The Health Risks of Binge Drinking

Drinkers generally understand how binge drinking alters behavior. However, more than behavior changes with intoxication. Binge drinking is a significant cause of accidents. It increases the risk of falls, burns, gunshot wounds, car accidents, arguments and poisoning.

Consider these sobering facts about how we drink:

  • About 90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.
  • More than half of the alcohol consumed by adults in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.
  • One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about eight drinks per binge.
  • While binge drinking is more common among young adults aged 18–34 years, binge drinkers aged 65 years and older report binge drinking more often—an average of five to six times a month.

What does this mean for accidents? One-third of trauma patients have alcohol in their systems. In addition, binge drinking increases the risk of traumatic injuries and the likelihood of death from traumatic injuries. Studies have found, for example, that binge drinking delays wound healing, increases blood loss and makes patients more prone to pneumonia and infections from catheters.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and University of Maryland funded a study that illustrates the potentially harmful effect of binge drinking. Research colleagues took blood samples at 20 minutes, two hours and five hours after peak intoxication, because these are times when intoxicated patients typically arrive at trauma centers for treatment of alcohol-related injuries. The blood samples showed 20 minutes after peak intoxication, there was increased immune system activity. There were higher levels of three types of blood cells that are key components of the immune system: leukocytes, monocytes and natural killer cells. There also were increased levels of proteins called cytokines that signal the immune system to surge. Significantly, two hours and five hours after peak intoxication, researchers found the opposite effect occurred; fewer circulating monocytes and natural killer cells were present and higher levels of different types of cytokines that signal the immune system to become less active.

Dr. Afshar, who led the original research, is planning a follow-up study of burn unit patients. He will compare patients who had alcohol in their system when they arrived with patients who were alcohol-free. He will measure immune system markers from each group, and compare their outcomes, including lung injury, organ failure and death.

Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine’s nationally recognized Alcohol Research Program investigates such issues as how heavy drinking hinders the body’s ability to recover from burns and trauma, damages bones, and increases the risk of mood disorders later in life. Their research has had similar results to the University of Maryland findings.

The immediate danger associated with binge drinking is high and can prevent the body from healing itself; it is also a sign of alcohol use out of control. Consider counseling to prevent long-term health issues, possible alcoholism or accidental death.

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