The social lives of college students revolve around events at which alcohol is present. Whether or not they drink, students encounter alcohol at parties, in their dorms or Greek houses, and at bars. Colleges and universities may also sell or give out alcoholic drinks to students age 21 and over at events such as concerts, art exhibits, or department dinners. There is something to be said about the sheer availability of alcohol on campus: About 80% of college students drink according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). They’re interested in experimenting, bonding with their peers, unwinding, partying, and relieving the stress of their college classes.


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What is alcohol?

Alcohol is an organic compound (ethanol) found in beer, wine, and liquor in varying percentages. Beer contains up to 6% alcohol, wine contains 9–16%, and the alcohol content of liquor is generally above 20%. Since the amount of alcohol in each type of beverage varies, the amount of “one drink” depends on what you are drinking.

Alcohol isn’t commonly thought of as a drug, but it very much is one. It is classified as a depressant, which means that it affects the central nervous system. In fact, alcohol intercepts some information before it reaches the brain, which is how alcohol consumption can cause altered perceptions, blurred vision, poor coordination, and moodiness.

What is alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse describes the behavior of people who lose control or cannot stop themselves when they do drink. People who abuse alcohol are not necessarily people who are addicted or dependent on alcohol, though they may exhibit some signs similar to those of alcoholism. They often will not experience withdrawal, dependency, or physical signs of addiction when they are sober, but this substance abuse can still be dangerous and unhealthy. It may also lead to alcoholism if not addressed.

What is alcoholism?

Regular alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism, which is extremely dangerous. It walks the line between mental illness and chronic physical disease. Alcoholism describes both a physical dependence and an emotional addiction. While it is treatable, the diagnosis lasts a lifetime.

What is the difference between responsible and excessive drinking?

  • Responsible or social drinking: Many of the students who drink engage in social drinking, also called casual drinking, which is low-risk. It may include drinking a beer while watching sports, having a glass of wine with dinner, or popping a bottle of champagne with friends to celebrate an achievement. This kind of drinking is responsible, meaning that students pace themselves, drink water to stay hydrated, and stop themselves long before overdoing it. Unfortunately, there is not a more concrete definition of social drinking because weight, tolerance, and sex can affect how quickly your body metabolizes alcohol. Social drinking is usually safe when it isn’t a daily behavior, but it can be a gateway to more dangerous patterns of drinking.
  • Excessive drinking: Heavy, frequent drinking is not considered social drinking. It could involve binge drinking (the occasional overuse of alcohol), alcohol abuse (a pattern of binge drinking), or alcoholism (dependence on alcohol). All forms of excessive alcohol use can be dangerous. The NIAAA estimates that alcohol is a factor in the deaths of 1,825 college students each year. Nearly 700,000 people between the ages of 18 and 24 have been assaulted by someone who was drinking. Additionally, alcohol is involved in nearly 100,000 college sexual assaults annually.

What is binge drinking?

According to the NIAAA, half of all students who drink engage in binge drinking, which is the most common form of excessive alcohol use in the United States. Binge drinking elevates your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to at least .08%. Your levels will depend on your body, but it typically means at least five drinks for men and four drinks for women in a two-hour timespan. Identifying a person who is binge drinking, or drunk, is easy. Slurred speech, red eyes, clumsy movements, and smelly breath are telltale signs.

The occasional binge drink usually isn’t indicative of an alcohol addiction, but binge drinking can be unhealthy in its own right. It can lead to poor decision-making and dreadful hangovers. In some cases, it causes alcohol poisoning, which is serious and sometimes fatal because your BAC rises to toxic levels. Common signs of alcohol poisoning are vomiting, seizures, shallow or irregular breathing, and unresponsiveness. If you suspect someone you know may have alcohol poisoning, do not be afraid to call 9-1-1 and campus paramedics. It may save your friend’s life.

There have been instances in which underage students do not seek help for their friends because they are afraid of the legal consequences. Many colleges have medical amnesty policies that protect students from charges of possession and underage drinking if they are seeking medical attention for themselves or friends. Be a Good Samaritan; call 9-1-1 if you suspect a case of alcohol poisoning.

What are the signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism?

Many students drink socially without ever developing harmful drinking habits. Some may occasionally binge drink without ever becoming dependent on alcohol. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for all people. While some people are predisposed to alcoholism because of their genetics, others participate in a heavy drinking culture, and soon enough, their bodies crave alcohol. To differentiate between social drinking and alcohol abuse, doctors look at a patient’s habits.

Individuals who abuse alcohol may not drink every day, but when they do drink, they don’t have much care for the side effects. Alcohol abusers and alcoholics may become distant from family and friends, lose interest in school and extracurricular activities, and spend their time instead drinking or talking about drinking. Alcoholics don’t have the ability to say “no” to another drink and often end up drinking to excess.

How are alcohol abuse and alcoholism diagnosed?

There is no diagnostic test for alcohol abuse or alcoholism, so instead doctors rely on patient questionnaires. Occasionally, patients will recognize their own alcoholism, but many may be in denial.

Are alcohol abuse and alcoholism treatable?

Yes. Counseling and group therapy are typically the recommended treatments for alcohol abuse and alcoholism. It is extremely important that known alcoholics stay away from alcohol since their disease is essentially an addiction to or dependence on alcohol. Individuals may participate in 12-step programs during and after their initial counseling.

If you are abusing alcohol and want help, contact your primary care physician and consider joining a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If you are worried about someone you know, urge them to join a support group and get help, but don’t force anything. Be supportive and take care of yourself, too.

What resources exist for individuals who abuse alcohol or are alcoholics?

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a community of people who struggle with alcohol abuse. Because alcohol affects people of all ages, religions, races, and genders, it is available to anyone who wants support on the road to recovery. AA members follow 12 steps, which are spiritual in nature, to stay above the influence.
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA) supports people who are hoping to achieve or maintain a drug- or alcohol-free lifestyle. This 12-step program offers over 63,000 weekly meetings in many languages and locations to promote recovery to people everywhere.
  • SMART Recovery is a support group for anyone battling an addiction. Instead of taking a spiritual or 12-step approach, SMART Recovery focuses on the science of addiction. It encourages self-directed change, while also supporting those who receive psychological treatments or take legally prescriptions to manage their addiction.
  • NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) is an advocate and information center for people struggling with all kinds of addictions. They offer referral services, professional training programs, community outreach, and inpatient and outpatient treatment.
  • NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) is an institute of the National Institutes of Health. It funds more alcohol research than anyone else in the world. Much of the NIAAA’s work is research-based, but it also works to reduce the stigma of alcohol abuse and develop proven treatments for alcohol abuse that address physical and mental health.
  • SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) is a federal government agency that works to reduce substance abuse and mental illness nationwide. They recognize the intricate relationship between substance abuse and mental illness and offer treatment referrals for people who are facing one or both of those issues. They maintain a 24-hour helpline in English and Spanish, which you can access by calling 1-800-4357 or going online. They can also help you find a treatment facility, support group, or government health insurance plan.

Page last updated: 12/2016