PhotoWhen it comes to drinking, how much is too much?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking, defined for women, is consuming four or more drinks on an occasion). And a new CDC Vital Signs report says more than 14 million U.S. women binge drink about three times per month, consuming an average of six drinks per binge.

That kind of drinking results in about 23,000 deaths in women and girls each year and increases the chances of breast cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy and many other health problems.

Despite these risks, about one in eight adult women and one in five high school girls binge drink. Binge drinking is a problem for all women and girls, but it is most common in high school girls and young women, whites and Hispanics, and among women with household incomes of $75,000 or more. Half of all high school girls who drink alcohol report binge drinking.

Serious health effects

Women's and girls' bodies respond to alcohol differently than men's. It takes less alcohol for them to get intoxicated because of their size and how they process alcohol. Binge drinking can lead to unintended pregnancies, and women and girls who are not expecting to get pregnant may not find out they are until later in their pregnancy.

Further, if women binge drink while pregnant, they risk exposing their baby to high levels of alcohol during its early development, which can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Simply put, alcohol use and pregnancy don't mix; it's not safe to drink at any time during pregnancy.

Binge vs. moderate drinking

Binge drinking is a dangerous drinking pattern that -- as mentioned above -- is defined as the consumption of four or more alcohol drinks for women (or five or more drinks for men) on an occasion. An occasion is generally considered to be about 2-3 hours. Binge drinking usually leads to acute impairment (intoxication), but most binge drinkers are not alcoholics or dependent on alcohol.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to one drink a day for women or up to two drinks a day for men. Anyone under the minimum legal drinking age of 21 and women who are pregnant should not drink at all. It is not recommended that anyone begin drinking alcohol or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits.

Binge drinking prevention

The Guide to Community Preventive Services recommends evidence-based strategies for preventing excessive alcohol consumption, including:

  • Increasing alcohol taxes.
  • Reducing alcohol outlet density (the number and concentration of alcohol retailers in an area).
  • Maintaining existing government controls over alcohol sales (avoiding privatization).
  • Holding alcohol retailers liable for injuries or damage following illegal service to intoxicated or underage customers (dram shop liability).
  • Maintaining or reducing the days and hours of alcohol sales.
  • Enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors.
  • Electronic screening and counseling for excessive alcohol use.

Health care providers should consider asking all patients about binge drinking and advising those who do to drink less. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening and counseling to reduce alcohol misuse by adults, including pregnant women, in primary care settings.

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