By Steven Reinberg
TUESDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Binge drinking is a significant problem among women and girls in the United States, with one in five female high school students and one in eight young women reporting frequent episodes, federal health officials reported Tuesday.
For women, binge drinking means downing four or more drinks on an occasion. Every month, about 14 million women and girls binge drink at least three times, according to the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And women who binge drink average about six drinks at a time, the report said.
"Although binge drinking is even more of a problem among men and boys, binge drinking is an important and unrecognized women's health issue," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, said during a noon press conference Tuesday.
And the consequences for women, who process alcohol differently than men, are serious, Frieden said.
"There are about 23,000 deaths among women and girls each year due to drinking too much alcohol," he said. "Most of those deaths are from binge drinking."
Binge drinking also increases the risk for many health problems such as breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease and unintended pregnancy, he added.
In addition, pregnant women who binge drink expose their baby to high levels of alcohol that can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and sudden infant death syndrome, he noted.
Frieden noted that the number of adult women who binge drink hasn't changed much in the past 15 years. But changing patterns among young people mean that high school girls are binge drinking nearly as often as boys, Frieden explained.
"While the rate among high school boys fell considerably in recent decades, it has remained relatively constant among high school girls, which is why there is hardly any difference at this point between boys and girls in drinking," he said.
Frieden noted binge drinking is common among both men and women. "Fifty percent of all the alcohol consumed by adults and about 90 percent of all of the alcohol consumed by kids is consumed during a binge," he said.
Binge drinking was most common among women 18 to 34 and high school girls. In addition, white and Hispanic women and women with household incomes of $75,000 or more were more likely to binge drink.
Moreover, more than half of high school girls who drink say they binge, the researchers found. Overall, slightly less than 20 percent of high school girls said they binge drink. Among high school seniors, 62 percent of girls who report drinking say they binge drink, Frieden said.
Doctors should talk to their patients about drinking and particularly about binge drinking and the risks of excessive alcohol consumption, he advised.
Recommended guidelines call for women to have no more than one drink a day and for men up to two drinks, he said. "Underage youth and women who are pregnant should not drink at all," Frieden said.
To reach their conclusions, CDC researchers collected data on 278,000 women who were part of the 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and about 7,500 high school girls from the 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
One expert said the report confirms earlier research. "This report reiterates what has been known to be a problem for some time -- girls and women binge drink at significant levels," said Dr. J.C. Garbutt, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"We know that the risk for many medical, behavioral and social problems rises as the level of consumption rises," he added.
Given the dangers of binge drinking, Garbutt believes steps such as educating women on the risks and launching doctor- and community-led efforts to curb binge drinking are necessary. But it's a difficult behavior to change, he added.
"It is important to remember that we are a drinking culture where alcohol consumption is the normative behavior. Changing drinking behavior is not an easy task," he said.
For more information on binge drinking, visit the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.