College social life is well-known for including alcohol use. Drinking is often a pervasive part of college culture.
More than half (53 percent) of full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported drinking in the past month at the time of the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
One of the main issues with college drinking is the propensity to take it too far. College students are more likely to engage in problematic alcohol use than their peers who are not in college. This includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and high-intensity drinking.
Drinking too much can have wide-ranging consequences, which can include a higher risk for the following:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Unsafe behaviors
- Accidents and injuries
- Being victim of a crime
- Issues with academic performance and grades
Binge and heavy drinking regularly, especially when underage, can increase the risk for alcohol addiction, formally known as alcohol use disorder (AUD). College drinking can be very dangerous and have lasting negative effects.
Drinking Alcohol During College
Around a third (33 percent) of full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 surveyed during the 2109 NSDUH reported past-month binge drinking.
Again, college students between the ages of 18 and 22 drink alcohol more than their peers who are not in college full-time. College parties, sporting events, Greek life, and socializing regularly include alcohol.
While underage drinking is a problem, the issue really comes in with how easy it is to take things too far. Drinking too much can cause many social, emotional, behavioral, and physical problems.
Binge drinking is drinking more than five drinks in a sitting for a man or more than four drinks for a woman. Many college students drank twice that amount at a time — a behavior that is called high-intensity drinking.
Additionally, close to 1 in 10 (8.2 percent) binge drank more than five days in the past month, which is called heavy drinking.
This all makes up problematic patterns of alcohol abuse that are common among college students. They come with substantial risks.
Key Facts About College & Alcohol
- College students drink alcohol at rates nearly 10 percent higher than their same-aged peers not attending college.
- More than 1,500 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from unintentional alcohol-related injuries annually.
- Close to 700,000 students per year between the ages of 18 and 24 report being assaulted by another student who was drinking. Sexual assaults often involve alcohol.
- Nearly a quarter of college students have drinking problems and experience negative academic consequences related to drinking, such as missing classes, poor performance on tests, and dropping grades.
- According to the 2019 NSDUH, around 9 percent of college students have AUD.
- About 16 to 30 percent of college students report driving after drinking. Close to half of all traffic fatalities among students are related to alcohol.
Why Do College Students Use Alcohol?
College is a time of experimentation. Often, college is one of the first times that students have been left on their own without adult supervision.
Alcohol is the most commonly abused addictive substance by all adolescents. Many times, students begin college with alcohol-related issues. Unstructured time, peer pressure, lax enforcement of underage drinking rules, and easy access to alcohol can all be factors in why college students drink more.
New freshmen are adjusting to college life and trying to balance their expectations as well as social pressures and academic rigors with a lack of direct parental involvement. This can make them more likely to engage in problematic drinking behaviors.
Alcohol can help to lower inhibitions and ease social anxiety in the short term. Alcohol is often used to calm nerves and help college students relax. As a result, it may be used as a coping mechanism for stress.
Another major factor involved in college drinking is environment. Students involved with fraternities, sororities, and athletics drink more than students not involved in Greek life or college athletics. College fraternities and sororities have long been associated with wild parties and heavy drinking.
Overall, alcohol is a big part of college culture. The desire to “fit in” can be a major factor in why college students drink alcohol, often to excess.
Understanding the Link Between Binge Drinking & Alcoholism
Full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 are more likely to engage in regular episodes of binge drinking than their peers who are not in college (33 percent compared to 27.7 percent).
Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as a pattern of alcohol consumption that raises your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter or higher.
Typically, this will mean five drinks for a man or four drinks for a woman in a two-hour period. Age and size can play a role in how quickly BAC is raised. In younger and smaller people, binge drinking may mean between three and five drinks in a sitting.
Binge drinking is harmful or problematic alcohol use that can be especially dangerous. It can lead to the following issues:
- Alcohol poisoning and overdose
- Increased risk for blackouts
- Unsafe sexual behaviors
- Higher rates of accidents and injuries
- More instances of traffic accidents
Binge drinking at a young age before the brain is fully developed, such as adolescence, can interfere with normal brain development. It can have lasting effects on cognition, memory, and attention, and it can cause social deficits.
Another serious issue related to binge drinking is the heightened risk for developing an alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism. Alcoholism is the compulsive and chronic use of alcohol.
Alcohol makes changes to the brain chemistry and function. Repeated exposure, especially at high levels through binge drinking, can cause alcohol dependence. This can mean that a person will suffer withdrawal symptoms when alcohol wears off, causing them to want to drink more to counteract the lows. Binge drinking increases the odds of alcoholism.
What Are the Dangers of Abusing Alcohol During College?
Alcohol abuse during college can have both short-term and long-term ramifications.
- Unsafe sex: In the short term, alcohol abuse can lead to increased risk-taking behaviors, which can include unsafe sexual practices. This can cause unwanted pregnancy and the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease.
- Health issues: Alcohol abuse can also trigger a variety of health issues, as alcohol impacts virtually all of the tissues in your body. This can include alcohol poisoning, overdose, organ damage, blackouts, and hangovers the next day.
- Impaired decision-making abilities: Alcohol changes the way that you think and act, lowering inhibitions, making it harder to think through consequences and make good decisions, and reducing impulse control. This makes it more likely to be involved in an accident or become injured.
- Increased risk of being a victim of crime and motor vehicle accidents: Alcohol also increases your odds for being victim of a crime, including physical and sexual assault. Rates of traffic injuries, motor vehicle crashes, and deaths all rise when alcohol is a factor.
- Academic problems: Abusing alcohol during college can greatly impact students academically. It can lead to poor performance in classes, failing tests, declining grades, missing classes, and the potential loss of a scholarship as a result. Student athletes who drink run the risk of losing their ability to compete or even attend the school.
- Relationship problems: Relationships are frequently damaged by alcohol abuse, and interpersonal problems are common.
- Increased risk of addiction: Regular alcohol abuse raises the risk for alcoholism and long-lasting problems with alcohol. The short-term buzz of drinking alcohol in college is outweighed by the overwhelming possible risk factors and hazards that can be life-altering.
Studies show that, on average, college students experience 102 alcohol-related consequences in their four years at college, ranging from hangovers and missed work or school to feeling embarrassment the next day and being pressured into unwanted sexual encounters.
Can College Students Overdose on Alcohol?
College students often consume alcohol quickly and at high rates, which increases the risk for alcohol poisoning and a potentially fatal overdose.
Every day in the United States, an average of six people die from alcohol poisoning, which equates to 2,200 deaths a year. The more you drink, the higher your odds for an alcohol poisoning overdose. College students tend to drink more in a sitting and engage in problematic alcohol consumption at high rates.
An alcohol overdose has the following signs:
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Loss of consciousness and inability to wake up
- Low body temperature, often signified by bluish skin, paleness, and being cold to the touch
What Should You Do if Someone Is Overdosing on Alcohol?
An alcohol overdose is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate action. If you suspect an alcohol overdose, follow these steps:
- Call 911.
- Give all the pertinent information you have to emergency personnel, including how much the person drank, what type of alcohol they consume and when, if any other substances are involved, if they have any medical or mental health conditions that you know of, and personal information.
- Do not leave the person unattended.
- Place them on their side in the rescue position with their head to the side to prevent choking on vomit if they are unconscious.
- If the person is awake, try to keep them conscious. Keep them from choking on their vomit by sitting them up and assisting them if they do vomit.
- In the event of a suspected overdose, it is essential to get help. Do not be afraid to get help. The person could suffer long-term harm or even die.
How Do Gender & Geographics Impact Alcohol Abuse at College?
Traditionally, male college students drink more than female college students, but this is changing.
In 2019, statistics show that 53 percent of female college students reported past-month alcohol use compared to 51 percent of male college students. Male college students still engaged in binge and heavy drinking at higher rates than females, as 35 percent of male college students reported binge drinking versus 31 percent of females. In addition, 10 percent of males reported heavy drinking as opposed to 7 percent of female students.
In general, the differences in alcohol use between the sexes are fairly small. Both male and female college students commonly abuse alcohol.
Geographics can impact college alcohol use, as colleges that are more remote and have less access to alternative activities are more prone to being dubbed “party schools” and have higher rates of alcohol consumption than those that are set in big cities.
A big predictor of college drinking is going to be the college culture. Colleges that have a pervasive “party” feel to them are going to have more college drinking and peer pressure to do so.
How to Prepare Students for College & Alcohol
One of the biggest protective factors for college alcohol abuse is the continuing influence of parents. As a parent of a college student, it is important to talk about the effects and hazards of alcohol use.
Explain the potential dangers of underage alcohol abuse, what the possible penalties and dangers can be, and the numerous adverse consequences. Stay in touch with your student throughout college, and keep the lines of communication open. Be part of their daily life as much as possible, listening for signs of potential problems with alcohol. Regular check-ins can be helpful, even if they are just short calls.
It can also be helpful to be aware of and discuss the college alcohol policies at the student’s particular school. Most schools have alcohol prevention programs that provide outreach and sober activities for college students to minimize alcohol use.
Support for College Students
In general, a mix of strategies is likely going to be optimal in reducing college alcohol abuse. These can include educational programs, limited availability of alcohol on or near campus, stricter underage drinking law enforcement, and heavy parental involvement.
Students who are facing problems with alcohol have a variety of resources to turn to, which can include the following:
- Individual college resources: Each college or university will have resources and programs for students with substance abuse issues. Reach out to the specific school in question for more information.
- NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator: This resource is provided by NIAAA. It offers resources on treatment information and where and how to find treatment when needed.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): This peer support and mutual self-help group is located all over the country and online to support people who wish to stop drinking. There are often chapters at or near college campuses that cater to students.
- Primary care provider (PCP): Individual doctors often offer resources and referrals to treatment options or community-based programs for college students.
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