
What other dangers are associated with binge drinking?
“The thing that I like to focus on with adolescents is that they don’t know what’s going on with their own bodies when they have had that much to drink,” Dr. Beharry said.
Alcohol is still the number one date rape drug, she said. And excessive drinking is associated with other risk-taking behaviors such as:
- Engaging in sexual activity
- Driving recklessly
- Jumping into pools or off buildings
Binge drinking can also lead to motor vehicle accidents, violence against others, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancy and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
What are the long-term effects of binge drinking?
“The biggest consequence is the effect on the brain pathways in the frontal lobe—the part of the brain that tells you this is a good idea or this is a bad idea,” Dr. Beharry said.
Other long-term effects could be:
- Permanent memory loss
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Alcohol dependency
How can parents help prevent this from happening to their child?
Research has shown that when parents talk about drinking with their teens and exhibit healthy drinking behaviors, it helps their child to understand what healthy drinking is.
“The best thing parents can do is serve as a good model and actually talk about it,” the doctor said. “Talk about negative experiences with alcohol. Talk about what they would do if the teen had more to drink than they expected. Listen and support your kids, even when they make bad choices.”
Accidentally overdoing it on punch at a party one time is different than making a habit of drinking excessively. If your child is drinking heavily on a regular basis, it might be a good idea to further investigate why they are engaging in that behavior.
“They might have some emotional pain or another problem, and they’re using alcohol as a way of coping.”
And if you’re a teen who needs help coping with underlying issues, Dr. Beharry said ask for help and keep asking. That goes for you and for any of your friends who might be having a problem with alcohol.
“If you are a young person and you see that your friend is having problems with alcohol, be a good friend and let somebody know that they’re struggling.”
Some teens feel as though they are “ratting out” their friend, but you’re really helping them in the long run, she said.
And if you find yourself in a situation where you’ve had too much to drink, someone around you has too much to drink or you feel unsafe in any way, call a trusted adult for help.
For more information, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ sponsored site, thecoolspot.gov, which gives teens more information about drinking and how to resist peer pressure.