Binge Drinking vs. Heavy Drinking: What are the differences? Should I be concerned with either?

A guest blog provided by Dr. Reid Hester, CheckUp & Choices 

Excessive drinking is a concern for many, but there is confusion about the terms binge drinking and heavy drinking. Differences between the two have different implications for both self-change and treatment. In this post I’ll discuss the meaning of these terms and how to tackle the conditions. First the definitions of binge vs. heavy drinking, then the consequences and implications of these definitions.

Binge Drinking Defined

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”).

Recently, 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.

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that results in a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaching up to .08 (80mg%). This level usually happens after four standard drinks for women, or five for men, in about 2 hours. Your BAC can be higher than this, depending on your weight and the amount of time you spend drinking. See our BAC table in another blog post.

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 DWIs/DUIs consider them to be negative and expensive experiences.

Heavy drinking, on the other hand, is defined as five 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. What is the issue with an occasional binge drinking episode? No harm, no foul, eh? That rationale could not be further 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 the risk is. Consequences from being intoxicated run the gamut from mildly embarrassing exchanges with others to physical fights to serious injuries (to oneself and/or others).

Examples of binge drinking and negative consequences can be seen during the holidays between Thanksgiving and the New Year.  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.

Considering doing something about your drinking in response to having alcohol-related problems is a common occurrence. 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 is a myth.)

See related blog post: The Flawed Psychology of Forcing People to Hit “Rock Bottom”

Heavy Drinking Defined

Heavy drinking is defined as having five or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month. Heavy drinking is a bigger risk factor for developing an Alcohol User Disorder and increases one’s risk for long-term alcohol-related health problems. There are over 48 medical conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, that are negatively affected by heavy 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 to consider 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 you’re a heavy drinker, 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 in 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 considered “low-risk.” It is no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven in a week for women, and for men no more than four drinks per day and no more than fourteen drinks per week.

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

About CheckUp & Choices

CheckUp & Choices is a confidential, self-guided, online program that is clinically proven to help SMART Recovery participants. The “CheckUp” includes a comprehensive alcohol self-assessment. The “Choices” programs include 12+ weeks of ongoing motivational exercises, drink, mood and urge trackers, guided emails and change plans. With Checkup & Choices, you are never labeled and you will be treated with respect and without judgment. Get started with CheckUp & Choices today.

About SMART Recovery

Founded in 1994, SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) uses science-based techniques that have proven to be effective in helping people recover from addiction problems involving any substance or behavior, including such things as alcohol, drugs, gambling, over-eating, shopping and internet use.

Each week, many thousands of people discuss recovery progress and challenges at more than 3,000 in-person meetings in 23 countries, daily online meetings and 24/7/365 internet message board forums and chat rooms.

Participants use SMART to assume responsibility for their own recovery and become empowered using its 4-Point Program®: building motivation; coping with urges; managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors; and living a balanced life.

For more information, please visit

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