Too much alcohol will damage your health. Binge drinking is especially harmful. A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago finds phosphatidylethanol (PEth), a marker found in the blood, could be used to screen people for heavy drinking. In particular, they discovered levels of PEth to be significantly higher in binge drinkers than in people who drink moderately.

Binge drinking, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is a pattern of drinking that brings a person's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 or above. Typically, this occurs when men consume five or more drinks, and women consume four or more, in about two hours. Binge drinking harms your body more than moderately drinking the exact same amount over a longer period of time. Scientific research links binge drinking to alcohol poisoning, unintentional injuries (whether caused by a car accident or fall), high blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, neurological damage, children born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and sexual dysfunction.

The researchers conducted the current study as part of a larger ongoing study examining the cardiovascular effects of binge drinking. Participants — all students at two large Midwestern university campuses and mostly white females — completed a 10-question survey about their drinking behavior. After reviewing the completed questionnaires, the researchers divided the participants into three groups: abstainers, moderate drinkers and binge drinkers. As defined for the study, binge drinkers must have had at least two episodes in the last month, while abstainers had not had more than one drink per month in the past two to three years. Abstainers were predominantly Asian, while most of the moderate and binge drinkers were Caucasian.

Following the self-assessment, the researchers measured PEth in participants’ blood samples. PEth is a phospholipid formed in the blood only in the presence of ethanol. In previous studies, scientists have suggested using PEth for alcohol testing because it has high sensitivity.

PEth levels positively correlated with self-assessment survey scores; binge drinkers showed higher levels than others. The researchers also discovered a “significant correlation” between PEth levels and the number of times participants reported consuming four to five drinks in one sitting within the past month.

“Binge drinking is pervasive on college campuses and among young adults," Dr. Mariann Piano, a co-author of the study and a professor of health science, stated in a press release. “More alarming, though, is the regularity of binge drinking episodes: one in five students report three or more binge drinking episodes in the prior two weeks.” Based on the study results, she and her colleagues suggest using PEth measurements along with self-reports to screen and treat young adults who struggle with binge drinking.

Source: Piano MR, Tiwari S, Nevoral L, Phillips SA. Phosphatidylethanol Levels Are Elevated and Correlate Strongly with AUDIT Scores in Young Adult Binge Drinkers. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2015.