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In the U.S., alcohol poisoning is responsible for 2,200 deaths a year, or six a day. (The majority of victims are men between the ages of 35 and 65, and about 30 percent of total fatalities occur in people with alcohol use disorder.) Here’s how to spot signs of this dangerous emergency, and what to do about it.
WHAT IS ALCOHOL POISONING? WHO IS AT RISK?
Alcohol poisoning is the next potentially lethal level above getting drunk. In lay terms, it means flooding the body with more alcohol than it can handle. Alcohol is absorbed quickly but metabolized slowly: it takes the body at least an hour to metabolize one drink’s worth of alcohol, but less than 45 minutes for that alcohol to reach the stomach and “leak” from there into the bloodstream.
Once in the bloodstream, alcohol is quickly carried to the brain and other organs, working its depressant effects everywhere. For most people, a single drink produces only a pleasant sense of relaxation. If that drink is followed by more alcohol, however, the body’s metabolism quickly becomes unable to keep up, and relaxation progresses to dysfunction. Blood alcohol content may continue to rise (as toxins migrate from the digestive system into the bloodstream) for more than half an hour after actual drinking stops.
The answer to “how much is too much” varies according to numerous factors, especially the drinker’s size, gender, personal tolerance level, and overall physical condition. The chance of intoxication is also affected by food and other drugs consumed in the same time period. (Don’t believe the dangerous myth that a full stomach is an adequate protection against drunkenness: it will slow but not prevent alcohol absorption.)
Most cases of poisoning, though, are due to binge drinking, officially defined as the consumption of four or five alcoholic drinks within two hours (four for a woman, five for a man). The average person “on a binge” does far worse, consuming eight drinks, or nearly twice the minimum-level amount. Under such circumstances, it’s easy to take in more alcohol than the body can handle, or even survive.
Alcohol poisoning is an emergency that always requires professional medical treatment. It can have numerous deadly effects including hypothermia, hypoglycemia (dangerous drops in blood sugar) or disruption of breathing and heartbeat. Even nonfatal cases may result in permanent brain damage.
THE MAIN SYMPTOMS OF ALCOHOL POISONING
Signs of alcohol poisoning typically include:
- Shallow, slow or irregular breathing, especially if someone is taking eight or fewer breaths a minute, or goes more than 10 seconds between breaths
- Pale, blue-tinged or clammy skin
- Reduced body temperature
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Confusion, incoherence and/or unresponsiveness, sometimes progressing to loss of consciousness
Not everyone with alcohol poisoning will exhibit all the above, but even one or two symptoms should be treated as potential poisoning if they manifest within 45 minutes of someone’s binging or otherwise drinking heavily.
HOW TO HELP
Alcohol poisoning is an extremely dangerous drug reaction that cannot be adequately treated by first aid or “sleeping it off.” The first rule is to call for professional medical help immediately, without waiting to “make sure” or see if things get worse.
What else friends or bystanders can do immediately is to:
- Keep the person as calm and alert as possible.
- If the person is wearing lightweight clothing, give them extra layers or a blanket to reduce hypothermia.
- Keep the person’s head as upright as possible, to minimize breathing difficulties and choking risks.
- If at all practical, keep the person in a sitting position, braced against something firm enough to hold them upright, but soft enough (and low enough) to protect from injury if they collapse.
- If the person is lying down and can’t be raised to a sitting position, roll him or her onto one side.
- Avoid trying to induce vomiting (this increases the choking risk), giving any solid food or medication, or giving any drinks besides sips of water.
- Stay close at hand until medical help arrives.
- Give first responders full details on what was drunk and under what circumstances, also on specific physical effects observed.
(It’s important to know that many traditional “sober up” treatments, besides being ineffective, are seriously risky in cases of alcohol poisoning. Coffee increases dehydration, cold showers increase hypothermia, moving around increases the risk of falling.)
If you personally feel symptoms of alcohol poisoning, especially when alone, prompt action is even more vital. Call 911 and give your location immediately, before you lose all power of clear thinking. If anyone else is in the vicinity, ask them to wait with you until help arrives. Follow (or ask your companions to follow) as many of the above instructions as you can.
Once medical professionals take charge, they will administer treatment for breathing difficulties, dehydration and reduced glucose levels. If a person is in serious danger, the stomach may be pumped to keep additional toxins from entering the bloodstream.
After the dangerous stage of alcohol poisoning is passed, doctors recommend follow-up care to check for any lingering complications and to plan for responsible drinking or abstinence in the future. Since alcoholism is a factor in nearly a third of alcohol poisoning deaths, it’s also vital to evaluate the level of alcohol dependence and, if necessary, begin long-term treatment for alcoholism.
If alcohol addiction—and the corresponding need for total abstinence—isn’t a relevant concern, anyone who has suffered an alcohol poisoning incident should at least consider getting counseling to determine what led to the overdrinking and how to keep it from happening again. Prevention isn’t simply better than cure when it comes to potentially deadly medical situations. Prevention is the only sensible option.
For related information on alcohol dangers, see the following articles:
- Am I an Alcoholic? 12 Questions to Ask Yourself
- Can You Reverse Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain and Liver?
- Long-Term Effects of Substance Abuse
- The Long Term Health Effects of Too Much Alcohol
- The 3 Biggest Questions About Alcohol Detox
Bowling Green State University Department of Recreation and Wellness. “Alcohol Metabolism.” Retrieved from https://www.bgsu.edu/recwell/wellness-connection/alcohol-education/alcohol-metabolism.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015, January 6). “Alcohol Poisoning Kills Six People in the U.S. Each Day.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0106-alcohol-poisoning.html
Mayo Clinic (2018, January 19). “Alcohol Poisoning.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
Sifferlin, Alexandra (2015, January 6). “Alcohol Poisoning Kills 6 Americans a Day.” Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3655487/6-americans-die-every-day-from-alcohol-poisoning/
UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. “Alcohol Poisoning.” Retrieved from https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/topics/alcohol-poisoning