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Most students make healthy decisions when it comes to drinking alcohol, including the more than 20 percent who didn’t drink at all in the last 30 days, according to the American College Health Association’s Spring 2013 National College Health Assessment. But some students struggle with drinking, whether it’s a one-night problem or a long-term issue. By understanding what high-risk drinking looks like, you can help your friends reduce unwanted consequences and get support when needed.

One-Night Problems

Sometimes, even students who usually consume alcohol moderately experience a “one-night problem.” These are usually isolated incidents of excessive drinking that result in taking risks, health consequences, and/or social, disciplinary, and legal repercussions—especially if the student is under the legal drinking age of 21.

“Drinking above healthy limits is [of concern] whenever you do it,” says Dr. Alicia Kowalchuk, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “Even when it’s isolated we see more accidental injuries,” she explains.

Causes
Sometimes students drink more than they can handle because they’re unfamiliar with alcohol’s effects on their body. Others are in a new setting, feel pressure to drink, or don’t know exactly what’s in the beverages they’re consuming. Missy F.*, a junior at University of South Carolina in Columbia, notes, “Even if a friend makes you a drink, it may be based on his or her limits, not yours.” Solomon B., a first-year graduate student at Boston University in Massachusetts, says some people are looking to relax and have fun, but think they need to be drunk to do so. He observes, “[There’s sometimes] a mentality of ‘Every time you go out, the only way to make it fun is to drink irresponsibly.’”

But the truth is that the majority of students who drink are able to relax while staying within a safer limit: a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .05 or less.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) & how to calculate it

BAC (or BAL—Blood Alcohol Level), is a buzz word when it comes to understanding how alcohol affects your body. BAC is measured by:
  • How much, and how quickly, alcohol has been absorbed into your bloodstream.
  • How it’s distributed throughout your body.
  • How quickly it’s processed and eliminated.
These factors are indicators of how much alcohol has reached your organs, and therefore, its effects. BAC can be evaluated through a breath, urine, or blood test.

Why Does BAC Matter?
Most people don’t walk around with a calculator to measure their BAC. But your thoughts, feelings, and behavior vary based on your BAC, as does the functioning of your body. So, understanding it can be useful when making decisions about drinking.

Alcohol is removed from the blood through the liver, which can metabolize one standard drink per hour. That’s equal to:
  • A 12-oz. beer
  • A 5-oz. glass of wine
  • A 1.5-oz. shot of liquor, regardless of proof
  • A mixed drink with 1.5 oz. of liquor in it
So, a general rule for calculating BAC is:
A 150-pound person who drinks one standard drink over the course of one hour will have a BAC of approximately .04. This is the “magic zone.” You’re likely to feel the desirable, relaxed feelings you seek from alcohol, and your risk of negative consequences is low.

Drinking at a rate of one standard drink per hour is a good way to stay within this BAC range. But keep in mind: The skills necessary for driving can be impaired at a BAC as low as .015 percent, before you even begin to feel mildly relaxed. Legal intoxication levels vary from state to state, but are generally between a BAC of .05 and .08.

Blood Alcohol Concentration calculator

Prevention
The BACCHUS Network, a collegiate peer-education initiative, suggests the following to reduce the risk of one-night problems:

  • Spend time with people who don’t pressure you to drink.
  • Identify your personal limits.
  • Learn how your body reacts to alcohol and how to maintain a safer BAC.
  • Make a plan with friends for sticking to healthy decisions and getting home safely.
  • Have no more than 1 drink per hour. Alternate with non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Limit yourself to 3-4 drinks per sitting. For most people, this keeps their BAC within a safer range.

10 Tips to Prevent One-Night Problems

Here are some ways to ensure fun and safety with your friends:
  1. Identify your drinking limits in advance.
  2. Stay with a trusted group of friends.
  3. Use the buddy system. Help one another stick with personal limits and make sure everyone gets home safely.
  4. Designate a driver who won’t drink at all.
  5. Drink no more than one drink per hour.
  6. Never leave a drink unattended or take drinks with unknown contents (like punch).
  7. Eat in advance as well as while drinking.
  8. Alternate alcoholic with non-alcoholic drinks.
  9. Know the signs of severe intoxication. Don’t leave someone alone who has slurred speech, impaired balance, an upset stomach and/or vomiting, or who acts erratically.
  10. If someone is unconscious, vomits repeatedly, feels very cold, or has been using other drugs in addition to alcohol, call school security and/or 9-1-1 for emergency help.

Longer-Term Concerns

Identifying personal limits and planning in advance can reduce the risks associated with heavy drinking. But what if someone has a longer-term issue? Here are some signs to look for:

  • Always drinking to the point of being drunk.
  • Consuming alcohol in most social situations, even when others don’t.
  • Constantly thinking about the next opportunity to drink.
  • Can’t reduce or stop drinking.
  • Having blackouts: drinking episodes that aren’t remembered afterward.
  • Experiencing negative consequences in school and other situations.

Kimberly Greenhaw, director of the Alcohol and Drug Education Center at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, explains that the more a person drinks, the more the body loses its ability to feel alcohol’s relaxing effects at a safe limit.

Intervention
Students who are dependent on alcohol, or are experiencing unwanted consequences as a result of their drinking, may not want to admit they have a problem. Denial is very common. Ketty F., a senior at Caldwell College in New Jersey, says, “It’s hard to admit or discuss.”

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, honestly explain what you’ve noticed and that you want to help. “Express empathy and concern and offer to help the person seek counseling or alternate activities to drinking,” suggests Justina G., a third-year graduate student at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

Here are more tips:

  • Show that you’re not judging and are open to what the person says.
  • Ask about sources of stress that may be contributing to the situation.
  • Reach out to a trusted friend, mentor, or your school’s health and counseling services.

Samantha V.*, a senior taking online classes at Ashford University, notes, “You can’t force someone to seek help. All you can do is offer support and resources.”

Ketty recommends helping people learn other ways to handle stress and cope with challenges, such as exercising and writing.

Whether the consequences last for one night or are longer-term, drinking can disrupt a student’s academics, health, and social life. By sticking with healthy drinking limits and encouraging those with ongoing issues to find help, you can support your friends in making decisions that lead to positive experiences.

Signs of Longer-Term Concerns

Here are some signs that someone may have a longer-term issue with alcohol:
  • Repeatedly arriving at classes and meetings late—or not at all.
  • Secrecy about drinking habits.
  • Drinking alone.
  • Spending most social time with other drinkers.
  • Feeling tired or groggy a lot.
  • Feeling depressed or hopeless.
  • Drinking just to get drunk.
  • Drinking heavily several times a week.
  • Changes in mood or appetite.
  • Needing alcohol to feel “normal” or to “recover” from a night of drinking.
  • Drinking more frequently or in increasing amounts.
  • Mixing alcohol with other drugs.
  • Repeated unwanted consequences.
Missy F.*, a junior at University of South Carolina in Columbia, says, “I’ve seen students, particularly women, plan what they eat around what they plan to drink. Not only is this disordered eating, but also a drinking problem.”

If you’re concerned about the drinking habits of someone you know, reach out to a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor.

Take an anonymous screening to assess your alcohol use

* Name changed for privacy.

Take Action:

  • Learn how to identify high-risk drinking.
  • Prevent unwanted consequences by developing healthier drinking habits, which can include abstaining.
  • Look out for longer-term patterns of drinking to excess.
  • Encourage those who experience negative consequences to talk with trusted friends and professionals.

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