Definition of High Risk Drinking

Kathleen Esposito
group drinking alcohol

The term "high-risk drinking" refers to alcohol consumption that results in ill effects to an individual's health or safety. The two main types of high-risk drinking are binge drinking and heavy drinking.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is very common among U.S. college students. According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Abuse and Alcoholism, 80% of college students consume alcohol and over half of them admit to binge drinking. However, binge drinking is certainly not limited to college students or those in their early 20s. According to the CDC, 70% of binge drinking occasions involve adults over the age of 26.

The NIAAA's definition of binge drinking is:

  • Men consuming more than four alcoholic drinks on a single day OR more than 14 per week
  • Women consuming more than three alcoholic drinks on a single day OR more than seven drinks per week

One drink does not mean one beverage, per se, since many mixed drinks, like the Long Island Iced Tea, contain four shots of hard alcohol. Instead, this definition can refer to one 12-ounce can of beer, one 1.5-ounce shot of hard alcohol, or one 5-ounce glass of table wine. This will depend on the exact alcohol content of the beverage as well.

Of course, many who binge drink consume alcoholic drinks at rates much, much higher than these limits, with the average being eight drinks per occasion.

Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking has a simpler definition. According to the book Uppers, Downers and All-Arounders, a popular resource for addictions counselors, it is defined as having five or more drinks on five or more occasions per month. This applies to both men and women. This makes the threshold of "heavy drinking" a bit higher to meet than binge drinking.

High-Risk Drinking and Alcoholism

While high-risk drinking is considered to be alcohol abuse, most high-risk drinkers do not display the symptoms of alcohol dependency, which including cravings, withdrawal, and tolerance development. It is important to note, though, that some of them do and that many more can develop dependence over time. In addition to the risk of dependence, many high-risk drinkers face the following problems:

  • Impaired functioning at work or school or in social environments
  • Safety issues due to drinking and driving
  • Black-outs or poor decision making while under the influence
  • Poor impulse control, such as starting fights or damaging property
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting
  • Potential to overdose (alcohol poisoning)

Long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to serious health problems, especially diseases of the liver and digestive system, even if the person is not considered alcohol dependent.

Who Is at Risk?

Everyone has the potential to be a high-risk drinker. Unlike alcoholism, which includes risk factors like family history of dependency, high-risk drinking is most heavily influenced by culture and environment. For example, in the United States, high-risk drinking behavior is broadly accepted as something you do on the weekends or after work to blow off steam, which leads to a high incidence as compared to many other countries.

If you feel that high-risk drinking is having a detrimental effect on your life, even if you're not sure if it's reached the level of alcohol dependence, it may be time to see a professional for an assessment and to discuss treatment options.

Definition of High Risk Drinking