Among other dangers, binge drinking heightens the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and unwanted pregnancy. Furthermore, becoming pregnant while intoxicated can result in a delayed recognition of pregnancy. If a woman doesn't realize she's pregnant and continues to drink, she can bring a range of harm to the developing fetus. In other words...
• Binge drinking itself isn't the only problem. It's what else happens during the episode.
"The biggest risk of alcohol is what happens when you're intoxicated," White says. "You only have to binge drink once to break your leg, die somehow, make really bad choices that affect your life ... while it is important to look at one's pattern of drinking over time, it remains those individual evenings of drinking when the greatest risks occur."
• Binge drinking is not the same as alcohol addiction. And it's much more widespread.
In a Twitter chat on Wednesday, CDC director Thomas Frieden said that "at least 80 percent of binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent. Yet binge drinking accounts for most deaths from alcohol." Furthermore, "binge drinking is by far the most common pattern of excessive drinking," Brewer says. "Over 90 percent of people who are drinking too much are binge drinking."
But, according to White, even for those binge drinkers who aren't alcohol-addicted, the behavior can create a slippery slope. "Alcoholism is a very insidious disease in that it can creep up on you if you're not vigilant," he says. "So this level of binge drinking if it's left unchecked, for a lot of people, could lead to alcoholism."
• The concern involves not just who drinks, but how much, and how often.
Among those who binge drink, men average about five episodes each month in which they consume 9 drinks per episode. Women who binge drink have roughly three episodes per month in which they have about six drinks per episode.
Those figures not only exceed the government's base level for binge drinking, but they are far from its dietary recommendations. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for moderate consumption among those who drink, which translates to up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
One drink means .6 ounces of pure alcohol, which equates to 5 ounces of wine (with 12 percent alcohol), 12 ounces of beer (with 5 percent alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (with 40 percent alcohol), according to the NIAAA.
To learn more about drinking responsibly, whether you or someone you know is engaged in risky behavior, and if so, where to find help, visit the following websites: CDC's fact sheets on binge drinking; the NIAAA's Rethinking Drinking site; Girlshealth.gov; and Check Yourself, a toolkit for teens provided by The Partnership at DrugFree.org.