Drinking and your body

What are the short and long-term effects of binge drinking?

While there’s no single agreed definition of a binge, drinking a large quantity of alcohol in a short space of time can have serious consequences.

What are the short and long-term effects of binge drinking?
What are the short and long-term effects of binge drinking?

Binging is always a risky drinking pattern

When a large amount of alcohol is consumed rapidly within a short time, this is called binge drinking (1). The term ‘heavy episodic drinking’ is also used to describe it (2). Most define a binge as four or more drinks over a short period for women, and five or more for men (1) – but, in general, it’s a large amount that leads to intoxication and can cause serious harm in both the short and the long term (3).

Binge drinking makes your blood alcohol content rise quickly, which can have serious consequences in both the short and long term

As the liver can only process roughly one drink an hour, the more you drink, the more alcohol accumulates in your bloodstream and crosses into the brain and other organs (4).

In the short term, the rapid spike in your blood alcohol can lead to severe consequences for your health:

  • Your blood pressure may rise, and your heart may beat irregularly, a condition sometimes called ‘holiday heart’. Sudden heart failure can also follow a drinking binge (5).

  • Because alcohol is a sedative at high levels, drinking very heavily over a short time may cause your brain to shut off your breathing (6). Your lungs may fill with vomit or saliva and there’s a real risk of choking when you binge drink.

  • Very high levels of alcohol in your system can lead to poisoning (7). Binging can make you severely dehydrated and your blood sugar level can drop dangerously low.

Studies show that people who binge drink may be more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like unsafe sex or driving drunk. Binge drinking can also result in injuries from falls or road traffic crashes.

While you can recover from some of the short-term effects of binge drinking, if it occurs frequently and repeatedly over time, it can harm your liver, heart, brain and increase your risk of cancer and other illnesses.

People binge drink for many reasons

While binging is the usual drinking pattern for some people who are problem drinkers or have alcohol use disorder, many others also binge. There are different reasons why people binge drink (8), including trying to cope with stress, depression or anxiety. Peer pressure can be another important driver of binging among adults and adolescents alike. Excessive drinking is often linked with mental health issues that need to be addressed through intervention by qualified professionals.

How do you know if you’re binge drinking?

Whatever the motivation behind it, binge drinking can be a real issue for both your health and social relationships. That’s why, in many countries, drinking guidelines draw attention to the specific dangers of binge drinking and provide advice (9). Educational campaigns have been rolled out in schools and other settings to change attitudes and reduce acceptance (10). Plus, those serving alcohol in bars, restaurants and clubs can be trained in ways to identify and deal with binge and other problematic drinking. If you have concerns about your own or someone else’s drinking, consulting a medical professional and discussing your drinking pattern is a good first step.