Futures Recovery Healthcare

Binge Drinking in Teens and Young Adults: What You Need to Know



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Alcohol has been around for thousands of years and has played a longstanding role in many cultures. From being an important part of religious ceremonies and taking an oath for office to toasting marriages and going into battle, alcohol has been significant for many years. For teens, it’s considered a rite of passage and for college-aged kids practically a way of life. However, the consumption of alcohol, by teens and college-aged individuals, has gone to extremes during the past few decades. It’s vital to understand common drinking trends in this age group and know what signs to look for that indicate a possible drinking problem

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 400,000 youth between the ages of 12-17 had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It was also reported that 20% of college students have AUDs. 

Alcohol use disorder or AUD is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease in which there is an inability to stop or control alcohol consumption despite negative social, physical, or occupational consequences. In fact, the 2018 NSDUH found that one in four college students revealed that they have experienced negative academic consequences from drinking. From poor grades to missed classes, alcohol adversely impacts the academic success—and well being— of thousands of students. 

Many individuals from both of these age groups, particularly the college-aged ones, drink often and more than what is considered ‘healthy’. So how do you know what is ‘normal’ college or teen drinking and what is a reason for concern? First, it’s important to have a working knowledge of some terms commonly associated with drinking and problem drinking. 

Binge Drinking, Heavy Drinking, and Youth 

Binge drinking is a term commonly associated with alcohol issues. It is also a term commonly referred to by both teens and college students. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as a pattern of drinking which brings the body’s blood alcohol levels (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl. Generally speaking, this occurs when a male drinks five or more alcoholic drinks and a female consumes four or more drinks on a single occasion. For many, particularly college students, this defines how they drink on a regular basis. But what seems harmless to many, is in fact either a problem now or leading to an issue in the future. For most of us, drinking in college was the norm, however, today the number of students drinking combined with the amount they drink is concerning. The numbers form the 2018 NSDUH reveal that 4.3 million people aged 12-20 reporting binge drinking in the last month.

And while many teens and college students believe they are just ‘having fun’ with this partying, there are definite negative consequences that have not only been increasing but are also becoming more serious. Some of the more alarming results, for the college-aged population, are reported by the 2018 NSDUH as follows:

  • Nearly 2,000 college students died from alcohol-related, unintentional accidents
  • More than 690,000 individuals in college-aged 18-24 were assaulted by another student who had been drinking alcohol
  • Almost 100,000 students between 18-24 reported experiencing an alcohol-related sexual assault

These fatal and often life-altering consequences of drinking aren’t the only issues to worry about when it comes to teens and young adults consuming alcohol. The detrimental impact on the brain are also of great concern. The consumption of alcohol before the brain is fully developed, which occurs in a person’s twenties, can have adverse impacts on that development. Alcohol or drugs can cause issues in the development of vital parts of the brain including physical, cognitive, and emotional development. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has raised concerns about this issue of adolescents, alcohol, drugs, and brain development. In response to the worries surrounding this issue, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study was started and is the largest long-term study in the United States’ children in regards to the brain and cognitive development. 

Overall, alcohol use and abuse are responsible for many other otherwise avoidable issues. From health issues like an increase in the rate of certain cancers and liver disease to economic and legal impacts, alcohol can wreak havoc on a person’s body, mind, and soul. When heavy drinking starts in the teens or young adult years, the consequences can be even more severe depending on if and when that person finally gets help for their alcohol addiction. 

If you think you or someone you love may have a problem with drinking, it’s important to take action sooner than later. Futures Recovery Healthcare offers programs meeting the needs of a variety of men and women seeking help. From our Core program and Orenda program for the executive professional to our experiential-based Rise program, our admissions team will help you find the right treatment program for you or a loved one. 

There’s no doubt that there are problems associated with drinking in both the teen and college-aged populations. But how do you know what’s simply ‘partying’ and when there’s a problem? 

Often, you’ll hear someone say they are just a ‘heavy drinker’ but don’t have a problem with alcohol or alcohol addiction. Heavy drinking is defined as binge drinking on five or more occasions within a thirty-day period. So when does it become a problem? No matter what the age of the person drinking, binge drinking or engaging in heavy drinking, the same signs of alcohol addiction or a problem with alcohol apply. 

Common Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder or Alcohol Addiction 

Taking an honest look at either your relationship with alcohol or that of your loved one is the first step to breaking the cycle of alcohol addiction or abuse. An individual can only truly decide for himself or herself if they have an alcohol or drug addiction problem. However, if you have a loved one you are concerned about, it’s important to know the real warning signs and what you can and can’t do to help them. 

An official diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder follows criteria set forth in the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is a tool used by professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. Both alcohol use disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs) are considered mental health issues. The most recent version used is DSM-5. In this version, an individual can be diagnosed with an AUD with subclassifications of mild, moderate, and severe. The more criteria met, the more severe the diagnosis. In order to be diagnosed with an AUD, an individual must meet two or more of the following criteria during a twelve-month period: 

  • Drank more than planned or for a longer period of time than planned
  • Wanted to cut down on amounts of drinking a few times but was unsuccessful
  • Spend a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from the negative effects of drinking like a hangover
  • Experienced strong desires to drink or craving alcohol
  • Found that drinking (or a hangover or the like) impacted taking care of responsibilities like school, family, job, or social commitments
  • Maintained drinking despite negative consequences in life (family, friends, job, school, etc.)
  • Stopped activities, hobbies, etc. that were enjoyed in order to spend more time drinking
  • Exposed oneself to dangerous situations while drinking more than once 
  • Continued to drink after negative impacts on health like depression, anxiety, or other health issues
  • Kept drinking after experiencing a blackout
  • Drank more to get the same effects or found the diminished effects when drinking the same amount
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms when not drinking like nervousness, shakiness, sleep issues, irritability, depression, anxiety, etc. 

The more of these criteria an individual meets over a twelve-month period, the further their problem with alcohol has progressed. AUD is a chronic, relapsing brain disease and for many, it is very difficult to stop with the support of professionals with expertise in treating not only alcohol addiction but also any co-occurring mental health issues or other underlying problems contributing to AUD or SUD.

A teen or young adult may be causing further damage to the body and brain with abuse of alcohol during these years. It’s vital for this age group to understand the risks and seek help if a problem is suspected. And with drinking being so commonplace in these age groups getting treatment is often easier said than done. 

Taking the first step and seeking help is hard. And living with an AUD is even harder. At Futures, we understand how challenging it can be to take the first brave step and reach out for help. Our caring, compassionate, and experienced staff are dedicated to helping each client who comes to us to find the tools and support needed to recover from addiction. We are here for you or your loved one too. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-351-7588. Remember, you are not alone and there is hope. 


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