College Student's Guide to Safe Drinking

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Whether its to celebrate a football victory, rejoice that the big exam is over, or simply because its Friday, college students like to party.

And while gatherings might not get as rowdy as those depicted in the 1978 comedy Animal House, students should exercise caution and safety when it comes to partying.

According to a 2009 national survey on drug use and health conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, full-time college students ages 18 to 22 were more likely to binge drink than those not enrolled full time. Among full-time college students, 63.9% were current drinkers, 43.5% were binge drinkers, and 16.0% were heavy drinkers.

Because its a water-soluble substance, it can really affect the bodys organs and thats what leads to the intoxication and ultimately overdosing on alcohol, says addiction therapist Tracy Markle. Thats primarily why alcohol is such a scary substance[students] drink a large amount in a short amount of time.

In addition to legal consequences, students can face health and personal life problems from drinking too much. We talked to psychologists and addiction experts about what students should watch out for and how to have a good time in a safe way.

Social vs. Binge Drinking

For the record, not every college student has the desire to party and consume alcohol. Many students can handle having a few drinks (if over 21, of course) on the weekend as a social activity that can be done in moderation, say the experts.

Those who can do the occasional drink, its not really controlling them and they do quite well in school but you wont see them [drinking] a lot, says Gregory Jantz, psychologist and author of How to De-Stress Your Life. For a person whos really got a clear sense of why Im in school, what my mission is, what Im doing, they tend to be more self-directed.

However, there are not-as-focused students that can succumb to what experts dub alcohol abuse if they arent careful about keeping their collegiate priorities straight.

The students who dont have other things going on tend to not only drink excessively, but they have other things that are not conducive to a good experience in college, like smoking marijuana, playing video games, and excessive social networking, says Markle. Their coping skills are not generally very good at all and theyre not balanced in their approach to college.

Effects of Binge Drinking

Alcohol can dramatically affect users mental state, and students who drank in excess over the weekend can still find themselves struggling to concentrate and find motivation days after taking their last sip, according to Markle.

Binge drinking can take a very dangerous toll on the body as well, resulting in more than just a nasty hangover. If an extremely-intoxicated student passes out, his body starts to reject the alcohol and risks throwing up and choking on his vomit or breathing it in and asphyxiating to death.

The ability to make good choices and use judgment quickly diminishes as a persons intoxication level rises.

A person may quickly lose their ability to make appropriate decisions and they may allow or engage in behavior that theyll later regret, says Jantz.

Long-term effects of regular alcohol abuse includes memory loss, liver and kidney damage or failure, and certain forms of cancer, say the experts, all serious health issues which may not be detected until its too late.

The problem with young adults is they dont realize that thats the direction theyre heading because at that age, theyre pretty resilient and it does take awhile for the actual physical effects of long term drinking to be seen in somebody, warns Markle.

Addiction in Your Family

Students with a family history of alcoholism are genetically more predisposed to become addicted, says Alyson Nerenberg, a licensed psychologist specializing in addictions and relationships. Engaging in frequent binge drinking puts these students at a higher risk to abuse alcohol or become an alcoholic.

Its like any addiction when a behavior becomes out of control and the person tries to stop and is unable to, says Nerenberg. If somebody is saying, OK Im not going to drink tonight and cant keep away from alcohol, if somebody is doing it in secret, if somebody is finding that theyre drinking alone, if somebody needs it for functioning every day and has negative consequences.

As school work gets more stressful, addiction-prone students may find themselves using alcohol as an escape from reality, in which case students need to be aware of their vulnerabilities, says Jantz.

Not only does DNA play a big role in how an addiction can manifest itself, but kids can also get hooked through behaviors learned at home.

Maybe they came from a family, for example, where when dad had a bad day, he would drink, says Nerenberg. So when a kid doesnt do well on a test, hes learned to soothe himself the same way that was modeled.

How to be Safe 

It is possible to have a few drinks in a safe way and still have fun. The experts suggest students limit their alcohol intake to one drink per hour and have a glass of water in between drinks. Avoid chugging drinks and slamming down shots, which can cause people to black out or engage in high-risk behaviors.

You have to make sure theres no driving involved and youre not getting into a car with someone whos under the influence, says Nerenberg. Youre not going to put yourself at risk, ruin the rest of your life, or take someone elses life.

Above all, students need to keep in mind that their role in college is to learn and prepare for the future, not to attend as many keg parties as possible or win drinking games. Some colleges are even requiring study skill classes to keep students focused and on the right track.

Things have really evolved with our day and age where students are studying a lot less now and theyre less capable with study skills, says Markle. If you already dont have the skills and then youre excessively drinking, then youve got a bigger problem on your hands.