April marks Alcohol Awareness Month, a nationwide campaign intended to raise awareness of the health and social problems that excessive alcohol consumption can cause for individuals, their families, and their communities. Excessive drinking is a dangerous behavior for both men and women. This year, CDC is drawing attention to the risks to women's health from binge drinking, the most common type of excessive alcohol consumption by adults.
Binge Drinking and the Risks to Women's Health
• Binge drinking is defined as consuming 4 or more drinks per occasion for women and 5 or more drinks per occasion for men. It is a common and dangerous behavior that contributes to more than 11,500 deaths among women in the U.S. each year—approximately 32 deaths per day.
• In 2009, more than 1 out of every 10 women reported binge drinking during the past 30 days. On average, women who binge drink said they engaged in this risky behavior at least three times per month. Among women binge drinkers, they consume, on average, almost six drinks per drinking occasion, which exceeds the threshold for binge drinking.
• Binge drinking usually leads to impairment, and women who binge drink with greater frequency and intensity put themselves and those around them at increased risk of experiencing alcohol-related harms, particularly if they are pregnant or may become pregnant.
• Binge drinking increases the risk for breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke, all of which are leading causes of death in women.
Gender Differences and Alcohol Consumption
• Upon drinking equal amounts, women tend to absorb more alcohol when they drink, and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies compared to their male counterparts. These differences are caused by differences in body composition and chemistry between men and women. Even when they drink the same amount of alcohol, women tend to have higher levels of alcohol in their blood than men, and the immediate effects of impairment occur more quickly and last longer.
• Alcohol tends to leave the body at a slower rate in women who take birth control pills compared with those who do not. The result can be greater alcohol impairment in women who take birth control pills.
Risk for Sexual Assault
Binge drinking is a risk factor for sexual assault, especially among young women in college settings. The risk for rape or sexual assault increases when both the perpetrator and victim have used alcohol before the attack.
Risk of HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
Women who binge drink are more likely to have unprotected sex and multiple sex partners, which can increase their risk of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Alcohol Consumption and Pregnancy
No amount of alcohol is safe to drink while pregnant. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink, and no safe kind of alcohol.
Women who drink alcohol while pregnant increase their risk of having a baby with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). This group of conditions includes physical and intellectual disabilities, as well as problems with behavior and learning. Often, a person has a mix of these problems. FASDs are a leading known cause of intellectual disability and birth defects. FASDs are completely preventable if a woman does not drink while she is pregnant or may become pregnant.
Women should not drink alcohol if they are planning to become pregnant or are sexually active and do not use effective birth control because they could become pregnant and not know for several weeks. In 2001, about one-half of all pregnancies in the United States were unplanned.
National surveys show that about 6 out of every 10 women of child-bearing age (18–44 years) use alcohol, and about one-third of women in this age group who drink alcohol binge drink.
Female binge drinkers are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual activities compared with women who are not binge drinkers. Binge drinking increases the risk for unintended pregnancy which may lead to a delay in recognizing pregnancy. If a woman does not recognize that she is pregnant and she continues drinking, she can expose her developing fetus to alcohol without realizing it.
Alcohol Consumption and Chronic Diseases:
Women are often more vulnerable than men to the long-term effects of alcohol on their health. Over time, drinking too much alcohol can lead to
• Cancer: Alcohol consumption increases the risk for breast cancer and cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
• Liver Disease: The risk for cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.
• Heart Problems: Studies have shown that women who drink excessively are at increased risk for damage to the heart muscle than men. Binge drinking can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Binge drinking and the harms that result from it can be prevented. Prevention strategies require action at individual and population levels and must consider ways to create community environments that discourage binge drinking by women and their families.
All Women Can
Avoid drinking alcohol if pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Remember—Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are 100% preventable.
Choose not to binge drink and help others not to do it. Binge drinking leads to many health and social problems for the drinkers, their families, and their communities. If women choose to drink alcoholic beverages, they should do so in moderation. Moderate drinking is defined as the consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. [PDF - 967KB]
Seek care from a health care provider for excessive drinking. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening and behavioral counseling for alcohol misuse by adults, including pregnant women. Screening and Brief Intervention has been shown to significantly decrease the number of drinks consumed per week and the number of binge drinking episodes.
State and Community Leaders Can
Support efforts to implement effective population-level strategies to prevent binge drinking. States and communities can reduce excessive alcohol use, including binge and underage drinking, among their residents by implementing evidence-based population strategies recommended by the Guide to Community Preventive Services . These strategies include increasing alcohol excise taxes, regulating alcohol outlet density, and maintaining and enforcing the age 21 years minimum legal drinking age (MLDA).
Continue to monitor binge drinking levels. Measuring the magnitude of binge drinking in the general population and specific groups at high risk (e.g., women of childbearing age) provides evidence for the need to implement population-level public health strategies for reducing binge drinking. The resulting data also serve as indicators of progress in reducing overall binge drinking levels, including binge drinking occasions and the number of drinks consumed.