College Alcohol Abuse | Facts & Tips for Parents & Students
From making new friends to gaining more freedom, college brings some exciting opportunities. Unfortunately, it also increases the risk of alcohol abuse.
As a first-year student or the parent of one, it’s important to learn all you can about college alcohol abuse.
Prevalence Of College Alcohol Abuse
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 52.5% of college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month. In addition, 33% engaged in binge drinking, which is the most common form of alcohol abuse.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a drinking pattern that raises your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08%.
Most women reach this BAC after having 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours, while most men reach it after having 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours.
Students who binge drink face a higher risk of alcohol-related problems than students who drink in moderation. The NIAAA defines moderate drinking as having two drinks or less per day for men and having one drink or less per day for women.
Risks Of College Alcohol Abuse
College students who exhibit unhealthy drinking behaviors may experience:
About one in four college students face academic consequences (such as lower grades or frequent absences) as a result of drinking. That’s because alcohol consumption can cause problems with learning, memory, concentration, and energy.
In general, the more a student drinks, the more their academic life will likely suffer.
Students who binge drink at least three times a week are about six times more likely to perform poorly on a test or project than students who drink in moderation. They’re also five times more likely to miss a class.
Every year, about 1,519 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, and drownings.
Alcohol increases the risk of fatal injuries because it impairs judgment. With impaired judgment, a college student is more likely to engage in physically dangerous behaviors like fighting, vandalism, or drunk driving.
Alcohol poisoning, also called alcohol overdose, is a medical emergency that occurs when too much alcohol enters the bloodstream. The abundance of alcohol interferes with essential bodily functions, such as breathing and heart rate.
Common symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- clammy skin
- slow or difficult breathing
- slow heart rate
- extremely low body temperature
- loss of consciousness
If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, seek medical help immediately. When left untreated, alcohol poisoning can cause permanent brain damage or death.
Risky Sexual Behaviors & Sexual Assault
Because alcohol impairs judgment, it makes college students more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
For instance, they might have unprotected sex or sex with multiple people. These behaviors increase the risk of sexually transmitted disease (STD) and unwanted pregnancy.
In addition, although alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault, it can contribute to it by increasing aggression and decreasing inhibitions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research shows alcohol is involved in about half of sexual assaults on college campuses.
Long-Term Health Problems
College students who regularly engage in heavy drinking face a higher risk of health problems such as:
- liver disease
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- digestive problems
- depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns
- cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum
Alcohol abuse can also lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD). This disease makes you feel unable to control your alcohol use. Common symptoms include:
- drinking more or longer than you intended
- withdrawing from friends and family to spend more time drinking
- avoiding activities you once enjoyed to spend more time drinking
- needing increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel the desired effects
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms (such as anxiety or sweating) when you don’t drink alcohol
About 9% of college students ages 18 to 22 struggle with alcohol use disorder.
Increased Risk Of COVID-19
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, college students must follow safety guidelines to reduce the virus’ spread. It can be difficult to follow public health guidelines when you’re under the influence of alcohol.
For example, because alcohol can impair memory, students may forget to wear masks in social settings. Similarly, because alcohol can impair judgment and coordination, they may struggle to maintain a safe distance from other people.
How Students Can Prevent College Alcohol Abuse
As an incoming freshman, you should:
Understand Low-Risk Vs. High-Risk Drinking
It’s safest to avoid alcohol altogether. However, once you reach the legal drinking age (21), you can engage in low-risk drinking, which occurs when you:
- plan what you will drink (and how much) before you start drinking
- eat a full meal before drinking
- know your limits
- know exactly what’s in your drink and never leave it unattended
On the contrary, high-risk drinking occurs when you:
- are under 21
- binge drink
- drink to get drunk
- drink to cope with uncomfortable feelings
- play student drinking games
- mix alcohol with other drugs or medications
Choose Friends Wisely
Some college students and young adults don’t know how to relax and have fun without alcohol. This behavior often leads to alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder.
If your friends are always drinking, it’s time to find new ones. Look for people who enjoy activities that don’t involve alcohol, such as playing games, watching movies, or hiking.
Ask For Help When Necessary
If you feel unable to control your alcohol use, or if you just feel overwhelmed, talk to someone. Your parents or doctor can help you find treatment for substance abuse or other mental health concerns. You can also seek help from your college’s counseling center or health center.
How Parents Can Prevent College Alcohol Abuse
As a parent of an incoming freshman, you should:
Help Your Child Choose The Right School
Not all schools treat college drinking the same way. Before your child applies to a school, make sure it enforces underage drinking laws and implements strategies to reduce alcohol abuse on campus.
You can learn more about a school’s approach to alcohol by searching for it on the NIAAA’s College Alcohol Policies directory. You can also talk to current students, parents, and school administrators about college life in general.
Talk To Your Child
Before your child heads off to college, have an honest conversation about alcohol. Discuss the dangers of alcohol abuse, such as alcohol poisoning and unintentional injuries. At the same time, show compassion. Remind them that you’re here to help if they start struggling.
Check-in with your child on a regular basis, especially at the start of freshman year. During the first six weeks of school, many college students drink alcohol due to stress. Encourage your child to engage in relaxing activities, such as meditating or journaling.
Know The Signs Of College Alcohol Abuse
Some students hide their alcohol abuse from their parents, usually due to shame. That’s why it’s important to learn the signs of college alcohol abuse, which include:
- mood swings
- refusal to discuss drinking habits
- sudden decline in grades
- frequent requests for money
- decline in personal hygiene
- sudden weight changes
- loss of motivation
If your child displays these signs, express your concerns and offer to help them find treatment.
Amy Matton is a content writer for Ark Behavioral Health. She strives to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and other mental health conditions.