For college students across the country, spring break is a welcome respite from the stress of exams and hours-long lectures. Students flock to beaches and cities known for their party potential to spend their days soaking up the sun, socializing – and drinking.
"It's no secret that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to poor decision-making and health risks, but binge drinking during spring break is accepted and even celebrated," said Jonathan E. Shaywitz, MD, medical director of the Behavioral Health Program at
Mission Hospital and a psychiatrist with
Mission Heritage Medical Group in Laguna Niguel. "Studies show that half of all college students binge drink and many take that to extremes during spring break."
For women, "binge drinking" means having four drinks or more in the span of two hours, and for men, five drinks, Dr. Shaywitz said. But many binge drinkers don't limit themselves to those numbers, and others may indulge in the habit many times each month – or even each week – without being considered dependent on alcohol, he said.
Drinking too much during spring break is thought of as a rite of passage and isn't taken as seriously as it should be, Dr. Shaywitz said.
"Unfortunately, every spring break, we hear news reports about young people drinking too much and getting in situations where they are hurt or lose their lives," he said. "The tragedy is that these incidents could have been avoided. Everyone needs to recognize the serious risks associated with all kinds of excessive alcohol consumption. Young people who engage in binge drinking risk alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal, and increase their risk of injury and assault."
College students aren't the only ones binge drinking. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in six adults reportedly binge drink four times a month, Dr. Shaywitz said.
"Many people assume that excessive alcohol consumption can only really pose a serious threat to someone if they are alcohol dependent," Dr. Shaywitz said. "But the CDC report shows that 90 percent of excessive drinkers – about one in 12 Americans – are not actually considered alcohol dependent by current medical standards. Even though we place so much emphasis on identifying and treating alcoholism, we may be missing the bigger picture. It's time we completely changed the way we think about how many people may need help reducing their alcohol intake, and how to address this significant public health challenge."
Dr. Shaywitz acknowledges that it's unrealistic to expect people to stop drinking alcohol, especially during spring break. Given that buying alcohol is convenient, cheap and widely available and that happy hours and drinking games encourage excessive consumption, it's important to be smart about drinking, he said.
In general, men who choose to drink alcoholic beverages shouldn't have more than two drinks a day and women should limit themselves to one drink a day.
"Everyone reacts differently to alcohol and it's important to know your limits," Dr. Shaywitz said. "Never drink and drive. It's always better to call a friend or take a taxi or public transportation. Don't accept drinks from strangers or leave your drink unattended, especially if you're in a nightclub or bar."
People who regularly binge drink may need help, he said. This kind of habit should raise a serious red flag, he said.
"It's long past time we abandoned the old way of identifying and addressing alcohol issues, where we see drinking as "excessive" only when a person is dependent," Dr. Shaywitz said. "Instead, we must understand that most excessive drinkers, while not technically dependent, may still have a serious drinking problem – and that may apply to a whole lot more of us than we'd like to admit."
For more information about Mission Heritage Medical Group, click here. For more information about Dr. Shaywitz, click