What is Binge Drinking Vs Heavy Drinking: Definitions & Some Differences

Definitions and how to identify binge drinking and heavy drinking behaviors with tools.

In years past the term binge drinking or “going on a binge” was not a medical term but referred to a person drinking large amounts of alcohol daily over a sustained period of time (“a binge”).

In recent times though the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has developed an operational definition of binge drinking that refers to much less drinking over a much shorter period of time. First the definitions of binge vs. heavy drinking, then the consequences and implications of these definitions.

Binge Drinking DefinedBinge Drinking

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that results in a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to .08 (80mg%). This level usually happens after 4 standard drinks for women and 5 for men in about 2 hours. Your BAC can be higher than this though depending on your weight and the time you spend drinking.

For reference, a BAC of .08 is the legal limit for DWI/DUI in the U.S. A driver caught with a BAC of .08 or higher is automatically considered to be DWI/DUI. Most people who’ve had DWI/DUIs consider them to be negative and expensive experiences.

Heavy drinking, on the other hand is defined as 5 or more episodes of binge drinking over the course of 30 days. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Does binge drinking mean that a person has an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)? The short answer is no. That is not a sufficient criterium although most people with even mild AUD engage in binge drinking. So what is the issue with an occasional binge drinking episode? No harm no foul, eh? That rationale could not be farther from reality.

The higher a person’s BAC, the greater their risk for alcohol-related problems on that occasion. And the higher your BAC is (i.e., the drunker you are), the higher is the risk. And bad consequences from being intoxicated run the gamut from mildly embarrassing exchanges with others to physical fights to serious injuries (to oneself and/or others). And these bad things happening can occur in an individual who otherwise does not drink a lot usually.

Good examples of binge drinking and negative consequences can be seen during the holidays between Thanksgiving and the New Year.  And these alcohol-related problems are the reason we see an increase in traffic to mutual help groups like SMART Recovery as well as to our online, confidential web application, CheckUp and Choices right after January 1.

And considering doing something about your drinking in response to having some alcohol-related problems is actually a common occurrence. And the more problems a person experiences, the more they consider making a change. (The idea that one has to “hit bottom” before making a change in drinking is a myth.)

Heavy Drinking Defined

Heavy drinking is defined as having 5 or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month. Heavy drinking is a bigger risk factor for developing an Alcohol User Disorder. And heavy drinking also increases one’s risk for long-term alcohol-related health problems. There are also over 48 medical conditions that are negatively affected by heavy drinking.

The Effects on Relationships: Binge vs Heavy Drinking

Both binge drinking and heavy drinking can strain relationships with loved ones. Frequent intoxication can make a person seem unreliable or emotionally unavailable. Arguments or regrettable behavior while drunk can create lasting wounds.

For binge drinkers, the sporadic but extreme intoxication may be especially disruptive. Partners can feel confused by the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect of a person who is sober and reasonable, until they are suddenly intoxicated and behave out of character.

Heavy drinkers may test a partner’s patience more consistently. The non-drinking partner may start to feel more like a caretaker than an equal. They may also hide their loved one’s drinking from others to avoid embarrassment.

In both cases, drinking can become the top priority and crowd out quality time with significant others. Partners may eventually deliver an ultimatum to seek treatment. Supporting a problem drinker takes an emotional toll. Counseling and groups like Al-Anon can help partners cope. But the healthiest choice may be leaving the relationship if the drinking continues unchecked.

The bottom line is excessive drinking, whether in binges or routinely, can gradually destroy intimate bonds, friendships and family ties. Prioritizing recovery is the only way to stabilize relationships damaged by problem drinking.

What to do?

The holidays are a time when even social drinkers can drink more than usual and experience a binge drinking episode. If you’re in this group of drinkers, it is helpful to be mindful of the pressures to drink a lot when at parties, family gatherings, etc. and consider deliberately limiting how much you drink at those times.

If you occasionally binge drink, it is also important to be mindful that these social events can be triggers to more frequent binge drinking and increase your attention to staying within low-risk drinking guidelines.

If, by these definitions, you’re a heavy drinker, the holiday parties and events can be a big risk factor for more serious alcohol-related problems if your BACs are high (.08 or more).

There is no shame is admitting to yourself that you’ve experienced alcohol-related problems and considering doing something about it. People do this all the time and the vast majority do so without ever going to “rehab.”

Low-risk Drinking

NIAAA has defined a level of drinking that the research considers “low-risk.” It is no more than 3 drinks on any day and no more than 7 in a week for women and for men no more than 4 drinks per day and no more than 14 drinks per week.

People over 65 years of age have lower risk levels of drinking. For healthy men 65+, it’s the same as for women under 65, no more than 3/day and 7 per week. And for healthy women, the same limits apply regardless of age.

About the Author

Dr. Reid K. Hester, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and the Co-Founder of CheckUp & Choices, serving as the Director of its Research Division.Dr. Reid K. Hester, Ph.D.

Dr. Hester has published over 60 journal articles on the topic of substance misuse and digital interventions including in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

A leader in his field, Dr. Hester is one of the nation’s most sought-after substance misuse experts. His opinions, online resources and research have been featured in The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Vogue, and Men’s Health among others

Dr. Hester received his masters and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Washington State University in 1979.